How Tenure Works (and Doesn’t Work)

There are three broad types of teaching faculty in an American university: tenured, tenure-track, and everyone else. Tenured and tenure-track professors are essentially white-collar workers on multi-year contracts who receive full benefits and are eligible for paid research leave.

“Everyone else” varies from university to university, but the majority of people who aren’t tenured or on the tenure track have short-term contracts and receive no benefits. Although “everyone else” used to be the exception, they now make up roughly 75% of all teaching faculty in higher education in the United States. This is obviously a huge fucking problem, and I’ll return to it later.

Tenured faculty enjoy the full privileges of employment at a university, including the ability to participate in the committees that decide department and university policy. They are also eligible to rise to high-level administrative positions. Tenured faculty also have a bit more power when it comes to “quality of life” issues like being able to schedule their classes at their preferred times and not having to teach large first-year classes. Their salaries are higher, the length of research leave they can take is longer, and they’re more likely to receive institutional funding. Tenured faculty can also teach graduate-level seminars – sometimes exclusively – and take on grad students.

The main privilege that tenured professors enjoy is that, short of sexually assaulting someone, it’s very difficult for the university to fire them (or to force them to retire, which is actually a major issue right now). This means that they can take longer to complete more ambitious projects, and they can start publishing with commercial presses and become public intellectuals if they like. There’s also no need for them to receive high student course evaluations, which gives them the freedom to develop more experimental classes and teaching methods while not having to put up with stupid undergraduate bullshit (like worrying about whether a kid will give your course a low score if you have a class session about race or LGBTQ+ material, for instance). Because they don’t have to worry about teaching and publishing so much anymore, tenured professors also have more time to become active in university service and administration.

A tenure-track professor, usually referred to as an “assistant professor,” has been hired by the university at an entry-level position. In order to be promoted through tenure, an assistant professor has to jump through burning hoops of fire. I know that’s an abstract description, but I don’t how else to put it. Because of the extremely competitive academic job market, the only people who are hired for tenure-track positions tend to be already functioning at the level of a tenured professor when they walk in the door. Regardless, receiving tenure isn’t a foregone conclusion, even at second- and third-tier schools with very few institutional resources and a nonexistent level of faculty support.

Unless a tenure-track professor is a serial molester or a complete academic fuck-up (or both at the same time), it’s actually in a university’s best interests to grant them tenure, usually after they’ve spent four or five years in the position. During this time, this person will have published research with the university’s name on it and otherwise promoted the university’s brand through their work, and they will have established a set of classes they can reliably teach. They will also have grown accustomed to the university’s culture while making connections with other faculty and staff members. In other words, the university has already put a lot of investment into someone by the time they go up for tenure, and that person has already become associated with their university in their broader field. Both as an institution and as a brand, a university wants to show that they have a lot of tenured faculty members, as faculty retention demonstrates not only the university’s wealth but also its prestige.

Still, assistant professors are required to demonstrate professional excellence in order to be granted tenure. The details of how this works differ from school to school; but, generally speaking, applicants are required to submit a portfolio of various materials that often runs more than a thousand pages in length. This portfolio will not only contain letters of support from people within the university but also from leading members of the applicant’s field – none of whom the applicant can choose or otherwise designate.

A tenure-track professor therefore has to publish as much as they can while establishing a strong professional reputation within four years, all while developing new classes, teaching a full course load, and getting high scores on student course evaluations. Although their service to their own university is limited by their rank, tenure-track professors need to “serve the field” by doing things like editing, translation, peer review, public lectures, media appearances, and so on. It’s a lot of work, obviously, but we wouldn’t be in the profession in the first place if this sort of thing didn’t give us a sense of satisfaction. This is one of the main reasons why the attrition rate for PhD programs is so high – at some point a lot of people realize that this isn’t what they want to spend their lives doing, which is valid.

In any case, someone going up for tenure first submits their portfolio to a special committee made up of members of their department, as well as one or more members of other departments who are qualified to judge their competence. The committee then makes a recommendation to the applicant’s home department, which takes a vote. The department chair will write a letter of support (or caution) based on that vote, and the applicant’s tenure case will be assigned to a nonpartial liaison who will present the case to the university.

In the end, it’s the university that decides whether or not to grant tenure. Even if the department votes against someone’s case, and even if their department chair hates them, the university can still decide to give them tenure. Because professors have a well-known tendency to be petty and resentful toward each other, it’s often the case that the university will grant tenure to someone a department has voted against. The reverse is also true – a person can be admired and respected by everyone they work with, but the university can still decide not to grant tenure for whatever reason it chooses. A decision against tenure may have nothing to do with the applicant at all; the university may have decided to discontinue funding for that particular tenure line in order to open a tenure line in another department, for example.

It goes without saying – and there is a towering tsunami of evidence that supports this – that the tenure process is biased against women, people of color, and other minorities. Women especially are held to higher standards, and any other minority identity that might apply to them only makes them more vulnerable to being perceived as inadequate and expendable. During the past ten years, I have seen one female colleague after another fail to get tenure, and it’s terrifying. In fact, the person who held my position before I did, a woman of color, apparently felt so alienated by the inherent prejudice of this system that she didn’t even submit her tenure portfolio even though (in my personal opinion) she would have had a strong case and benefited my department immensely in the long run.

If you don’t get tenure, you have one year to make an appeal. After that, if the appeal isn’t granted, you have to leave when your contract ends. The appeal process is a nightmare and requires the complete revision and re-submission of a tenure portfolio. Most appeals aren’t granted, even if lawyers get involved, so many people don’t even try. After all, if you’re going to go through all that trouble, it makes more sense to apply to other jobs than to stay at a school that has already made it clear that it doesn’t value the work you’ve done.

Unfortunately, as the number of tenure-track positions that open every year continues to shrink, it’s highly unlikely that someone who is denied tenure will find another tenure-track job. In addition, tenured professors in their seventies and eighties will not retire, thereby denying opportunities for younger people to enter their departments.

This is where we return to the problem of “everyone else” that I mentioned at the beginning of this post. Although there are both abstract and tangible benefits to having tenured faculty, many universities have begun to privilege their short-term interests. According to this mindset, why would you pay a tenured professor an actual salary when it’s much more cost-effective to pay an average of $3,000 per class to a short-term worker who often has the exact same (or even better) educational qualifications?

Because of the state of the American economy since around 2008 or so, more people have been completing graduate degrees. Meanwhile, universities are relying more on short-term contracts, which means that there is a horrifying scarcity of tenure-track jobs. My field is one of the fastest growing fields in higher education, yet it’s a very good year when fifteen tenure-track jobs open. University departments tend not to hire across fields – for example, someone who wrote a dissertation about queer literature for a Gender Studies department will probably not be considered as a viable applicant to an English department – which places additional limits on the number of jobs that even highly qualified people can apply to.

Competition is fierce, even for temporary positions that don’t provide benefits or a remotely livable wage, so why should a university have to settle for a tenure-track professor who isn’t perfect? It doesn’t help that both tenure-track job searches and the process of reviewing a tenure case necessitate a staggering amount of unpaid labor from everyone involved. And what department would want to hire someone who already has a tenure-track job but didn’t appreciate it enough to go through the tenure process? I mean, given how much institutional investment goes into an assistant professor, why would a university want to hire someone who’s clearly interested in job hopping? And, if someone went up for tenure but didn’t get it, why would a university want to hire another university’s discarded trash?

What I’m saying is that, because of the tenure system, there is either too much mobility as early-career academics are uprooted from their communities and forced to move to a different university every year (and sometimes every semester) as they apply to tenure-track jobs, or zero mobility for people who actually get a tenure-track job and but can’t leave without effectively ending their career.

I’m not yet sure what solutions I would offer to help restructure the tenure system in American universities, but I think acknowledging that it looks good on paper but has major disadvantages in practice is probably a good start.