What Academic Tenure Is and Why It Matters

What is academic tenure?

Academic tenure is an employment status that gives lifetime employment to a college or university professor. Achieving tenure means job security and academic freedom, because tenured professors can only be fired for cause or under extreme circumstances faced by an institution.

The tenure process varies across higher education. At most institutions, tenure is achieved after a probationary period that lasts several years—usually no more than seven. Positions on the tenure track are competitive; other professorships are not eligible to work towards tenure. During the probationary period, professors may focus on research, publications, teaching effectiveness, academic service, speaking engagements, and more, and must demonstrate excellence in each area.

After this probationary period, the tenure review process begins. First, the faculty member must put together a comprehensive overview of their years at the institution, including teaching and research, committees served on, papers published, and awards or grants received. That comprehensive portfolio is then reviewed by a tenure committee, and sometimes by external reviewers.

The tenure committee is generally comprised of department members. Once the committee has reviewed the tenure portfolio, the department head makes a recommendation about whether or not the faculty member should receive tenure. The tenure materials move up the chain to the provost, who makes the final tenure decision based on recommendations from others who have reviewed.

If the faculty member is awarded tenure, they become an associate professor and are reviewed again in about five years before becoming a full professor. If a faculty member does not achieve tenure, they generally have a grace period before they need to find a new role at another institution.


Benefits of tenure

The tenure system can be challenging to navigate, but for higher education faculty, there are many benefits that come with being a tenured professor. The primary benefits are academic freedom and job security.

Academic freedom is vital at colleges and universities in order to ensure a free exchange of ideas, encourage intellectual curiosity, and offerQuote: The primary benefits are academic freedom and job security. multiple perspectives for students to learn from. Tenure offers professors a lifetime employment, meaning they don’t have to fear retaliation or dismissal for pursuing their academic research or their teaching interests, even if they may fall outside of the politics of an institution, question practices or norms of the time, or tread into controversial territory. To push the bounds of research forward, to come up with new ideas, and to dissent from systems in place are vital for higher education. Students (and the rest of the country) do not benefit when faculty members are controlled by other interests, like corporations or political groups. Academic freedom is the primary argument for the longevity of the tenure system, and tenure has made a difference historically for academic freedom. For example, a civil engineering professor discovered high lead levels in the Washington, D.C. water supply in 2003. He shared his findings with the public and proved misconduct in the CDC, while his tenured role prevented him from being dismissed or silenced.

The other major benefit of tenure is job security, or economic security. Working in higher education can be a difficult path, since many faculty roles are offered for limited time periods, or only on a part-time basis. This can force faculty to be more focused on finding their next role than they are on teaching or research. Many professors are constantly worried whether or not they will be returning the next year, so they may not become fully invested in a community. With those economic concerns removed, faculty can focus solely on their teaching and research, become active community members, and impact student outcomes. In addition, the longevity allows them to become more established and well-known, meaning they are more likely to attract students (both undergraduate and graduate) who want to work with them, therefore making an institution more desirable to study at.


How does PeopleAdmin support the academic tenure process?

At many institutions, the tenure system is highly manual. Disconnected systems or paper-based reporting mean that faculty must spend huge amounts of time collecting and organizing years of information, work history, teaching history, and more. These materials then must be printed countless times, wasting piles of paper, or else a printed binder might be circulated among a tenure committee, meaning that only one reviewer can be working at a time.

With Faculty Information System, a centralized, digital system built specifically for the complexities of HigherEd, your institution can create a streamlined, transparent tenure review process. All faculty activity is collected and stored in one place, so faculty can find and export what they need with the click of a button, while a review committee can look at digital packets on their own time frame. In addition, a digitized system offers data and insights about the tenure review process, so you can ensure equity and reduce bias across campus.

Learn more about faculty solutions or reach out to our experts if you’re ready to rethink your tenure review system!