A look back at the history of tenure, how and why it exists

With tenure season under way at Lawrence, it’s relevant to take some time to explore the conception and history of tenure in higher education.

At first consideration, tenure may seem to be fairly nonsensical. While essentially every other professional is required to consistently demonstrate excellence in order to keep his or her job, academics are given job security after a single evaluation. It is not as simple as it may appear at first glance, for tenure is a system used almost exclusively in academic settings, not so that professors can slack off while keeping their salary, but to ensure that professors are entitled to academic freedom—that is, that professors are allowed to explore research that may be unpopular or controversial without fear of being fired.

The conceptual development of tenure began in the 19th century, when academics and their jobs were at the whims of an institution’s Board of Trustees. Primarily, issues arose when a faculty member explored ideas that opposed the religious affiliation of the institution or personally offended members of a Board of Trustees. In 1900, several prominent universities mandated that donors would no longer be in control of faculty hiring and termination. A few years later, the American Association of University Professors set forth guiding principles for universities on ensuring academic freedom.

Tenure, to clarify, does not guarantee that a professor retains his or her job in any circumstances. Instead, it protects against unfair or unlawful—violation of First Amendment rights—termination. Legally, tenure can be disregarded in certain circumstances, such as when a university is unable to finance a certain number of professorships and is forced to downsize a department.

The Lawrence Faculty Handbook, which covers tenure in Chapter III and is available in PDF form on the Lawrence website, emphasizes Lawrence’s commitment to excellence in teaching as paramount in candidates’ cases for tenure. According to the handbook, “Tenure is awarded to those faculty members whose contributions to the Lawrence community provide clear evidence of past excellence and the potential for continued excellence throughout their academic careers.” With that in mind, we offer congratulations to our new senior faculty and look forward to the amazing things that Lawrence faculty contribute to our community and their fields.


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