One of the pillars of academia in the United States is the system of tenure, a lifelong appointment given to professors that cannot be terminated except under extreme circumstances. Given its significant role in framing and aligning the career paths of the American professoriate, one would expect tenure to be a practice established since the beginning of the academy in America itself. 

In fact, tenure is a recent phenomenon dating back less than a century, when the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) and the American Association of Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) jointly released the “1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure.” The primary purpose of establishing these principles was to ensure academic freedom in direct response to the abuses of professors by the Nazis in Germany and Poland. The statement was quickly adopted by universities across the nation and is the basis of the modern conception of tenure.

However, it is clear that the original purpose and role of tenure has been largely lost in today’s culture. Instead of being viewed as an appointment that allows a professor to finally release their most heterodox ideas, achieving tenure often involves conforming their research to what is considered “marketable” or “hot” in a field. This pressure to conform is driven by the ever increasing “publish or perish” dynamic that puts publication at the fore for achieving tenure. 

Tenure and academic freedom stray even further when considering the political gymnastics involved in a climate where over half of academics are afraid that voicing dissenting opinions will hurt their career trajectory. The changing dynamics surrounding academic freedom and tenure have real consequences; recent research in Nature shows that science has become increasingly less “disruptive” since the 1950s, not more. 

For tenure to protect academic freedom, it must first ensure the values and rigor of uncertainty, not conformity. Through the lens of uncertainty, tenure’s role in academia — and the problems that arise because of it — become far clearer.

Overwork and Abuse as Symptoms of a Pressure-Cooker Environment

Tenure is a hedge against uncertainty because research is inherently uncertain. In the sciences, it is often unknown whether the research questions asked even have answers. Out of all the hypotheses generated and tested, most will be wrong. 

Given the uncertainty of meaningful scholarly productivity, tenure can be viewed as a means to vet scientists who will be productive in the long run. Instead of having positions in jeopardy because of lulls in research, the academy sets up a “proving” period early in a scientist’s career and uses it to trust that the scientist will be productive over the long run. In exchange, the university pledges resources and support for the professor for the rest of their career.

For the professor, tenure also acts as a hedge against uncertainty. It provides job security and allows them to conduct research without the constant pressure to perform. This brass ring of academia is a symbol of having made it in one’s career and is the final milestone of a long road of proving oneself to be a truly able and independent scientist.

When viewed through this lens, tenure is a contributor to the common phenomenon among assistant professors to work extremely long hours with a ferocity that can turn into a high-strung work environment. These young professors, full of passion in a period where they must prove themselves worthy, are more likely to micromanage their students and expect from them the same ferocious work ethic. 

A big driver of this intensity is the importance of achieving tenure by publishing big and publishing fast. I believe this management style is a direct contributor to the outsized mental health issues experienced by Ph.D. students. It may seem that this intensity would be a great environment to do fantastic science. In many cases, this is true. Often the young students work on the projects that set a lab’s foundation and eventually win Nobel prizes. However, that is for the labs that are successful. 

The professor stands to gain everything from an unhealthy culture of overwork early in their career. The student, meanwhile, bears the brunt of the physical and mental toll, with a disproportionate incentive and compensation. Many stories across fields have described unhealthy work expectations from early-career scientists, with the Carreira letter scandal as an example in chemistry.

Tenure is clearly a driving force for this pressure because once a professor achieves tenure and stature in their field, many observe a “mellowing out,” where the professor is less harsh on trainees and more understanding of the trainee’s particular needs. This goes along with the “post-tenure blues” that midcareer professors experience after the long road to permanency is finally over. Some may simply attribute these changes to older age. Nevertheless, the push for tenure is an undue pressure that piles on top of the motivation brought by young, energetic professors who are trying to establish their name. Although not limited to assistant professors, the impetus for such a harsh style begins and is encouraged by the fiendish search for tenure.

Moreover, tenure is a contributor to perpetuating abusive practices because future professors came up in a similar system and will have to deal with the fight for tenure themselves. This leads to a “tradition” of grinding and cultural mindsets that say, “If I had to go through it, you should too.”

Three Recommendations for a Better Hedge Against Uncertainty

With quotas for tenure lines ever decreasing and the number of adjunct and non-tenure-track faculty increasing, the competition and desire for tenure have reached a fever pitch. Having such a narrow conception of security in academia is harmful, and it is not even clear if such a system is the most effective way to hedge against uncertainty. 

There have historically been many concerns if tenure leads to complacency or forces universities to carry professors who have become ineffective. Job security itself is clearly not enough to encourage disruptive science, which, according to Thomas Kuhn, is necessary for scientific revolutions and paradigm shifts. Negative experiences in training and the extent assistant professors must go to secure their political status through tenure (often having nothing to do with their science) have caused top talent to either leave academia or become inefficient, which Sam Rodrigues poses as a challenge to the progress of biology compared with artificial intelligence and machine learning. 

I believe the core reason that the current system of tenure is inadequate is not that it is a broken concept, but that the standards to obtain it are not congruent with the values that can predict long-term scholarly productivity and effective mentorship. I have three recommendations to realign tenure with these goals:

  • First, we must value collaborations more highly in the determination of tenure, and evaluating early careers in general. Small teams are favored to enable the accumulation of prestige by name recognition. However, with a higher emphasis on an assistant professor’s ability to work with other groups and their students, not only will productivity be more efficient, but there will be more invested parties to resolve potential conflicts and it will test a professor’s mentorship in a complex setting.
  • Second, given how competitive tenure-track positions already are, it could be viable to switch the current probationary period pretenure to a conditional period where tenure is granted from the outset but can be revoked more easily in the first several years. The talent level and other pressures are high enough that this can reasonably be enacted without productivity loss or the propagation of free riders.
  • Third, the professional performance and satisfaction of mentees should be taken into consideration in evaluations of professors via anonymous and protected surveys. This will not only incentivize professors to cultivate healthy relationships with their mentees but also be a measure of their ability to be a mentor for measurably positive professional outcomes.

These three normative recommendations are a starting point that does not require revolutionary action or radical reconstruction. They alleviate the pressure that comes with the search for tenure, both by spreading the load through collaboration and by inverting the mental frame from deficiency to abundance through conditional periods. They select people who value and excel in teamwork and collaboration, while conserving (and potentially increasing) productivity, for both the lab and the future careers of its trainees. 

The scientific enterprise may be inherently uncertain, but important cultural and policy changes to tenure can ensure that excellence, fairness, and freedom coexist in our evolving search for truth and progress.