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Tenure Comes Under Stricter Review

Multiyear contracts win favor as colleges seek more flexibility and rein in costs

By Laurel Shaper WaltersStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 24, 1997


As a full professor at the University of Missouri, Nicholas DiMarco was guaranteed a job for life under the tenure system. After leaving that position for a short stint in business, he returned to academia. But this time Professor DiMarco opted for more frequent sabbaticals rather than tenure.

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"Tenure is an outdated concept," says DiMarco, who now teaches management at Webster University in suburban St. Louis. "The old notion was to protect academic freedom, and it probably served some purpose back then. But I've got all the freedom I want. It's no longer an issue."

As competition in the academic marketplace tightens, more colleges are reexamining the tenure system and searching for alternatives. Financial pressures are often driving the change. And a glut of PhDs and fewer job openings are prompting a backlash against tenure.

Several new public colleges - Florida Gulf Coast University and Arizona International Campus - are snubbing tenure altogether. The schools, opening this fall, will offer multiyear contracts.

While the tenure system continues to flourish on most campuses, the percentage of nontenure-track positions at colleges has increased dramatically. About 27 percent of all full-time faculty in higher education are in full-time, nontenure-track positions. "And that's increasing each year," says Jay Chronister of the Center for the Study of Higher Education at the University of Virginia.

"It's happening at research universities, at liberal-arts colleges, and comprehensive institutions - both public and private," Mr. Chronister says.

At Webster, 80 percent of professors have voluntarily traded tenure for more time to work in their fields. "It affords me an opportunity to keep my professional credentials up," says Dorothy Marshall Englis, president of the Faculty Senate at Webster. "I'm just not sure that I believe in tenure anymore."

"Tenure is of great value to society," counters Ernst Benjamin of the American Association of University Professors. "In many parts of the nation, there is pressure on professors not to teach unpopular subjects. Tenure ensures the freedom to teach a wide variety of ideas."

But it can also tie the hands of a university with legitimate concerns about a faculty member's performance. At Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., for example, tenured engineering professor Arthur Butz created a home page on the university's Web site calling the Holocaust a "hoax." While university officials say they disagree with Professor Butz's views, his job is protected by tenure. Meanwhile, an untenured instructor who disagreed with Butz was not rehired after he taught a lesson on the Holocaust in an engineering class.

Critics argue that the notion of a guaranteed job is out of sync in an era of downsizing. Tenure saps the crucial ability of a college to be responsive to student needs, protects the unproductive, and insulates professors from pressure to update skills.

"Lifetime appointments are shared only by Supreme Court justices today," says Neil George, vice president for academic affairs at Webster. "The times and circumstances have changed. There is a lot more formal protection by law than there was when tenure started."