Illustration by The Chronicle
Nine years ago, Katrina Hoop earned tenure at Saint Joseph’s College of Maine, a small private institution. It had been a long road to get there: Six years in graduate school, then another six on the tenure track. She committed herself to Saint Joseph’s, becoming chair of the sociology department, expanding its reach to students in crucial majors like nursing, and serving on numerous committees for the day-to-day work of the college.
With the distinction of tenure, she thought she’d earned a permanent place at the college.
But the end came quickly: Last March, as the pandemic shuttered colleges across the country, administrators at Saint Joseph’s decided to close the sociology program and others. In a letter that struck Hoop as devoid of the empathy she expected from the Sisters of Mercy institution, she was laid off, along with seven others across the campus, including a Catholic sister.
Leading up to that moment, she was among those steering fateful decisions about the professional careers of her colleagues. “Ironically,” Hoop says, her voice wavering with emotion, “I was chair of the rank-and-tenure committee.”
To lose a job at midlife is tough in any profession. To lose a tenured position — the brass ring that so many academics strive for — is especially heartbreaking. “You throw yourself into the institution — I believed in it,” she says. “I’ve done so much for the college.”
Hoop’s experience was once almost unthinkable. But as Covid-19 worsens the financial picture for many already vulnerable institutions and as public sentiment against tenure grows, the possibility of losing it unceremoniously is looming larger and more frequently. Hoop and other professors — who have tenure, lost it, or never had it — are looking with growing skepticism at this peculiar arrangement between the faculty and institutions, asking what it really means if it can’t offer security, if it is worth the cost, and if it’s still serving the larger good.
Families send their children to college hoping they’ll be guided into the professional world. Policy makers and business leaders call for college graduates who can think across disciplines and for an education system that engages the public. But the structure and norms of the traditional tenure track encourage hyperspecialization, exclusivity, and esotericism.
It’s also worth asking how well the institution of tenure is serving professors themselves. Few other professions have an employment status so high stakes, so permanent, and so unevenly distributed. It is also increasingly scarce: In the 1970s, when Hoop was born, nearly 60 percent of academics working in the sector were tenured or on the tenure track; today, only about a third are granted those coveted positions, as higher education relies more on part-time instructors and underpaid adjuncts. That austerity coincides with the end of mandatory retirement in 1986 (which was applied to tenured positions in 1993) under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act. Since then, older professors have been allowed to stay in positions indefinitely, further locking up the job market for incoming and up-and-coming scholars and teachers.
Prior to the pandemic, for every open position in academe, there were already dozens — sometimes hundreds — of people hoping to get a shot at it, no matter where it was. The net effect is a job market that limits employment options and — more than most other industries and professions — puts a disproportionate amount of power in the hands of employers and their gatekeepers: graduate programs, troubled academic presses, search committees, and department bullies.
Hoop has come to see the world of the tenured academic as “bizarre.” Now that her career may be over, she feels betrayed by academe’s false promise. But she can’t quite fully dismiss tenure, either.
“I defend a system,” she says, “I don’t agree with.”
That system was founded on scholarly ideals and institutional wealth. It was set up with the goal of protecting scholars who spoke out (and the reputations of the institutions that employed them), and it was boosted by the rapid expansion of higher education following World War II.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, much like today, individual scholars came under attack by trustees and university donors for their support of unpopular ideas. A particularly famous case is that of Edward Ross, an economist and sociologist at Stanford University who supported the socialist Eugene Debs, criticized the railroad industry, and opposed Asian immigration — ideas that perturbed the university’s patron, Jane Stanford, whose wealth was built on Gilded Age capitalism and Chinese labor on the railroads. Ross was forced out of the university, but the move damaged Stanford’s reputation and led other faculty members to leave.
Based on that episode and others, in the early 20th century elite universities — like Harvard and Princeton Universities, and the University of Chicago — supported tenure for academics; by 1940, the American Association of University Professors had set up the framework for its adoption at other institutions, and by the 1950s it was a common arrangement.
In the decades that followed, enrollments continued to surge at existing college campuses, and new institutions opened to hire faculty members and take in students. In A History of American Higher Education (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004), John R. Thelin, a leading historian of the sector and a professor at the University of Kentucky, shows that the institution of tenure was cemented in higher ed’s golden era in the United States.
“For a generation of new faculty members who enjoyed being hired under such circumstances, it was not difficult to imagine that such conditions were the norm — and might even improve over time, given the American public’s support for higher education,” Thelin writes. “Economic abundance, however, provided little insight as to the political and legal protections professors would face in the future.”
Higher education’s burgeoning enrollments and prominent public position would see a range of challenges from the late 1960s and on: campus political unrest, stiffer competition for students, uneven state and federal funding, skepticism about the value of a degree, and a growing number of ideological foes. Those elements would contribute to the sector’s financial challenges and chip away at the compact between institutions and scholars.
Now, in the 2020s, the economic realities have changed, but society still needs highly educated people who can lay out for students today the fumbles of the past, the nuances of the present, and the challenges of the future. A politically divided nation, awash in fake news, needs intellectuals who are not only empowered to speak truth but also motivated to engage the public — not just their own tribe.
If the principles of tenure are as important as ever, they can’t apply merely to an anointed class.
But under the current environment, the policy of tenure — who gets the offer, and whether it’s earned — is “much more a tool of administrative control,” says John Warner, the author of Why They Can’t Write (Hopkins, 2020) and a longtime adjunct instructor who has been critical of the tenure system in his column for Inside Higher Ed.
“You have to jump through a very specific set of hoops for it,” he says, “and it is solely at the discretion of the upper administration as to whether these positions even exist.” The recent tenure denial of Garrett Felber, a promising young historian at the University of Mississippi, and the confounding case of Cornel West, who announced that he would leave Harvard after a faculty committee’s recommendation to grant him tenure was initially turned down by the university, highlight the way that tenure can be as much a cudgel as a reward.
That is not to say that adding to the ranks of lowly paid, disrespected adjuncts and unaffiliated scholars in academe is the solution, says Warner.
“I’m an institutionalist,” he says. Organizations benefit when they engage their employees, offer them a fair wage, provide them with feedback and professional support, and hold them accountable. “All laborers do better if they’re working from a place of some measure of certainty and security.” Those things don’t happen enough for adjuncts and other nontenured professors, he says.
“We like to think of ourselves as knowledge workers,” he says. “In a lot of ways, I think that’s a trap. The reality is we’re all laborers.”
Even for those academics who view themselves as knowledge workers, it’s not clear that tenure is always the most effective way to produce that knowledge — or to apply it where it will do the most good.
To be sure, tenure has been a key ingredient in forming the world-renowned research enterprise of the United States. A recent working paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research explains how: Scholars who have already been awarded permanent positions evaluate the colleagues who want to join them; in theory, they will make those evaluations dispassionately, because their jobs are not threatened by the newcomers. The long tenure clock ensures that candidates are competent and committed to research, while also giving those candidates incentives to work on long-term projects and to dedicate themselves to their institutions. And tenure supports the continuity of academic programs, around which institutions can build marketable identities and valuable reputations.
Today, however, both reformists and polemicists commonly argue that the scarcity of opportunities in academe and the long tenure clock require so much deference to established scholars and orthodoxy, it cultivates conformity in academics, not bold and innovative thinking. And it encourages those academics to spend their lives insulated from the activities, vocations, and incentives that most of their students are subject to.
Warner, for example, has never had tenure, nor the salary or job security that goes with it, which has forced him to engage the world of work outside of higher education, as a writer and editor for newspapers and market-research firms.
That has made him a better instructor, he thinks, and influenced ideas in his books, including Why They Can’t Write. “If I had not seen the downstream consequences of how we teach writing in school in private industry, I would not have been nearly so exercised about having to do something about it.” But that work in private industry wasn’t rewarded within academe.
Jack Schneider, an assistant professor of education at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, who was recently recommended for tenure, has tweeted about the hurdles facing a publicly engaged scholar on the tenure track. He has had success placing his work in prominent newspapers and on the desks of policy makers, but he has had to generate this attention through his own drive and legwork, not through encouragement from the profession.
As someone focusing on an area as contentious as public education, Schneider believes that tenure is an essential protection — but that “many of us have forgotten what the original purpose of it is,” he says.
“The incentives point toward publication in peer-reviewed journals with microscopic circulations, the vast majority of which are behind paywalls,” he says. Scholars who do engage the public have to fall back on two personal incentives: ego or, in Schneider’s case, a sense of obligation. “There needs to be some concrete way of valuing engagement with the public and with policy, which is a big part of why we fund higher education in the public sector.”
Douglas Webber, an associate professor of economics at Temple University, has noted how the incentive system of tenure — and the larger framework of institutional prestige in which it resides — can drive scholars to focus on research instead of where their services might be more valuable. “There’s a lot of research where, honestly, it would be better from a social-welfare perspective if you spent more time on teaching,” says Webber. But that activity — central to the mission of most institutions — is also undermined by the route to tenure. “By its very nature, tenure is about research. It’s difficult to make it about teaching.”
Webber recalls a job interview at a Midwestern public college early in his career. When he asked the department chair about the research and teaching expectations tied to tenure, the chair said, “Don’t spend any time on teaching. We don’t care about your teaching.”
Imagine if parents and students in the community heard that, Webber says. “I was disgusted,” he says. “But if they had hired me and wanted me to maximize my probability of getting tenure, that is the correct advice.”
That institution, like so many others, saw itself as upwardly mobile — “an R1 on an R2 budget,” says Webber. Elite institutions drive a standard in hiring that institutions further down the chain try to mimic. They have the resources to make decades-long commitments to promising scholars pursuing high-risk, high-return research programs — but even that elite system rests on a bedrock of grad students and postdocs hoping to be smarter, more relevant, or luckier than their peers to one day occupy one of those positions. Some will, but many more will land at second-tier universities, small colleges, and community colleges.
The tenure lottery — who wins it, who loses it — has a human cost, too.
Hoop has struggled with feelings of bitterness, guilt, and grief at the loss of a career that required so much work and sacrifice at the beginning, with the promise of job security and a steady, if humble, life as a scholar and teacher until retirement.
“A lot of people don’t understand the depth of what people experience in my situation,” Hoop says. So much of her self-worth as an intellectual was connected to the job. Those feelings were only intensified by the crucible of graduate school (Hoop describes her experience as a “bloodbath”) and the good fortune of having landed a tenured position. Over the years, she heard from friends about how privileged academics are, about how untouchable they can be.
It’s a widespread impression. Outside of higher education, tenure has been a favorite target of academe’s critics, particularly among evangelists for creative destruction and the free market. Members of the business community bristle at the notion that you can’t easily let go of unproductive people on the payroll or shift the business model, the way that companies can hack off whole divisions and lay off scores of employees in the process.
Higher education, by its nature, is preservationist, and it seeks to insulate itself from the fads and vagaries of the market — surely one of the reasons why the tenure clock is so long. A scholar will go through years of schooling, slog through a dissertation, do postdoc work and perhaps a series of visiting professorships. That scholar — if she lands a tenure-track position — might be in her 30s before starting it, and once again will spend the next six years or so proving herself as a scholar and researcher, while also participating in the activities of the college, and, of course, teaching a slate of courses (taking teaching duties off the shoulders of more senior, tenured faculty).
That scholar will go where the job is — if she’s lucky, that’s in an affordable community with amenities (and ample employment opportunities for a partner), but it could be in a depressed Midwestern state or a pricey big city. And once tenure is granted, that scholar may never leave that institution — never take the chance to experience a different college, or a different kind of career, or a different community, except in sabbatical stints. After all the sacrifice, who would take that chance?
Hoop has tried to make a similar point to her students who dream of being professors, much like her.
“I’m thinking, You have no idea what you’re talking about — it’s selling your soul to the devil to get to this place,” Hoop says. “I ask them: Are you willing to live anywhere in the U.S. — and that includes Horse’s Ass, Wherever?”
An increasing number of academics themselves have been more vocal about the problems with the tenure system in how it creates a stark divide between the haves and have-nots — or, more corrosively, how it affects their self-esteem as academics, their identities as “winners” or “losers.” That game of status extends to the departments, colleges, and universities that employ scholars and set up the conditions of their employment.
“Prestige has always played an outsized role in academia,” says Joy Connolly, the president of the American Council of Learned Societies.
“Wealthy institutions exert so much influence over the mind-sets of faculty and the design of institutions that have nothing like the power or the wealth that the top tier have,” she says. “The norms and rewards proper to the wealthy institutions outweigh not just the concerns and goals but also the real interests and ability to survive of the institutions that have less.”
That prestige factor also warps relationships within communities of scholars, a dynamic that Connolly and others would like to change at scholarly society meetings. “You know, that glance at the name tag, where you see ‘independent scholar’ or ‘scholar of practice,’ you don’t just say, ‘Oh, excuse me, I’ve got another panel to go to,” Connolly says. “I’ve heard these stories in my own field, you know, over the years, of people being treated horribly.”
So what structure would more broadly provide a measure of protection and security for scholars, while also normalizing movement among institutions and roles (including those roles outside of higher ed)? Some colleges, for example, offer long-term contracts as an alternative to the traditional tenure system. Some professors have formed unions. Perhaps it’s still tenure, but with different timelines and incentives. Any system of providing protections for scholars is going to have its advantages and drawbacks for both sides.
Many institutions are loaded up on debt, facing higher competition from a demographic slide and infrastructural needs from years of austerity. Under those pressures, the pandemic could break some sectors of higher education — in particular, regional state universities and small private colleges. Institutions like these have already begun a process of cutting back academic programs and axing whole departments, even without declaring financial exigency. In the months and years ahead, institutions will consolidate, and the weakest institutions could close altogether.
Joana Ramsey has experienced this. Twice.
The first time was in 2015. Ramsey was a professor of sports management and chair of the business department at Benedictine University at Springfield, in Illinois, where she had earned tenure in 2012. With aspirations for growth, Benedictine acquired Springfield College in 2009, but could not sustain the campus and closed it six years later.
“Heartbreaking and hard to believe — crushing,” is how Ramsey describes the day when news stations started showing up on campus. Administrators made the announcement, and professors, staff members, and students huddled together for support. “It was just disbelief that your college, which you thought was operating well, is not going to be there for you anymore.”
Ramsey lived on steadily dwindling savings for nine months before she got lucky: MacMurray College, in nearby Jacksonville, Ill., offered her a job with tenure, based on adjunct-teaching gigs she had taken on while at Springfield. But MacMurray was just another stressed college, and it announced its closure in March 2020. No gathering in an auditorium to cry and hug this time. Ramsey, along with the rest of MacMurray’s employees, were terminated over Zoom, forced to go through the grieving alone.
Now, she is coaching her friends and former colleagues on what to look for as mid-career academics in unsteady times: Watch out for colleges with a lot of debt. Know the difference between a restricted and unrestricted endowment. Most of all, she counsels friends, take on work at various local colleges — help with a curriculum review, or teach an extra course — even if you have a job for now.
Faculty members who have a comfortable tenured position may feel that work is a pain, but “those are the things in this time in higher ed that we should and must do,” Ramsey says.
She got lucky again, through connections at Illinois College, her alma mater, which was opening a sports-management program. She is now an associate professor of business and sports management there, but the title does not signify that she has tenure. It won’t ever be offered in this position. “They’ve made that pretty clear,” she says.
Hoop, the sociologist in Maine, hasn’t been as lucky. She would like to continue to teach, but she thinks she will only be able to pick up adjunct positions. Instead, she may need to find a full-time job doing something outside of academe. But what? A grant writer? An expert on impoverished communities for a local foundation? Having spent more than a decade in academe, she feels distant from the rituals of the job market — or from even knowing what kinds of doors a doctorate in sociology can open outside of higher education. Her academic qualifications might knock her out of the running for entry-level work in collecting data for state agencies, for example, but she doesn’t have the background to work as a statistician or analyst.
Hoop describes a plight common among laid-off faculty: “We’re weirdly overqualified for some jobs and underqualified for others,” she says. “I have to rely on informal networking, which I’ve never been really taught how to do.”
She thought that working in academe would be a more humane profession, one in which the institution would look out for her well-being.
“After this all went down, I thought, well, maybe I’ll just go to work for Bank of America,” she says, “because I know exactly what I’m dealing with.”