Considering Systemic Discrimination in Tenure


Craig Klugman

Publish date

Tag(s): Legacy post
Topic(s): Gender Disparities Professional Ethics Science Social Justice

by Craig Klugman, Ph.D.

Last week I was speaking with a friend who works at another university and we were discussing one of their faculty and their progress for tenure. This faculty member is a brilliant philosopher whose area of specialization is in high demand right now. They have been invited to give multiple talks for different organizations and institutions as well as have been writing a number of OpEds. My friend’s concern was that none of these efforts would help their colleague earn tenure. The response that leapt out of my mouth was, “Perhaps the problem is not with their activities but that what counts for tenure is racist, sexist, ableist, and ageist”.

A Brief History

Let me start by saying that I am a huge fan of the tenure system. In the last few weeks, as part of my work on the university COVID response team, I have been the person speaking up and suggesting that we do not open for in-person classes. I have been speaking because my other colleagues are staff and risk their jobs to speak against their bosses’ positions. Tenure protects my ability to speak truth within my area of expertise. 

Modern U.S. university tenure is founded in the American Association University of Professors Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure (1940)Although about half of universities had some sort of tenure system in 1935, it was after 1940 that universities adopted widespread and strong tenure systems. The reason was twofold: (a) to retain faculty and (b) to protect faculty from being subject to arbitrary dismissal by administrators and board of trustees. Before this time, it was not unheard of for a faculty member to be fired because an influential donor or trustee did not like what a professor was saying. Tenure not only offers protection through academic freedom but also in income. Tenured and tenure track faculty make higher salaries than their non-tenure track counterparts. 

Over the last few decades, tenure protections have been undermined. As of 2016, only 27% of instructional faculty were in tenure line positions compared to 78% in 1978. As tenured faculty retire, they are often replaced with non-tenure track instructors. The average age of tenured/tenure track faculty is 49 (compared to the US workforce average of 42) and 37% of all faculty are over age 55 (compared to 23% in the general workforce). 

Lack of Diversity and Inclusion

At the same time, those with tenure do not represent the diversity of the nation. Professors who identify as white compose 76% of the professoriate. They are 81% of professors, 76% of associate professors, and 72% of assistant professors.  Blacks are 6%, Hispanics 6%, Asian/Pacific Islander 11% of faculty. While more women (51%) are assistant professors, they are 45% of associate professors and only 33% of full professors (note that nonbinary is not a collected statistical category in most studies of faculty). Women and people of color are represented at far lower rates in tenured academic ranks than their national percentages would suggest they should be. 

According to the American Association of University Women, some of the reasons why women are not in the higher ranks are penalties for childbirth and child raising (women still do the majority of child rearing in the U.S.), sex discrimination in pay (even when adjusted for rank and experience), lower pay for fields which have historically drawn more women (nursing; social work; humanities), higher service loads, and bias in the education programs the train future faculty. Women now earn more PhDs than men, but that is not reflected in the faculty. During our pandemic, while men have been productive in publishing and research, women have not due to additional child care duties, domestic work, and being home school teachers. In 1940, the idea of tenure would have applied mostly to males with the thought that child raising and housekeeping would be done by a spouse or perhaps hired help.

Similar challenges face people of color pursuing academic careers. For example, Black faculty face bullying, lack of role models, a service penalty (they are asked to be the “diversity” representative on many committees and efforts), and the increasing cost of attending institutions of higher education.  Over the last decade, a decline in Black student enrollment in college means even fewer Black faculty in the years to come. 

What Counts for Tenure

Even if one is fortunate enough to be hired into one of the few remaining tenure/tenure track positions, what must be done to earn it? Most tenure is rewarded based on efforts in research, teaching and service. Depending on the institution, the emphasis may vary for research and teaching. Service is always necessary but won’t get anyone tenure; thus, those who do more service (and therefore spend less time on research and teaching) are less likely to succeed. Research is often based on metrics such as number of publications (including rankings of those publications, acceptance rates, prestige; and order of authorship-first, corresponding, and senior). Teaching is usually based on student evaluations but may include peer evaluations, innovations in teaching (often counted by publications, presentations, and consulting on teaching). 

A problem is that these metrics are not necessarily indicators of excellent scholarship and teaching and they are highly biased. For example, woman are less likely to be first author or guest editorial writers in high impact medical journals. Whether that means that fewer articles with female first authors are accepted or fewer first female authored manuscripts are submitted to these journals is not clear. Is publishing more an indicator of higher quality or excellence in research? Probably not. It merely indicates an ability to get more manuscripts published, though considering the high rate of retractions in these more prestigious journals, one has to question if this is indeed a good measure. The second measure is federal grants: Studies show that only 1/3 of submissions and 1/3 of funded projects are led by women

Similarly, Black scientists are funded less often than others in their NIH grant applications. The reason is believed to be related to what they study and that they receive lower reviewer scores. These applications tend to focus on “research at the community and population level, as opposed to more fundamental and mechanistic investigations; the latter tend to have higher award rates”. Thus, success in funding is not a measure of being an excellent researcher, but on making it through a biased system. 

In regards to teaching, excellent teaching is hard to quantify. It’s more of a “you know when you see it” situation but the neo-liberal university wants to count things. Thus, student evaluation scores have become a substitute metric for excellence. However, multiple studies have shown that femaleminority, and older faculty members receive lower student evaluations than their male and white counterparts. Student evaluations of teaching are so biased that they are considered invalid for determining excellence in teaching (the only relevant predictor of these ratings is the student’s expected final grade). Yet, it is most often used to determine how strong a person is in teaching for tenure and annual evaluations. Even peer evaluations have their limits when you consider that they often look at how often the instructor moves around the room, goes around from group-to-group, uses innovative techniques and new technology, and speaks clearly (a.k.a. like white men). These assessments show bias against age and disability. 

The traditional measures of who should get tenure are biased. As faculty, we keep reproducing a system that discriminates and it needs to stop. No one controls tenure but the faculty—this is fully within our power to change.

If we agree that tenure is important, that means we have to change how we decide who gets it. Perhaps the traditional 6-9-year clock should be thrown out (given that it often falls during the prime family-building years as well). Perhaps rather than focusing on the products of research (publications, grants), there could be more attention to the process of research or its societal impact. Teaching might require a more holistic assessment—blinded peer evaluations, looking at syllabi and teaching materials, assessing student grades, interviewing students instead of simple unscientific surveys. Like my friend’s colleague, we can look at invitations, relevance of one’s work to making the world better, and as the American Sociological Association has suggested, include OpEds and social media “publications” (i.e. engagement with the public). 

Tenure is important and worth saving. How we award it now is systemically biased against women, people of color, older faculty, and people with disabilities. Changing how we reward tenure is uniquely in the hands of faculty and something we can and should change immediately.  

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