Is Tenure Essential?

  • 2016-01-07
  • Inside Higher Ed

Presidents whose institutions are members of the Council of Independent Colleges have been working on a project to help map the future of their institutions, which are generally small and midsize private colleges. At its annual gathering of presidents here, the CIC held an open forum on the project and released a draft list of characteristics that a panel of presidents identified as "essential" for their institutions, and another list they identified as "negotiable."

The essential list wasn't controversial, although some presidents argued for it to be shortened. Essential qualities for private colleges should be that "they add value to their students and graduates," that they "make decisions on the basis of shared governance without interference from state or federal governments," that they "foster high levels of student engagement," that they have "a student-centered culture," that they are "oriented toward their communities" and that they are "committed to cost containment and affordability."

There wasn't debate over the "negotiable" list, either. Among the items declared negotiable were tenure, "the composition of the faculty, including the proportion of the full-time faculty members," and "the definition and centrality of 'liberal arts.'" While those items' inclusion may anger many professors, at least one other item on the list may alarm some alumni: "the extent and depth of commitment to intercollegiate athletics."

The list is just a draft, and many colleges have been gradually moving away from tenure-track faculty slots for years, and task force members here whose colleges have tenure stressed that they have no plans to do away with it. But they also acknowledged in interviews after the session that they realized the placement of tenure on the nonessential list would be unpopular with some professors. Still, they defended the decision.

Chris Kimball, chair of CIC's board, leader of the task force and president of California Lutheran University, said CIC never tells its member colleges what to do, and that many colleges would continue to keep tenure systems. He said at his university, tenure "is essential."

But Kimball and others rejected the idea -- long held by the American Association of University Professors and others -- that faculty rights are built around tenure.

Elizabeth A. Fleming, president of Converse College, is another panel member from a college that has and plans to continue tenure. She also acknowledged that there are many colleges that do not treat their non-tenure-track faculty members well.