In a 1994 publication, the U.S. Department of Education reports nearly 65% of all instructional faculty are tenured. This percentage is slightly higher when considering only public institutions, at 67%, and somewhat lower for private institutions, at 57% (DOE).
At one institution studied, Virginia Commonwealth University, just more than half of all professors are tenured (VCU). Professors of the Arts most often hold tenure; 83% of members of that group do. Seventy-five percent of business professors are tenured, followed by 68% of the sciences. Engineering professors are the least tenured, with only 40%.
One of the primary sources of tenure controversy is the statistical discrepancy between the number of female and male professors holding tenured positions. According to the 1994 Education Department publication, 50% of all female professors are tenured, while 71% of male professors are. To many people, this inequity suggests discriminatory policies.
To make matters worse, the numbers do not seem to be improving. The statistics show the percentages remaining almost constant since 1980, at around 50% of all female and 70% of all male professors holding tenure.
Consider a specific case: Smith College, a prestigious women's institution in Massachusetts, has not had one tenured woman chemist in the last 38 years (AAAS). The school further angered members of academia when, in February of 1996, it denied tenure to chemist Sharon Palmer even though the entire Chemistry Department supported her bid.
In a joint press release issued in January 1996 by the University of California at Berkeley, the school and assistant professor Marcy Wang announced an out-of-court settlement of $1 million. Ms. Wang filed a lawsuit claiming sex and race discrimination after she was denied tenure twice, in 1986 and 1988 (Mena).
This trend appears at other universities, and the deficit extends to minority groups as well. At VCU, only 27% of their 85 African-American professors are tenured, ranking this group least likely to hold the position. Other minority groups (including Asian-American) rank second with 46% of 86 professors holding tenure. White professors are most likely to be tenured, with 56% of 1,368.
Recently, Harvard sponsored a panel discussion to address the apparent reluctance to grant tenure to women and minorities (Suk). The panel was composed of five women professors, all holding tenure. They found three primary flaws in the current tenure system:
In 1993 Anthony Jiminez, a native of Trinidad, was forced to reapply for a tenure-track position by the administration of Mary Washington College, where he had been working toward tenure since his arrival in 1989. The school cited "years of unsatisfactory performance, dismal student evaluations, a lack of scholarly work, and failure to defend his doctorate dissertation" as the reasons behind their action (WLU). The possibility for later tenure was open, provided these citings were address and corrected.
Mr. Jiminez sued the school, claiming racial discrimination. After two trials, an appeals court ruled in favor of the college, finding no misconduct or bias. Upon considering numerous student complaints of Mr. Jiminez's heavy accent, the court found "such complaints represented a legitimate need to comprehend a teacher's use of language, not expressions of bigotry" (WLU). These complaints were presented as evidence of racism by Jiminez's attorney.
The fact is we must be careful when assessing claims of tenure discrimination. A professor may be denied tenure for many appropriate reasons. Granting tenure represents a major commitment by the university; it is exceedingly difficult to become tenured, and rightfully so.
This is not to say there is no discrimination here: the statistics definitely call
for further investigation.
Potential discrimination is only one factor in the tenure debate, but a significant one. It is ironic that the very system which is intended to provide academic freedom may actually deny it to certain social groups.
Last Modified 12/8/96 -- Jon A. Preston