Guest Column
In Florida, what does ‘tenure’ actually mean? Amid the fictions, here are the facts. | Column
Laws must be based on more than anecdotes and images, so let’s dispel some myths.
University of Florida's Century Tower in Gainesville.
University of Florida's Century Tower in Gainesville. [ LAUREN WITTE | Special to the Times ]
Published March 16

Professors and politicians are squaring off over tenure. Bills have cropped up nationwide in recent years seeking to impose greater state oversight of tenured professors or even eliminate tenure. The Associated Press recently reported that tenure “faced review from lawmakers or state oversight boards in at least half a dozen states,” and bills now pend in Florida, Iowa and North Dakota. Legislation is expected shortly in Texas, where Lt. Gov. Daniel Patrick called for a measure in February to eliminate tenure at general academic institutions.

Clay Calvert
Clay Calvert [ Provided ]

Lawmakers should keep in mind realities about tenure when drafting such legislation — namely what tenure is, how faculty obtain it and why it exists.

As an emeritus professor who worked for more than 26 years in tenure-line positions –– at Pennsylvania State University and the University of Florida –– I’ll address those topics here. But first, why all the scrutiny? It probably derives from stereotypes that tenure is easy to obtain and that, once granted, provides an irrevocable job requiring little work and affording immunity from review.

A few tenured professors undoubtedly coast along, doing little work, but deadwood employees exist in every profession. Laws must be based on more than anecdotes and images, given other pressing issues –– crime, immigration and health care –– that lawmakers might address.

Let’s dispel some myths. The first is that all professors are tenured. In fact, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) puts the number of tenured faculty at “about 21%.” This year, Inside Higher Ed surveyed 401 provosts (the chief academic administrators at most universities), and more than 75% said “their institution relies significantly on non-tenure-track faculty for instruction, and most do not expect this level of reliance to change in the future.” Twenty-seven percent anticipated increasing reliance on non-tenure-track faculty.

The second myth is that getting tenure is easy. That is incorrect. First, a person seeking a tenure-track job –– one that might lead to tenure –– normally must have earned a terminal degree (the highest degree granted) in their field, as a UF regulation specifies. That typically means the person must earn a doctorate (a four- or five-year program), which normally follows after a master’s degree (usually a two-year curriculum). In brief, it generally takes at least six years after earning a four-year bachelor’s degree (or a decade of education following high school graduation) to even position oneself for a job that might lead to tenure.

If a newly minted Ph.D. lands a tenure-track position, that individual usually has a six- or seven-year window to obtain tenure. UF’s guidelines specify that, in “most cases,” this requires earning “distinction” in two key areas — teaching and research.

When coming up for tenure (typically after six years), a multi-level review process occurs at UF. It generally includes review of a candidate’s teaching, research and service record by: (1) a department-level committee; (2) a department chair; (3) a college-level committee; (4) a college dean; and (5) a university-level committee. Each reviewer makes a recommendation about granting or denying tenure. After those five steps, the matter goes to the provost, who then makes a recommendation to UF’s Board of Trustees.

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Along the way, these individuals and committees examine a candidate’s teaching evaluations (by students and colleagues), research record (including about a half-dozen external reviews of that record conducted by tenured faculty at other institutions who specialize in the candidate’s field) and service performance. Candidates at UF who earn tenure are evaluated annually thereafter, per the collective bargaining agreement between UF’s Board of Trustees and the United Faculty of Florida.

The third myth is that tenure is irrevocable. It is not. At UF, the collective bargaining agreement permits termination of tenured faculty, after investigation and due process, for “just cause,” including “misconduct or incompetency,” and for “job abandonment” (going “absent without leave for 15 or more consecutive days”).

What constitutes misconduct or incompetence? A UF regulation provides a non-exhaustive list of 16 examples, including: failing to discharge assigned duties (that is, not teaching assigned classes or performing research and service obligations), engaging in sexual harassment or threatening language or conduct, violating the ethics of the academic profession, falsifying records, misusing state property and insubordination (in short, the same things that might get most public employees fired).

Stepping back, one might ask why tenure even exists. A UF regulation explains that tenure “assures the faculty member immunity from reprisals or threats due to an intellectual position or belief which may be unpopular.” In short, as the AAUP describes it, tenure protects “academic freedom” against silencing pressures from “corporations, religious groups, special interest groups, or the government.” Additionally, the collective bargaining agreement at UF states that “tenure is one of the principal means by which the quality of the University is developed and maintained” because it is based on a record of “distinction in teaching, research/scholarship/creative activity, and/or service to the University and the profession.”

Furthermore, tenured faculty have a vested interest in their institution’s success. Thus, when they serve on committees reviewing junior faculty seeking tenure, and when they sit on search committees for hiring new faculty, they have a strong incentive to take those duties seriously. They may work with them for many years and their quality will affect a university’s reputation.

More broadly, tenure “serves society and the common good,” the AAUP explains, by safeguarding debate about “controversial issues.” It notes that “the common good is not served when business, political, or other entities can threaten the livelihood of researchers and instructors, and thereby suppress the results of their work or modify their judgments.”

A concrete example of this can be found in an October 2022 forum at UF, when it was asserted that “tenure among elite physicists” safeguarded “competing views” between steady state and Big Bang theorists during the 1990s when the Hubble Telescope began returning data that “enable(d) us as a civilization to learn more” about the universe.

Understanding these important facts about tenure is vital for an informed debate about its future.

Clay Calvert is professor emeritus at the University of Florida. He held a joint appointment as a professor of law at the Fredric G. Levin College of Law and a Brechner Eminent Scholar in Mass Communication in the College of Journalism and Communications. Specializing in First Amendment and media law, Calvert has published more than 150 law journal articles on topics affecting free expression, and he is lead author of Mass Media Law.