The Questions of Tenure
reviewed by Ann E Austin - 2006
Tenure in universities and colleges is one of the lightning rod issues of the past decade, a topic about which faculty members, administrators, legislatures, and members of the public often have diverse but passionately held views. In this thoughtfully edited book, Richard Chait, along with the volumes chapter authors, enter the national discussion with an approach and tone that serves to enlighten rather than inflame debates about tenure. Chait explains in the Inroduction:
Our goal was to write a book that would inform discussions of faculty work life through research-based, data-driven answers to important, practical, and frequently posed questions about tenure policy and practice (pp. 1-2).
Rather than addressing tenure as a matter of political doctrine or moral principle (p. 1), the book instead frames and systematically addresses some of the compelling questions that deserve consideration by those who want to contribute to the discussions or who need to make decisions pertaining to tenure.
Drawing heavily on studies related to the Harvard Project on Faculty Appointments, the book has obviously benefited from careful editing. In each chapter, authors articulately frame a question about tenure, present relevant data, and develop conclusions and interpretations directly informed by research. Additionally, each chapter ends with a clear, organized, and accessible summary of what has been learned and implications for practice. The result is a volume with strong focus and consistent quality (issues that can sometimes be of concern in edited books). In fact, I found this volume to be one of the most interesting and readable books about a higher education issue that I have read in some time. By taking a research-based approach, Chait and his colleagues have succeeded, in my view, in elevating the discussions about tenure from the context of rhetoric and passion to scholarly analysis and critique.
One of the chapters that I found especially interesting concerns ways in which institutions might use data concerning tenure, other appointment policies, and faculty work issues (Chapter 10). The authors of this chapter, Cathy Trower and James Honan, present the story of the tenure debates at one major university as an example of how the absence of critical data created a void where rumors, opinions, and e-mailed messages swirled, with little or no data to support the opinions (p. 276). This book, in contrast, offers an alternative to declaring conclusions and taking positions without the foundation provided by data. It shows readers that tenure is a topic that deserves the same kind of dispassionate scholarly examination given to other significant topicsand that, while the issue remains highly contentious, the attention to relevant research offers insights that can inform positions and opinions.
The book consists of eleven chapters, including several written by Chait (e.g., an introductory chapter describing the purpose and approach of the book, the first chapter explaining the reasons tenure has become such a contested issue in the past ten years, the third chapter on whether faculty governance differs depending on whether a college has tenure or not, and a final chapter of Gleanings that highlights several themes across the chapters). In Chapter Two, Cathy Trower reports on an analysis of policies from more than 200 universities and colleges concerning academic freedom, definitions of tenure, probationary periods, non-tenure track faculty, post-tenure review, dismissal, and other relevant issues. In Chapter 4, drawing on a study of the perceptions of early career faculty and doctoral students concerning the faculty career, R. Eugene Rice and Mary Deane Sorcinelli argue that the purposes of tenure as well as problems in the process should be examined since the vitality of the professoriat of the future depends on it (p. 122). Chapter 5, written by Roger Baldwin and Jay Chronister, provides a compelling analysis of the dramatic growth in recent years of non-tenure-track and part-time appointments, and argues that a one size fits all approach to structuring and supporting faculty careers no longer is viable, if it ever was (p. 157). Chapter 7, also authored by Cathy Trower, raises the interesting question of whether faculty can be recruited without the lure of tenure, while Chapter 8, authored by Charles T. Clotfelter, asks (in what I see as a parallel question) whether faculty can be induced to give up tenure. William Mallon, in Chapter 9, provides a fascinating analysis of why some colleges are moving from tenure to contract systems, while others are doing the exact oppositechanging from contract to tenure systems. As noted above, Chapter 10 provides a detailed examination of the possible uses of data in regard to institutional policy decisions.
Chapter 6, by Philip Altbach, deals with the situation in faculty appointments across many countries. While the chapter is as interesting and thorough as the other chapters, I was puzzled by its seemingly random placement in the middle of the book. While each chapter of the book is worthwhile and the editor explains that together they constitute a collage (p. 2), I would have appreciated more guidance about the rationale for the overall organization of the book. My other minor disappointment was that post-tenure review is not addressed. While the editor explained that not all questions about tenure could be addressed and that sufficient data about the impact of post-tenure review are not yet available to permit conclusions, I felt the interest in this topic in recent years merited some attention among the questions of tenure.
Chait uses the last chapter to highlight several themes that emerge from consideration of the chapters as a group. Prior to reading this chapter, I developed my own list and found it paralleled very closely Chaits four inferences. First, the book highlights the diversity of American higher education and shows how tenure issues play out differently depending on the institutional type and the characteristics of the faculty under consideration. Given the significance of context in relation to the questions of tenure, Chait appropriately cautions: The only mistaken position would be to categorically condemn or defend tenure as if there were uniform practices and results (p. 313). Second, the higher education system is experiencing great change in the nature of faculty appointments and the diversity of the faculty. With so many faculty being hired into part-time and contract appointments, an appropriate discussion at many institutions should be how to ensure that policies and practices are in place to support all faculty members, regardless of the nature of their appointment status. Third, Chait notes, findings from the studies reported in the book show that tenure remains the gold standard of the academy (p. 317). Faculty members overall indicate a preference for tenure. Furthermore, tenure serves as a status symbol of the academic profession and a sign of excellence and quality for institutions that have it. Nevertheless, however, given that research also identifies a variety of concerns pertaining to tenure, Chait aptly identifies the possibility of a latent market for tenure reform (p. 317) as the fourth cross-cutting theme of the book. In addition to these themes, I would add a fifth. The data in several of the studies raise questions about faculty perceptions of the appropriate roles and responsibilities they have in the governance process of their institutions. While thorough analysis of faculty views on governance goes beyond the domain of this book, the changing views of faculty members about their responsibilities for governance appeared to be enough of an emergent theme in a number of the studies to merit mention.
The Questions of Tenure stands as one of the most insightful and useful books I have read about higher education in the past year. As Chait and his colleagues have shown, discussions about tenure should not focus on a single question, but rather should concern a range of issues including the changing nature of faculty appointments, the growing diversity of the faculty, and the implications of the complexity and variety of institutions in American higher education for faculty work life. Institutional administrative leaders, faculty members, legislators, and others interested in higher education will find that reading this book deepens their ability to engage in the kinds of conversations necessary in a time of change and challenge.