Reading through the 39-page proposed Ohio Senate Bill 83, many things stood out to Bowling Green State University’s faculty union president David Jackson. His top concern, however, was language proposing changes to how universities use tenure.
SB 83, also known as the Ohio Higher Education Enhancement Act, proposes a slew of wide-ranging changes to how Ohio’s colleges and universities operate. Among those proposed changes, bill sponsor state Sen. Jerry Cirino, a Kirtland Republican, wants to formalize how professors are hired, evaluated, and ultimately fired from their jobs.
“To me, it’s a necessary management tool for the administration of our institutions,” Cirino, who chairs the Senate’s Workforce and Higher Education Committee, told The Dispatch in March.
Cirino’s bill proposes mandated annual evaluations for faculty that include assessments in the following areas: teaching, research, service, clinical care, administration and other categories as determined by the institution.
The bill also would require student evaluations of their professors, which would count for 50% of the teaching evaluation component. The bill would make one question mandatory: “Does the faculty member create a classroom atmosphere free of political, racial, gender, and religious bias?”
Institutions would have until July 2024 to follow post-tenure review policies that are triggered when any tenured faculty member receives “does not meet performance expectations” evaluations in the same category for two consecutive years.
Cirino previously told The Dispatch that he doesn’t “believe tenure is a good thing,” adding that “no one should be guaranteed a job effectively for life.”
Jackson said it’s a common misconception that tenure gives some professors jobs for life. One good thing about this bill, he said, is that it gives faculty like him a chance to educate people about what tenure really is.
“Tenure is a public good,” Jackson said. “This gives us the opportunity to dispel myths about tenure.”
What is tenure?
Based on principles employed at 19th-Century German universities, tenure in the U.S. dates back to the early 20th century as a means of promoting academic freedom and to create partnerships between faculty and the institutions that employ them.
In 1940, the Association of American University Professors and the Association of American Colleges (now the Association of American Colleges and Universities) teamed up to publish a set of principles defining academic freedom and tenure.
Tenure is an indefinite academic appointment that can be terminated only for cause or under extraordinary circumstances, said Anita Levy, AAUP’s acting director of the department of academic freedom, tenure and governance.
Those extraordinary circumstances could include committing a crime, financial exigency or as a result of a program being discontinued. Levy and professors argue that unlike lifetime appointments to Supreme Court justice or other jobs, there are fail-safes in place in the tenure system to correct issues that may arise with faculty.
The purpose of the 1940 statement, according to the document itself, was to promote a public understanding of academic freedom and tenure.
“Institutions of higher education are conducted for the common good and not to further the interest of either the individual teacher or the institution as a whole,” the statement reads. “The common good depends upon the free search for truth and its free exposition.”
Receiving tenure is an arduous and competitive process. Professors must first be hired by a committee of the faculty in their department to a tenure-track position. They then have between five to 10 years, depending on the institution and field, to earn the tenure distinction.
Professors amass a dossier of research, teaching experience and service on committees to showcase their abilities. Then faculty in their department consider their application for tenure. If approved by their department, a tenure committee then sends a recommendation to the school’s administration or board of trustees.
Tenure gives professors the freedom to speak, teach and conduct research about a wide variety of issues, including those that are potentially controversial, without having their jobs at risk, Levy said. For many, it’s also a badge of authority or honor, distinguishing them in their field.
“Academic freedom and tenure are connected… Academic freedom requires tenure to exist,” Levy said.
What is the state of tenure?
Tenure has been on the decline at U.S. colleges and universities for years. America’s academic workforce has shifted from relying on mostly full-time, tenured or tenure-track faculty to mostly contingent faculty, such as full-time non-tenure-track, full-time with no tenure system and part-time faculty.
Less than 25% of U.S. college faculty members were tenured in fall 2021, according to the AAUP, using data from the National Center for Education Statistics. That’s down from about 39% in 1987.
As tenure positions fade in prevalence, adjunct and part-time positions are on the rise. Nearly half of faculty members at U.S. colleges and universities were part-time employees in 2021, up from about a third in 1987. In that same time, faculty members with contingent appointments rose from 47% to 68%.
Ohio is the latest Republican-led state legislature to try and put limits or outright bans on tenure.
A bill in Texas would prohibit public colleges and universities from offering tenure to new faculty members hired after this September.
Louisiana Republican state Sen. Stewart Cathey introduced legislation in March that would require yearly performance reviews for tenured professors, and establish processes for dismissing those don’t perform well.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a law last year requiring post-tenure reviews every five years for professors at state colleges. Those reviews will assess how productive and successful faculty members are in relation to their assigned duties, and allow for the termination of those who are “unsatisfactory,” according to the law. Another bill introduced earlier this year would further allow university trustees to call for a tenure review “at any time.”
Why is tenure controversial?
Tenure has been at the center of economic, political, ideological and social debates for more than 50 years.
Mitchell L. Springer, former executive director of Purdue University’s Polytechnic Institute and a part-time professor, examined the history of tenure in his 2017 book, “Tenured: The Single Greatest Threat to Higher Education?”
Springer said while there are some benefits to tenure, the system is rife with issues.
For one, Springer said the tenure-granting process is “loaded” with “the potential for unconscious bias to kick in.”
“To begin, where did you advertise the position? Are you soliciting individuals of a similar nature? How many people you hired fit a certain demographic?” Springer said. “We’re all trained exhaustively in unconscious bias training, but it’s still a very difficult process.”
Women and people of color are far more likely than men and white faculty members to serve in part-time or contingent appointments at U.S. colleges and universities, according to NCES data.
Springer said there’s also an issue with tenure being an indefinite appointment.
“Tenure does not have an economic right to exist,” he said. “Should we be offering lifetime employment? Business and industry don’t.”
Jackson, the Bowling Green State University professor, said it’s not true that tenured faculty are employed for life. BGSU’s faculty union, he said, have negotiated a number of ways to review tenured positions, with salaries based in part on those reviews.
Levy said tenure is frequently “misunderstood” as lifetime employment.
“We don’t say that faculty can’t be fired,” she said. “But there has to be due process, like a court of law. Tenured faculty work for years and years and go through plenty of evaluations.”
Levy said any form of post-tenure review “needs to be formative, working to correct those issues and not disciplining.”
What is the future of tenure?
Both Springer and Levy said they see a future for tenure, but it’s nowhere near what it used to be.
Springer said colleges and universities will likely continue to rely more and more on contingent and part-time labor rather than tenured faculty.
Fewer tenure positions, Levy said, will lead to more self-censorship of faculty and more “second- and third-rate institutions.”
“Here’s the problem,” she said, “Efforts to end tenure and undermine academic freedom don’t just hurt higher education but society at large.”