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.
"Tenure is an outdated concept," says DiMarco, who now teaches management at Webster University in suburban St. Louis.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."
Its roots reach back to the medieval era and the model 19th-century German universities. Yet the age-old expectation of job security is eroding from the bottom up. Forty-three percent of all faculty members under 45 say tenure is an outdated concept, according to a survey by the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California-Los Angeles. Only 30 percent of professors over 55 agree.
"The real security you've got is making sure that you're competent," DiMarco says. "I'm not worried about being evaluated every five years."
The change is creating a niche for those less interested in research than in teaching. "The marketplace is less enamored with whether the faculty is tenured or has a lot of publications," DiMarco says. "Teaching is going to be the name of the game in the future, not publication."
For professors such as Lyall Crawford, this is encouraging. When the communications professor was offered tenure at Weber State University in Ogden, Utah, several years ago, he negotiated a three-year renewable contract instead.
"You should be doing your job as long as you are doing it well and are content doing it," he says.
Crawford is most concerned about how the tenure process affects untenured faculty.
"It shuts down discourse as much as it opens it up," he says. "People wanting tenure tend to inhibit their behavior. They don't want to antagonize senior faculty who might be making the decision about whether they will be offered tenure."
But a majority of professors support the system. "It's hard to change the status quo," Crawford says. "People who have been rewarded by the system the way it is have no incentive to change it."
Recent attacks on tenure have not been well-received in academia. Three years ago, Bennington College in Vermont eliminated its presumptive-tenure system in which faculty received renewable five-year contracts. The faculty now receives individual contracts covering one to five years.
The change was part of a major restructuring that included firing one-third of the college's full-time faculty. Some of those professors are now suing the school for violation of their contracts.
The University of Minnesota recently erupted over proposed changes to the tenure code. After some of the faculty threatened to form a union, the changes were dramatically watered down.
Many universities are adopting post-tenure review policies that require more scrutiny of tenured faculty. In some states, legislators are pushing for changes. Texas, for example, has a bill pending that would institute strict post-tenure review policies for all state universities.
"If change doesn't come from within the university, I think we're going to see state legislatures acting unilaterally," says Mr. George of Webster University. "Either you change from within or there will be pressures from outside."
* David Volz contributed to this article from Florida.