The shelter of tenure is eroding and for faculty of color gaining membership may be tougher than ever – African American teachers – includes related articles on several cases regarding tenure - Higher Education

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The shelter of tenure is eroding and for faculty of color gaining membership may be tougher than ever – African American teachers – includes related articles on several cases regarding tenure

by Paul Ruffins

Hazing is the dark side of campus life. Desperate to be accepted
into an exclusive club, bright young people will tolerate long periods
of psychological abuse, often being forced to perform onerous tasks
which established members consider below their dignity.

One of the paradoxes of higher education is that the most
psychologically brutal initiation rites don’t take place in fraternity
houses but in academic departments. Those rites are called “coming up
for tenure.”

And as bad as coming up for tenure is for young White males, it is worse if you’re not.

“For faculty of color, [enure is torture,” says Dr. Alice
Brown-Collins, an African American social psychologist who – along with
Dr. Phyllis Bronstein, a tenured professor at the University of Vermont
– is conducting a qualitative research study analyzing the lives and
careers of thirty scholars who have focused their research on feminist
and multicultural issues.

“Whether they receive tenure or not, a very large percentage of
Black and female academics find the tenure process bitter and
traumatic,” Brown-Collins says. “Because even if you get tenure, unless
every vote was unanimous it means’ that now you get to spend the rest
of your life with some people who thought you weren’t good enough to be

In the past year or so, the subject of tenure has been widely
debated – not only in academic journals, but on National Public Radio
and in the pages of The New York Times, The Washington Post and other
major publications. Many of the stories focus on proposals to change or
eliminate tenure, and they mostly cast the issue as one that pits
academic freedom against the efficiency needs of administrators.

But the fact that tenure is almost universally torturous to women
and faculty members of color has been largely ignored, thus missing a
window of opportunity to look into some of the reasons higher education
as a whole is questioning the system of tenure as it now exists.

Starting in 1900 when Stanford University fired economics professor
Edward Ross for political activities, it took forty years for tenure to
be widely accepted in the United States. Ultimately, the Ross case led
to the formation of the American Association of University Professors
(AAUP) and in 1915, the association issued a report stating that
academic freedom was a fundamental principle of a university.

The report cited tenure and due process as the only way of ensuring
academic freedom. It also argued that providing economic security was
the only way to induce the most qualified people to become scholars
rather than enter more lucrative fields.

In 1940, the AAUP succeeded in convincing the Association of
American Colleges to issue a joint statement on academic freedom and
tenure that became the fundamental blueprint for American higher
education. As a result, between 85 and 95 percent of all colleges offer
some form of tenure.

Risky Priorities

Despite its longevity, cracks and fissures in the system of tenure
are appearing everywhere, caused not only by pressures from outside
forces – state legislators and boards of regents, for example – but
also from within the academy.

Dr. Robert Diamond, a professor at Syracuse University, is director
of the National Project on Institutional Priorities and Faculty
Rewards. As such, he has studied data from more than 50,000 faculty,
deans, and administrators on, among other things, what they think about
the tenure system. In preparing to publish his findings some time next
month, he has found that, “most of them think that there needs to be

“We’re finding that faculty, chairs, deans, and administrators find
that the tenure system does not serve the needs of the institution,”
says Diamond. “Important faculty work is not being rewarded.”

By this he means that although most higher education institutions
have as their stated policy that “research. teaching, and service” are
given equal weight, when a scholar is considered for tenure, most of
the time only research is given serious weight.

Because of this, Diamond says, “Service, teaching, and creativity
are risky priorities for faculty members seeking promotion and tenure
at many institutions.”

The focus on research puts many faculty members particularly
minorities and women – at a disadvantage. According to Diamond, women,
African American and Latino scholars tend to be more committed to
teaching, service, mentoring students, and community work. As a result,
they have a harder time convincing tenure committees that they deserve
tenure. (See related story, page 27.)

“We see this again and again,” notes Dr. Henry Allen. a sociologist
of higher education formerly with the University of Rochester and now
at the Rochester Institute of Technology. “[Minority faculty] are more
likely to be the ‘minority voice’ on many different committees, and
also serve as mentors and role models for minority students. Black
women are also likely to be sought out by female White students. Yet,
committee service and mentoring usually count for very little in tenure

In a recent paper, Roles and Responsibilities of Faculty Of Color:
Balancing the Demands. Dr. Harriette Richard, a psychologist at
Northern Kentucky University, confirms Allen’s assessment that there is
no direct connection between the mentoring process and the tenure
process. This. she says, is particularly destructive to
African-American faculty because “a personal commitment to mentoring
was a clearly acknowledged, necessary part of what they did for
themselves and their community.”

The low value placed on mentoring becomes even more problematic
because. as Richard notes. “Research substantiates [that] mentoring
[is] important because it directly affects the number of Blacks
attending and graduating from that institution.”

This leaves women, Latino, and African American academics with a
major conflict. One of the main reasons colleges diversified their
faculties by hiring more Black, Hispanic, and women faculty members was
to provide mentors and role models to help increase the retention of
minority students. Thus the college-wide need that helped bring them to
campus might prevent them from receiving tenure in their departments
and staying at the university.

Personal and Psychological Minefields

In human terms, getting tenured actually means having a small group
of people – almost always White men – decide that you are good enough
to become a member of their club forever.

Dr. Janice Madden, a professor of sociology at the University of
Pennsylvania, notes that since tenure is deliberately designed to
cement a long-term permanent relationship, “being accepted for tenure
is very much like getting married, and the question of who is smart or
good enough is very subjective. The research shows that people tend to
think that the people who are the brightest are those most like
themselves – and because these judgments tend to be unconscious, people
may [believe they are] being honest when they say they’re not

This process of deciding whom to “marry” is even more complicated
because, rather than being a group of objective scholars, academic
departments are places rife with academic, political, and sexual
intrigue. In addition, the courts have upheld the fact that you can be
denied tenure for reasons as abstract as failing to exhibit
“collegiality.” Bronstein asserts that this can be particularly
detrimental to African-American women or Jewish feminists because “they
are often stereotyped as being very aggressive and in-your-face.”

As Bronstein reports: “There is a strong impetus to maintain
‘traditional’ values, standards, and curriculum – by which is meant, in
part, maintaining the overt and covert structures that give access and
preference to White, gentile, heterosexual males from financially
privileged backgrounds.”

“The people of color we’ve spoken to almost always report that
coming up for tenure just strips them psychologically.” Alice
Brown-Collins says. “The department becomes a personal and
psychological minefield. You don’t know what people are going to do, or
whom you can trust. Departments are intimate institutions and people
have long memories. If you’ve ever had a disagreement with someone it
will come up during tenure.”

Bronstein says that tenure committees often treat ethnic and women’s
studies as ghetto disciplines. and that ethnically oriented journals
are often viewed as inferior publication outlets. But in addition.
there is an intensely personal aspect of the tenure process that has
largely been ignored.

“It appears that differences may add up against you.” she says. “It
looks like the more people differ from the mainstream model, the more
difficulties they may have in their institutions particularly on a
personal level.”

In an earlier study Bronstein did, she found that those who combine
several “differentness” factors, such as being African American. older
and lesbian reported experiencing the greatest amount of hostility from
their colleagues and the administration.

And yet one survey on the tenure-review process found that only 6
percent of White males in academia felt that minorities were at a
disadvantage in the tenure process, while 23.2 percent of White females
and 58 percent of all Black academics found this to be true.

Faculties Harming Themselves

One of the major reasons given for modifying or eliminating tenure
is the “deadwood” – faculty members who refuse to teach, or who refuse
to retire. Those who argue that tenure is outmoded and needs to be
eliminated say that one of the most important developments in the
economics of tenure was the court decision that professors cannot be
forced to retire.

Opponents of tenure argue that because university teaching is not
physically demanding, there is little incentive for professors to
retire even though after thirty years, many pension plans would provide
them nearly as much after-tax income as continuing to teach. Therefore.
if a junior faculty member is typically tenured at thirty-five years
old after six or seven years on staff, each tenured position represents
a possible forty-year – or more – financial commitment of salaries,
benefits, and office space that can easily amount to well over

Supporters of tenure counter that retirement statistics have not
changed much since the age cap was removed. Professors used to retire
at the age of sixty-four, and they still do, more or less. The
exception seems to be that they retire at older ages in the elite,
private institutions at slightly higher rates.

But older retirement ages are only one part of the concern over
skyrocketing costs – particularly at state universities – that have
caused students, their parents anti their elected representatives to
take a harder look at the kind of teaching undergraduates are receiving
in return for their thousands of dollars in tuition. Higher tuition has
also brought a renewed emphasis on graduating in four years, making
everyone much more sensitive to whether required courses were not being
offered because senior professors were loath to teach introductory
level classes, were too busy doing research, or were off enjoying

Higher education sociologist Allen gives an unsparing view of the
situation: “A lot of faculty have brought this [tenure debate] on
themselves. Departments have neglected undergraduate education and done
a poor job of administration. And a lot of the criticism they face
comes from parents and legislators who went to col- lege in the ’60s
and ’70s and had to attend ! large lecture classes.”

Allen doesn’t stop his criticism there, however: “Many academic
administrators are acting more like corporate administrators. They
think that the bottom line is to reduce costs and start new programs.
When you combine both of those together you have the mess we’re in.”

Dr. George McCarthy, a professor of economics at Bard College in New
York, says that the new emphasis on fundraising has greatly empowered
college and university presidents – relative to faculty members – and
thus undermined academic freedom.

“Bard was facing a financial crisis and the president raised a lot
of money. So now, the tenured faculty has completely been cowed into
submission,” he says. “The senior faculty pawn off every ugly task on
the untenured and pet they won’t go to bat for them. Last year the
president overturned a unanimous tenure decision by the faculty, and
they just went along with it.”

Disgusted by the faculty’s lack of solidarity, McCarthy has notified
Bard that he’s withdrawing from the tenure track and will probably
leave academia. He admits that being an economist gives him many more
options than other academics.

“Many of the people in English or religious studies feel that not
getting tenure is like falling off the end of the earth,” he says.

A Death by a Thousand Cuts

The bottom line is that tenuring a professor has become so expensive
that universities are less willing to do it – except when absolutely
necessary, or to attract high-profile academic superstars.
Unfortunately for many young academics, the oversupply of Ph.D.s
generated during the 1980s means that, at least in the humanities,
virtually any college can attract well-qualified instructors willing to
work part time – or even full time – in non-tenure track jobs.

According to Dr. Mary Burgan, head of the AAUP and one of tenure’s
most committed supporters, “This is the most insidious threat to
tenure. It is the death of a thousand cuts as departments and
universities continue to replace tenure-track jobs with part-time and
non-tenured positions.”

The figures bear her out. In 1993, for example, 370,000 of the
914,000 men and women teaching college – approximately 40 percent –
were working part time, almost none of them with tenure. This was a
jump from about 30 percent in 1975. Forty-two percent of part-timers
did so because no full-time jobs were available.

There has also been rapid growth in full-time, non-tenure track
faculty. Approximately 16 percent of all faculty are in non-tenure
track jobs, up from 13 percent in 1975. And many of them are minorities
and women.

Even those in tenure track jobs are finding that the requirements
for tenure are becoming more and more difficult. A generation ago, it
was common to become tenured by publishing one or two articles based on
your dissertation research. Today, younger scholars often need a book
for their departments to recommend them for tenure.

Rachel Hendrixon of the higher education department of the National
Education Association (NEA) notes: “Twenty years ago, only about 6
percent of young faculty members were denied tenure. Now that figure is
closer to 20 percent.”

The combined result of the pressures on tenure are that only 52.8
percent of full-time faculty members have tenure and only 66.2 percent
are eligible for tenure. The percentage is somewhat higher for those
with doctorates, but the overall trend is going down and looks
particularly grim when age is considered in the equation. In English
for example, far less than half of all the people who received Ph.D.s
in the last ten years have or are eligible for tenure.

As fewer people receive tenure, the stakes in each tenure decision
rise. Thus, the tenuring process, which has always been marked by
unclear expectations, is becoming ever more anxious and depressing. As
William J. Tierney and Estella Mara Bensamon note in their book,
Promotion and Tenure, neophyte professors are essentially told: “You
have to publish, but I can’t tell you how much. You have to teach, but
I can’t tell you what good teaching is; and you need to serve on
committees, but I can’t tell you how many.”

On many campuses this fact has led to a growing generation gap
within departments. Many younger Ph.D.s – particularly those from
prestigious programs – are incensed at the prospect of having no choice
but to accept their one offer of a tenure track position only to be
judged by older scholars tenured with far fewer accomplishments.


It is the double-edged nature of the tenure process that may make
Black, Latino, and women professors more willing to consider the
alternatives than others.

Brenda Brown, who teaches mathematics at the University of the
District of Columbia – which doesn’t have tenure but offers “reserve
interest status” after a three-year probationary period – explains,
“It’s a lot like getting a civil service job. The real advantage [of
reserve interest status] is that it doesn’t require as much
departmental politics as tenure.”

“Tenure allowed thousands of academics to get involved in the civil
rights movement, or protest the Vietnam war,” notes Warni Reed former
chairman of the Congress of Black Faculty. “Without academic freedom,
they would have been fired at the drop of a hat. So if the question is
tenure or no tenure, of course African American Ph.D.s would prefer

“However, if the choice is between the possibility of tenure after
seven years and the immediate security of a long-term contract,” Reed
continues, “my feeling is that many would prefer the contract.”

Another alternative might be a labor movement among professors that
parallels the growing unionization of medical doctors – who have also
experienced the increased power of administrators in an industry that
used to be governed by people with doctorates.

Hendrixon of the NEA, which is America’s largest union and primarily
protects the job security of primary and secondary school teachers,
says, “Tenure is only one way of protecting people. However, when
entire faculties or departments are facing tough or sometimes
unreasonable demands from administrators, I’d rather depend on a union
contract guaranteeing academic freedom, seniority, and due process –
particularly if it was backed up by the resources of a union with two
million members.”

However conflicted minority academics and administrators may feel
about the current tenure system, it will neither immediately disappear
nor forever remain unchanged.

“What is critical” says Professor Evelyn Hu-Dehart of the University
of Colorado, “is that women, African-Americans, and others who already
have problems with the system make sure they are at the table when the
change is being negotiated.”

“Something has to change,” notes Brown-Collins. “The current system
is certainly not protecting academic freedom. If anything, the tenure
process is a way to screen out people with new and controversial ideas.”

But even Dr. Estevan Flores of the University of Colorado-Boulder,
whose former department made every effort to screen him out, feels that
tenure is more complicated than that. (See sidebar, pg. 24.)

“It really cuts both ways,” he says. “Sure they used the tenure
process to try and get rid of me. But since we’ve been on the other
side of the powers that be, I value tenure because without it, they’d
surely find some way to get rid of us.”

RELATED ARTICLE: Economics and the Real World

“I know a lot of Black faculty members don’t want to hear this,”
says Dr. Henry Allen of Rochester Institute of Technology, “because
they feel a lot like the Black mayors – just as we got in the door, all
the good stuff started disappearing. But expecting tenure to protect
you from the vast economic forces reshaping academia is like counting
on a newspaper to keep you dry in a hurricane. Do you really have
academic freedom if you can’t get a gram to fund your research? Can any
college afford tenured faculty in a department that doesn’t attract any

Allen’s warning seems particularly timely given the recent example
of the University of the District of Columbia, which laid off 125
professors, and Central State University in Ohio, which fired nineteen
faculty members. And for that matter, small, traditionally White
liberal arts colleges are not immune, either. In January 1994,
Bennington College eliminated tenure, dissolved all academic
departments, and fired twenty-seven faculty members.

“We were in a crisis,” says Bennington spokesman Mike Leary. “We had
the highest tuition in the country and a declining freshman class.
Today tuition has stabilized, and applications are up about 20 to 30

Such intense budget pressures can dramatically shift power within an
institution. and those pressures on universities are not likely to
change any time soon. After enduring the inflation of the 1970s and
early 1980s, universities then experienced the digital revolution that
demanded large capital investments in new computer technology. Given
that public funding was decreasing during this time, higher education
became more dependent on tuition which, for the past two decades, has
risen higher than inflation. (See related story on page 7.)

That has meant that two things have happened: state legislators are
looking closely at the costs associated with state institutions: and
college and university presidents are looking more and more at
corporations to make up the gaps in their budgets. The problem for
academia here is that few businessmen see tenure’s guarantee of
academic freedom as a justification for insulating professors from
economic uncertainties.

The event that gave the tenure debate a national profile took place
last fall when Regents of the University of Minnesota proposed revising
the tenure code to make it much easier to lay off tenured faculty
members, cut their salaries, and discipline them for “not maintaining a
proper attitude of industry and cooperation.”

That last phrase, which faculty dubbed “the Chairman Mao Clause.”
was dropped from the proposed revision. However, the version that was
offered still provoked a firestorm of protests from the faculty, who
saw it as a direct attack on academic freedom. As a result, professors
at the University of Minnesota – for the first time in the university
system’s history – voted to join a labor union and institute collective
bargaining over wages and working conditions. They later backed down
from that decision.

What made the University of Minnesota case so significant to some –
and so ominous to others – is that it happened in a major research
system. where one would expect that the faculty’s academic freedom to
do research or to speak out on controversial topics would be more
highly valued than at a less prestigious system or a smaller teaching

Minnesota’s move to modify tenure clearly marks a trend. When the
Florida board of regents announced plans to open a brand new
institution. Florida Gulf Coast University, it announced that it would
offer faculty multi-year contracts rather than tenure whenever
possible. (See related story, page 34.) In Georgia. the board of
regents recently voted to institute “post-tenure review” that makes
even senior professors subject to much closer scrutiny. (See related
story, page 32.) And according to the American Association of
University Professors (AAUP). proposals to end or modify tenure have
been introduced to the legislatures in more than a dozen states,
including Georgia, Texas, and Arizona.

– Paul Ruffins

RELATED ARTICLE: Three Tales of Tenure Torture


Dr. Reginald Clark v. Claremont University

Among African American academics, one of the most well-known tenure
cases involved ‘Dr. Reginald Clark, who encountered racism so blatant
he won a million dollar settlement from Claremont University in

“What made me lucky was that I literally caught them in the act,”
Clark says. “I just happened to be in an adjacent room, and heard some
people on my tenure committee talking through an air vent, so I took
down some notes.

“One professor directly said that he just couldn’t see having a
Black man in the department on a permanent basis,” he recalls. “They
also said that in order to make it look like they had supported me,
their strategy would be to kick my tenure decision up the next level of
the administration to have it rejected there.”

Clark remembers that when his case went to court, the department
argued that he was deficient in every area. This, even though he had
published a book with the prestigious University of Chicago Press. Some
of his colleagues had been tenured without a book or any articles in
reference journals.

“They said I couldn’t teach, but I proved that the overwhelming
number of my evaluations were positive,” Clark says. “On the witness
stand, one student directly admitted that my department chairman had
specifically asked her to write a negative letter.”

Clark believes that he had a tremendous psychological advantage over many other Black academics facing similar situations.

“Getting tenured requires a nearly superhuman effort these days and
I know I’m not perfect. But hearing their racism with my own ears meant
that I didn’t have to doubt myself and internalize their criticisms,”
he says. “It was stressful and I wouldn’t have chosen it for myself But
it also liberated me. I no longer have to beg White institutions for my

Dr. Estevan Rores v. University of Colorado-Boulder

Clark’s large financial settlement let him get off the tenure track
and become an independent consultant. More common is the mixed
experience of Dr. Estevan Flores, who fought a bitter, public battle
with the Sociology Department of the University of Colorado at Boulder,
where he still teaches.

Like Clark, Flores had independent confirmation of his committee’s
racism. One of the sociology department’s two other Chicano professors,
a tenured Dr. George Rivera, blew the whistle on irregularities in the
voting procedure.

The chair of Flores’s tenure committee had extended the voting
beyond the allotted time, allowing it to continue even after the
counting of ballots began. When Flores demanded a re-run, the
department’s second vote was also tainted this time by illegal proxy

Flores then appealed to the vice chancellor, who made the charge
that is so often leveled against academics of color – Flores hadn’t
published in the “right” journals. A sociologist studying immigration,
Flores had published much of his work in the International Migration

“They didn’t question the quality of my work, but they said it wasn’t a sociological journal,” says Flores.

Ultimately he appealed all the way up to the Board of Regents. In
the meantime, the atmosphere on campus became very polarized.
Thirty-seven students went on a hunger strike and all the Chicano
professors left the sociology department.

Flores also left the sociology department and ultimately received
tenure in the university’s Center for the Studies of Ethnicity and Race
in America. But, he considers his confrontation with the university a
mixed victory.

“I enjoy [the Center for the Studies of Ethnicity and Race in
America]. There are other faculty here who value my research, yet I
still feel that I’ve lost a lot. I didn’t make a free choice to go into
ethnic studies. I’m a trained sociologist and I feel that they’ve
stolen away my degree.”

“Department Can Set Its Own Standards.”

Another story comes from an academic who is hoping to gain tenure at
her new institution and asked that her name not be used. She has her
Ph.D. in economics from a respected state university in New England and
when she came up for tenure at a small university in Virginia, she had
already had six or seven articles published in refereed publications.
But she was the only non-traditional economist in the department.

I began to realize that something was wrong, because department who
had never about my economics research during the five years beforehand
suddenly started just dropping in for little discussions,” she says. “I
wasn’t stupid, so I decided to get a lawyer and started taking notes.”

As it turned out, that was a very constructive thing to do.

“It was a useful move because it got to the point where they were
engaged in a direct guerilla war against me. A secretary told me that
letters had started disappearing from my file. And, when I actually
came up for tenure, they broke their own rules and literally invented a
new measure that had never been used before just to keep me out. They
decided that you needed four “Standard Journal Equivalent Unit”
publications for tenure but that I only had 3.5.”

This scholar reports that when she went to court, the dean said one
thing at the deposition and something completely different at the
trial. When she sued for documents under the Freedom of Information
Act, she found that one of the male professors had recently been
tenured with no publications.

Ultimately she still lost her case – even though she claims that the
department members admitted that they had been biased against her.

“The judge threw out my lawsuit because there is a presumption that the department can set its own standards.”

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