What (and Why) Is Tenure?

Higher Education

Dr. Ryan F. Smith

The modern tenure system is a product of the secular academy’s effort to protect academic freedom. It is not surprising that the function of academic freedom, and specifically tenure, is a matter of much debate in Christian higher education.

Quotations below are taken from the AAUP’s website, where the historical documents mentioned below are housed. https://www.aaup.org/issues/tenure/

Like many college faculty members, the pursuit of tenure guided my early years in academia. To achieve that coveted status, I engaged in numerous activities outside of my teaching responsibilities. I frequently performed recitals and presented papers. I received positive teaching evaluations. (My first peer-reviewed evaluation praised my use of Socratic methodology in the classroom.) I hosted a major conference, initiated a grant-winning summer music program, and was selected to participate in the college’s inaugural two-year Presidential Leadership Initiative. I chaired the music program and our college’s Academic Standards Committee. The documentation that packed my three-inch binder climbed the ladder of approval from the Promotion and Tenure Committee to the administration and finally to the Board of Trustees.

The motivation to work hard, push myself, and grow as a higher education professional was valuable. I genuinely enjoyed those activities, and most of them directly benefited my community. I may not have worked so hard without the promise of a pay raise and permanent status at the college.

Ironically, none of those accomplishments had any meaningful connection to tenure’s original purpose: the protection of academic freedom. These hurdles simply provided the route to academic freedom. What value, then, does tenure offer? In this space, I will explore this coveted status in American academia. What does tenure mean, and how did it evolve in academia?

What is Tenure?
Tenure simply means that a teacher or professor has a permanent position at an institution. The intention behind this convention is to guarantee academic freedom to professors and to prevent institutions from terminating their employment without just cause. The higher education system posits that professors’ value in society is of such worth that their ability to research, discover, and teach can never be undermined. In its original conception, tenure prevented capricious firings.

The process for gaining tenure is arduous. Institutions do not want to commit themselves to permanent personnel without testing them on numerous fronts. As a result, faculty members must demonstrate a record of scholarship in their fields through publications, performances, or receiving outside grants. “Publish or perish” is thus academia’s well deserved mantra.

Promotion and tenure committees also examine teaching evaluations, committee service, and professional engagement. Candidates amass letters and documentation to show their contributions to their institutions, to their professional communities, and their potential for long-term professional success, with a particular focus on their abilities to elevate their institution’s profile. After a probationary period (usually six to seven years), the college or university then guarantees or denies the faculty member permanent employment based on his record.

A Brief Historical Survey
The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) gave birth to the American tenure system with the 1915 “Declaration of Principles,” though it has precedent in liberal German universities during the previous century. Medieval systems of tenure in universities were different, and they do not render a reliable comparison to the modern American system.

The AAUP’s founding president, John Dewey, appointed the 1915 committee that laid the foundation for tenure in American institutions. Its founding document focused primarily on “the right of university teachers to express their opinions freely outside the university or to engage in political activities in their capacity as citizens.” As with many policies and institutions, the committee believed that a tenure system would prevent irregular firings of college professors.

Educators in research universities designed tenure’s structure. The 1915 AAUP committee that drafted the “Declaration of Principles” consisted of professors who represented large, prestigious Ivy League universities such as Cornell, Columbia, Harvard, Princeton, Brown, the University of Pennsylvania, Johns Hopkins, and Yale, while the remainder of the representatives came from public research institutions: the University of Wisconsin, Indiana University, the University of Minnesota, the University of California, and the University of Washington.

An official definition of tenure emerged twenty-five years later in a 1940 joint statement by AAUP and the Association of American Colleges (now the Association of American Colleges and Universities): “an indefinite appointment that can be terminated only for cause or under extraordinary circumstances such as financial exigency and program discontinuation.” This statement has remained the standard for higher education since that time, though it underwent some revisions in the 1970s. To my knowledge, the system has not undergone any substantive revisions in over half a century.

Most institutions of higher education in America have a tenure-track system, but surprisingly, the majority of college faculty is no longer tenured. According to the AAUP, “Over two-thirds (68 percent) of faculty members in US colleges and universities held contingent appointments in fall 2021, compared with about 47 percent in fall 1987.” The reason for this change, particularly in an era with decreasing enrollment, may have to do with cost-saving measures. (Tenure-track professors are more expensive than adjunct instructors.) It may also reflect the general shift toward more administrative power rather than faculty governance.

Tenure in Religious Schools
The question for Christian institutions to ask themselves is whether this system protects their mission and fidelity to the gospel, or if the permanent nature of appointments ultimately hinders an institution’s effectiveness. Is tenure a sine qua non of the academy?

Religious institutions have long debated the role of academic freedom. To alleviate concerns from parochial institutions, the 1915 AAUP Committee documented that religious colleges and universities may require faculty members to maintain the doctrinal standards established by their college’s Board of Trustees. This exclusion afforded church-affiliated institutions permission to impose certain limitations on academic freedom. According to the committee,

“If a church or religious denomination established a college to be governed by a board of trustees, with
the express understanding that the college will be used as an instrument of propaganda in the interests
of the religious faith professed by the church or denomination creating it, the trustees have a right to
demand that everything be subordinated to that end.”

In other words, a parochial college board had the AAUP’s blessing to require its faculty to remain subject to its doctrinal standards. In theory, tenure would not protect faculty who drifted from church or denominational doctrinal standards.

However, it remains unclear why the tenure system is necessary in the first place. The Committee’s priorities in the early 1900s were barely relevant to Christian institutions. Furthermore, AAUP founder and President John Dewey’s political and philosophical leanings were foreign to many Christian and traditional American values. Even today, the organization remains an affiliate of the AFL-CIO. The push for a uniform tenure system seems to be little more than one of many progressive tools for controlling the entire higher education machine.

Christian colleges sometimes develop the reputation that not adopting tenure is detrimental, but that is simply not the case. Naomi Schaefer Riley heavily critiqued tenure in her 2011 book, Faculty Lounges. She wrote, “I found that religious colleges are not out to fire professors, just like they are not trying to kick out students. Contrary to what you read in some newspapers and magazines, the administrations are not engaged in an unending game of “gotcha” along theological lines. If anything, not having tenure forces them to be much more clear about their mission up front when they are hiring faculty” (p. 136, italics mine).

As one can predict, a parochial college’s administration of tenure often corresponds with its commitment to its mission. This is particularly true when boards and administrations neglect to protect their religious convictions by awarding permanent positions to those who do not adequately support the institution’s religious beliefs and mission. Scholarly recognition will always tempt a college needs to compromise on its institutional mission. Satan still tempts with that dangling fruit of the knowledge of good and evil.

These patterns have contributed to the staggering number of colleges that denominations founded but later abandoned. Interested readers would benefit from reading James Tunstead Burtchaell’s The Dying of the Light, a historical analysis of parochial schools’ departure from their missions. In his discussions, he includes examples of offering tenure to persons who, while perhaps gifted scholars, did not share the institution’s theological convictions. (Nearby Davidson College is prominently featured.)


New Aberdeen’s decision not to adopt a tenure system essentially safeguards our primary shareholder, the Church. We are committed to the Word of God, to the creeds and confessions, and to our local churches. The strictness to which the Bible subjects its teachers (James 3:1) can never be absolved. Godly faculty members embrace the value of protective law in their lives, and they understand that unbridled academic freedom and its companion, the tenure system, threaten that protection.

1 The AAUP is a union for professors. Just last year, their merger with the American Federation of Teachers (founded by John Dewey), strengthened their ability to control the higher education industry: “Working with the AFT, we can ensure that AAUP professional standards and principles are recognized on more campuses” (https://www.aaup.org/faqs-aaupaft-affiliation).

2 My previous response to St. Philip’s firing of Dr. Johnson Varkey explores this very issue. Though he taught at the college for twenty years, his job was not protected because he was not a tenure-track professor. His situation, in which due process was not afforded him, illustrates the danger of providing only one class of academics free-speech protections.