Most colleges permit faculty to ‘stop the clock’ on tenure, survey finds

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Dive Brief:

  • More than 80% of colleges allow faculty to extend a yearslong probationary period before they’re awarded tenure, a practice known as stopping the clock, a new American Association of University Professors survey found. 
  • This is a significantly higher share than two decades ago, the AAUP said. Only 17% of colleges gave the option to stop the clock 20-plus years ago, according to a similar survey released in 2000. 
  • The AAUP polled more than 270 chief academic officers and found more than 92% of institutions permit faculty to stop the clock regardless of their gender. Typically, professors stop the clock and delay tenure reviews so that they can have children or care for family members. Policies not specific to gender recognize “that partners can be coequal caretakers of newborn or newly adopted children,” the faculty organization said.

Dive Insight:

A fixture of AAUP tenets adopted in 1940 is a probationary period, a set number of years before colleges consider granting a faculty member tenure. 

This length of time varies by institution. The AAUP’s new survey found the average period is 5.7 years, closely matching the roughly six years the 1940 principles recommend. 

However, most colleges allow faculty to “stop the clock” during this period, effectively extending the probation before they’re evaluated for tenure. Professors don’t necessarily have to take leaves of absence during this time.

Faculty can stop the clock for any number of reasons — frequently childbirth or adoption, but also family care. Many respondents in the AAUP survey indicated their colleges give opportunities to negotiate stopping the clock for unspecified reasons.

A slightly higher share of public institutions, nearly 85%, allow postponement of tenure reviews than private colleges, at almost 81%, according to the survey.

All of the respondents at large colleges, defined as enrolling more than 5,000 students, reported their institutions allowed for stopping the clock. That compares to about 82% of medium-sized institutions and nearly 75% of small colleges. Medium-sized institutions were defined as enrolling between 2,000 students and 5,000 students and small ones as enrolling fewer than 2,000 students. 

The survey also explored the share of institutions with tenure quotas, which set the percentage of faculty that can be tenured at any given time. Less than 10% of institutions had these quotas, which are an idea dating back to 1970s-era attempts to ensure colleges had financial flexibility. 

It also asked about post-tenure reviews, which allow for faculty to be reevaluated after they’re awarded tenure.

The AAUP generally opposes post-tenure reviews, arguing the practice defeats tenure’s purpose of job security that ensures professors won’t be fired for researching and espousing unpopular views. A footnote in the survey references new tenure policies at the University System of Georgia, which the AAUP censured in March. The Georgia system’s new rules give institutions license to fire poor-performing tenured professors without an adjudicative hearing before a faculty panel.

Nearly 60% of institutions have post-tenure reviews, according to the AAUP survey. They are more common at public colleges — 68% of which have post-tenure reviews — than at private institutions, about half of which reported having these evaluations.

The AAUP survey also delved into what it characterized as a threat to tenure — the replacement of tenure tracks with contingent appointments. Contingent faculty include those who work full time but are not on the tenure track, as well as part-time and graduate student employees.

The faculty group found that more than half of institutions at some point in the last five years had replaced a tenure-line position with a contingent one. 

As of 2015, contingent faculty comprised 70% of the academic labor force, according to separate AAUP findings. That’s up from 55% in 1975.

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