For over 100 years, tenure has provided the security of an indefinite academic appointment to professors across the United States. Tenure is a lifetime contract between institutions of higher education and their faculty that can be terminated only for cause or under extraordinary circumstances, such as extreme economic hardship. Termination of tenured faculty is rare by design. But in recent years, tenure — specifically, tenure elimination — has become the focus of several state legislatures, some of which have already passed some form of a tenure elimination bill in at least one legislative chamber.
Texas, for example, has made tenure elimination a top priority this legislative session. On April 20, 2023, the Texas Senate approved a bill to ban public higher education institutions in Texas from implementing tenure for new faculty hires. Under the bill, public colleges may not grant new faculty hires tenure or any form of permanent employment status, and contracts entered into by institution governing boards may not provide for employment for more than three years. The legislation, if it becomes law, would apply to faculty members hired after January 1, 2024. Professors who are currently tenured, or on track to secure tenure before January 1, 2024, would not be affected.
Under the bill, in place of tenure, Texas public college boards could create alternate systems of tiered employment status for faculty members. While the bill does not exhaust the available types of alternate systems of tiered employment status, it requires that any alternate systems implemented by institutions clearly define each position and requires faculty members to undergo annual performance evaluation.
Arguments Supporting Tenure Elimination
Supporters of tenure elimination argue that tenure rewards complacency as professors have the security of a lifetime appointment that can be revoked only under limited circumstances. Therefore, tenure elimination is designed to incentivize higher performance among professors and give institutions, rather than professors, authority over course content. Tenure is seen as a limit on institutions’ ability to be nimble in shifting their academic focus to pursue new areas or to align with changing job markets.
A further criticism of tenure is that it is expensive. Institutions already struggling with budget cuts cannot require professors to retire, and pursuing tenure revocation is usually a lengthy and expensive process available only in narrow circumstances.
Arguments Against Tenure Elimination
Opponents of tenure elimination argue that tenure is essential for protecting academic freedom as it gives scholars the security to examine and advocate for diverse views. Tenure’s core purpose is to permit faculty to research and discuss difficult and controversial issues without fear of losing their jobs. The job security guaranteed by tenure is believed to help recruit talented individuals into university professorships, because in many fields private industry jobs offer significantly higher pay. Additionally, research specialization that is often undertaken by tenured professors takes years and would be undermined by high turnover rates.
Some fear that, as a result of tenure elimination, public institutions in Texas could lose talented scholars to private institutions that offer tenure. Competition for tenure-track positions at private institutions is expected to be even more fierce if tenure is eliminated in Texas’ public institutions. Tenure also permits faculty to strengthen ties with their local communities, which is believed to lead to more opportunities for students in the long term.
This bill still needs approval by a Texas House committee, the full House and the governor before it can become law. If the legislation passes, however, it will transform the landscape of hiring and retention for public institutions of higher education in Texas.