I am still a strong supporter of tenure and I will continue to defend the importance of tenure as an important foundation of our higher education system. But I also feel strongly that the tenure system needs to change—not in any fundamental way but rather to be closer to what tenure used to mean and represent.
Without dating myself, I can state that when I was tenured, there was a mandatory retirement age, which at the time was 65. It changed shortly thereafter, first to 67, then to 70 and ultimately there was no longer any mandatory retirement of faculty. I was very pleased with that change. Especially in higher education, using chronological age as a determinant of whether a person can continue to hold a position makes no sense whatsoever.
My tenure was awarded when I was 32 years old and with the rules in effect at the time, I would have been a tenured faculty member for 33 years. Without in anyway supporting an age determined leaving time, can we adjust the system to build in more turnover? I believe we can. I would like to propose for consideration, term tenure. Specifically, when a person is awarded tenure, that tenure be in place for 35 years and of course, that would be regardless of the age of the person being awarded tenure. For most of our tenure track full-time population, the 35 year term tenure would meet all their needs and their timetable. There will, of course, be individuals who would like to remain longer than the 35 years and I believe they should also have that opportunity. I therefore propose that a person who has served with tenure for 35 years, be eligible for reappointment, one year at a time. In that way, the person has the right to apply to stay longer and the department has the ability to agree or not agree.
In addition to term tenure, I also think we need to embrace a robust system of post tenure review. Right now that level of review does exist most often when a person stands for promotion. But what happens when there are no more promotions possible or a person chooses not to stand. In those situations the level of review is often minimal. I have confidence that my colleagues will do well in a post tenure review but I think the review should nevertheless be mandatory and will provide valuable information.
I believe our basic system of higher education still works well but changes are overdue and, in my opinion, term tenure plus a substantive review process would make a substantial positive difference.