Excuse me; the whole tenure system is ridiculous. A guaranteed job for life only encourages the faculty to become complacent. If we really want science to advance, people should have chips implanted in their skulls that explode when they say something stupid.”

Sheldon Cooper, The Big Bang Theory

Between the recent ACUMEN (academic careers understood through measurement and norms) workshop and my searches for a post-doc, it seemed like an excellent time to look at one of the most important land marks in an academic’s career: the tenure. Once you have tenure, you cannot be dismissed without a cause, and it better be a good one. Harvard has never dismissed a tenured professor, and that includes John W. Webster.

Tenure has been created for two purposes; one of them is to ensure academic freedom. Tenure allows a professor to criticize power structures, even those which pay their salary. Professor Neve Gordon called for an academic boycott on Israel, but still holds his position at a government-funded Israeli university. Tenure lets a professor have unpopular opinions without being punished.

An interesting case is the one of Ward Churchill, formerly a tenured professor of ethnic studies at the University of Colorado. After 9/11 he wrote an essay using the term “little Eichmanns” regarding the World Trade Center victims. Naturally, his words caused a major public uproar, and many called for his dismissal. At first, University of Colorado ruled that his writing was legally protected. However, Churchill was eventually fired in 2007 for the scholarly misconducts of plagiarism and misrepresenting his colleagues’ work. Churchill denied the university’s allegations and claimed the investigation has been retribution for his political views. He sued the University of Colorado several times in different courts, until April 1st, 2013 when the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear his appeal.

The second purpose tenure fulfills is job security. That can cause problems; some claim tenure can make faculty members into “deadwoods,” who rarely publish, win grants, or put in any kinds of effort. I’ve never seen one of those – all the tenured professors I’ve met seemed even more driven, if possible, than their students – but they exist, and they are hard to fire. Another tenure problem is that tenure committees emphasize research over teaching ability in the pre-tenure period, creating faculty members who are way more research-oriented than student-oriented.

Getting tenure has never been easy. A 1958 murder-mystery novel by Isaac Asimov deals with the death of a Chemistry PhD student, but only as an excuse to go deep into the world of academic intrigue, where the student’s advisor is a 42-year-old assistant professor whose hope for tenures diminishes by the year. However, the general chances for tenure back then were better than they are now. The percentage of part-time faculty positions has increased by 300% between 1975 and 2011, while full-time tenure and tenure-track positions only increased by 26%. Tenure and tenure-track faculty made about 55% of the faculty in 1970, but 41% in 2003. According to Clawson (2009) tenured faculty members might have contributed to this rise of part-time faculty by delegating to them the jobs they found least appealing.

Source: US Department of Education, IPEDS Fall Staff Survey (in the Annual Report on the Economic Status of the Profession, 2012-13 of the American Association of University Professors).

In the U.S, between the years 1993-2008, the percentage of those who have earned a doctorate in science, engineering, and health during the previous three years and now have tenure-track or tenured positions has been between 16% and 19%. As the National Science Board report puts it:

“At the doctorate level, the decline in the availability of tenure track positions, which used to be an incentive for students who decided to pursue a doctorate, may result in many doctoral recipients looking for careers outside academia.”

Metrics and tenure

A Nature poll from 2010 showed that almost 70% of the responding researchers thought metrics (e.g. h-index, impact factor of journals) have an effect on tenure decisions. On the other hand, when Nature interviewed provosts, department heads and so forth, they claimed metrics didn’t play such a big role in hiring, promotion and tenure. What mattered most, according to the interviewees, were letters of recommendations from outside experts in the field. However, they did admit that sometimes reviewers of applications use metrics. Richard Zare, former department chair at Stanford University’s Chemistry Department wrote that the department collects 10-15 recommendation letters from outside experts prior to the tenure decision. As for bibliometricians, I can say we are careful not to define metric criteria (“h-index of X gets you tenure in field Y”), since we acknowledge there’s more to a person than her h-index. Unfortunately, we can’t prevent other people from seeing metrics as the beginning and end of things.

A few words of advice: if and when you reach the promised land of tenure, try not to embarrass your institute too much. Consider this charming disclaimer by Lehigh University regarding Associate Professor Michael Behe:

While we respect Prof. Behe's right to express his views, they are his alone and are in no way endorsed by the department. It is our collective position that intelligent design has no basis in science, has not been tested experimentally and should not be regarded as scientific.

Can you read the wistful “If only he didn’t have tenure” between the lines?


Abbott, A., Cyranoski, D., Jones, N., Maher, B., Schiermeier, Q., & Van Noorden, R. (2010). Metrics: Do metrics matter? Nature, 465 (7300), 860-862 DOI: 10.1038/465860a

Clawson, D. (2009). Tenure and the Future of the University Science, 324 (5931), 1147-1148 DOI: 10.1126/science.1172995

Fishman, J. (2005). Tenure: Endangered or Evolutionary Species. Akron L. Rev., 38, 771.

Fishman, J. (2009). Tenure and Its Discontents: The Worst Form of Employment Relationship Save All of the Others.

National Science Board. (2012). Science and Engineering Indicators. Washington DC: National Science Foundation; available at http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/seind12/.

Tierney, W. G., & Lechuga, V. M. (2010). The social significance of academic freedom. Cultural Studies↔ Critical Methodologies, 10(2), 118-133.

Zare, R. N. (2012). Editorial: Assessing Academic Researchers. Angewandte Chemie International Edition, 51(30), 7338-7339.