by Julie Burrell | February 6, 2024
From an HR perspective, faculty positions can often look very different from other professional and staff roles on campus, especially when it comes to those faculty on the tenure track. But as HR’s role in academic staffing expands, it’s critical to understand tenure and its role in supporting academic freedom, says Joerg Tiede, the director of the department of research and public policy with the American Association of University Professors (AAUP). In his recent CUPA-HR webinar, Tenure: Past, Present and Future, Tiede explains the nuances of tenure and academic freedom through an HR lens. Here are some key takeaways.
Tenure and Academic Freedom
Tenure is an “indefinite appointment that can be terminated only for cause or under extraordinary circumstances such as financial exigency and program discontinuation,” according to the AAUP.
Tiede notes that this simple definition is often surprising to many in higher ed, because tenure frequently comes with other advantages, such as sabbatical or the ability to vote for or hold a position in faculty senate. But these other benefits are often part of an institution’s culture or a faculty member’s contract, rather than inherent to tenure itself.
Tiede stresses that tenure exists not as an individual perk, but to protect academic freedom. The AAUP defines academic freedom as “the freedom of a teacher or researcher in higher education to investigate and discuss the issues in his or her academic field, and to teach or publish findings without interference from political figures, boards of trustees, donors, or other entities.” The concept of academic freedom applies to faculty members’ speech and writing on campus as teachers and advisors, in their research, and in their “intramural speech” (e.g., institutional governance) and “extramural speech” (e.g., when speaking as a citizen).
The AAUP’s 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure is the most widely adopted description of both academic freedom and tenure at institutions of higher education.
Not all professors have or are eligible for tenure, including non-tenure-track faculty who may work full time as salaried employees with benefits but are not eligible for tenure. An example of this kind of faculty may be someone whose job functions involve instruction rather than a mix of instruction and research. Other non-tenure-track faculty include adjuncts, who are paid per course and typically do not have a benefits package. The breakdown of who is eligible for tenure differs by institution, with some institutions not having a tenure system at all. See the AAUP’s data on the academic workforce.
The Future of Tenure and Academic Freedom
“Tenure is indispensable to the success of an institution,” says Tiede. This is because academic freedom not only strengthens individual institutions by protecting the teaching and research of faculty, but also upholds the public good. The AAUP’s FAQs on academic freedom states: “Those teaching and researching in higher education need academic freedom because the knowledge produced and disseminated in colleges and universities is critical for the development of society and for the health of a democracy, an idea often expressed by the phrase ‘for the common good’ or ‘for the public good.’” In theory, tenure shields faculty from political or religious agendas. It also protects tenured faculty who work in areas that are or may become controversial.
Tiede notes that academic freedom would be made secure with more broadly inclusive tenure policies. One way this can be accomplished is by converting non-tenure-track positions into tenure-track positions, with the AAUP recommending “only minor changes in job description.” In particular, the conversion of teaching-focused positions from non-tenure-track to tenure-track is recommended. Though tenure is often tied to research accomplishments, Tiede and the AAUP do not view this as inherent to the definition of tenure.
A more inclusive tenure process also includes reviewing for implicit bias. In breaking down who is tenured or on the tenure track, CUPA-HR has found that more women faculty are represented in non-tenure-track roles than in tenure-track roles. Moreover, with each increase in rank, the proportions of women faculty and faculty of color decrease for both tenure-track and non-tenure-track faculty. Taken together, this means that women are over-represented in the lowest-paying and lowest-ranking positions.
Who gets tenured also has implications for pay equity. Faculty pay raises are commonly tied to promotion and tenure, which is often the only time faculty see a significant increase in their salary. When there is bias in promoting women and faculty of color to successive ranks, this results in career earnings gaps.
Watch Tiede’s webinar, Tenure: Past, Present and Future, which covers the origins and history of tenure and answers HR-specific questions, like whether academic freedom applies to provocative posts on social media and how best to nurture a merit-based culture within a tenure system.
CUPA-HR’s Toolkit on Academic Freedom contains real-world examples of academic freedom policies at various institutions.
In Opening Doors for Strategic Partnerships With Academic Leadership, Gonzaga University’s HR pros explain how they cultivated the relationship between HR and the campus community, including leveraging the power of HR champions on their campus.
Check out CUPA-HR’s e-learning courses, including Boot Camp, which offers a higher ed perspective on essential HR topics, and Understanding Higher Education, which is designed to help all employees be more effective in their roles by developing a deeper understanding of institutional structure and culture.
Ways to support an increasingly contingent faculty workforce are explored in the article The Way Forward: Envisioning New Faculty Models for a Changing Professoriate. The focus is on The Delphi Project, part of the University of Southern California’s Pullias Center for Higher Education, which explores how non-tenure-track faculty working conditions are tied to student success.