The word tenure, when used as a search term on, results in more than ratings for professors—it also showcases pervasive ideas regarding this historical method of ensuring academic freedom. As one student wrote:

The only reason this guy has a job… must be because he has tenure. This is why I don’t believe in tenure… The only reason he teaches, is cause [sic] he can’t find another job, and thanks to tenure, teaching is a [sic] easy permanent paycheck for him.

This student comment encapsulates some of the most negative stereotypes about higher- education faculty: professorships are easier to come by than “real” jobs; professors are not productive; and tenure protects lazy, unfit-for-real-work people from unemployment. Even the more mainstream sources of information point to a rising concern over tenure. The Chronicle of Higher Education’s 2005 article, “Presidents Favor Scrapping Tenure,” describes how the majority of college presidents in the U.S. support repealing tenure and using long-term contracts.

Concerns about tenure are not new. For decades, arguments for and against tenure have been raised both publicly and privately among scholars and administrators. Those in favour argue tenure must be protected in order to preserve academic freedom and quality; opponents argue tenure is an outmoded institution that encourages low productivity among faculty and is responsible for many of higher education’s ills and inefficiencies. Regardless, the persistent accountability climate for education places tenure under a spotlight of suspicion and scrutiny that can affect how legislators, administrators, and faculty will define—and possibly refine—faculty roles and responsibilities and the institution of tenure itself, in the years to come.

One question at the heart of the debate is whether tenured faculty members are less productive then nontenured peers, i.e., academic deadwood. If, in fact, tenured-faculty are systematically less productive than those without tenure, then—by this metric alone—tenure becomes more challenging to defend.

Tenure is important for many reasons, and simply examining the relationship between tenure and faculty productivity as a determinant of tenure’s value is rather shortsighted. But, alas, the common perception is that tenure, though not a cause of low productivity, is strongly associated with it. For this reason alone, the relationship between tenure and productivity is worth exploring.

What do we know about faculty and their productivity? To answer this question, we turn to the 2004 National Survey of Postsecondary Faculty (NSOPF). NSOPF, conducted in the U.S. every few years since the late 1980s, is a nationwide study of the characteristics, workload, and career paths of college faculty and instructional staff at public and private, not-for-profit, twoand four-year colleges. This survey asked many questions that may lead to a better understanding of the complex association between tenure and productivity. For simplicity’s sake, we focus our discussion on faculty within doctoral granting institutions (an admittedly broad group of institutions), but any given institutional type could be examined on its own.

What do faculty members do?

To examine faculty productivity effectively, one must first consider how faculty members report spending their time. The NSOPF data indicate that all full-time faculty at doctoral institutions report spending over 50 hours per week on job-related activities. Figure 1 depicts the time full-time faculty report spending on teaching, research, and service activities. What’s notable is that teaching is where all faculty —regardless of tenure status—spend the majority of time. Also, tenured faculty report devoting the same percentage of time to teaching as do other faculty (i.e., the differences are not statistically significant).

These findings are important because, contrary to popular belief, there is no evidence suggesting that tenured faculty neglect teaching. In fact, relative to their other activities, tenured faculty report spending the largest percentage of time on teaching activities.

Figure 1 also shows that, although tenured faculty spend a slightly smaller percentage of time on research (31 percent) than do tenure-track faculty (35 percent), tenured faculty spend more of time on “other” activities (22 percent versus 16 percent), which will be discussed later in this article. Tenured and tenure-track faculty both devote more time to research then their non-tenure track and no-tenure-system (differences that are statistically significant). These data paint a picture of a highly engaged professoriate that works many hours and devotes a great deal of time to teaching. (Moreover, the survey also showed that tenured faculty do not report working fewer hours than their counterparts outside of academe.)

To judge faculty productivity solely by one aspect of the faculty role (e.g., research) negates the substantial work faculty devote to other meaningful tasks. The data presented here suggest that a multidimensional definition of faculty productivity is necessary to understand how faculty spend their time and is essential, if we are to make useful comparisons of productivity.

All types of full-time faculty work long hours at complex activities that extend beyond researching and teaching, yet often faculty in doctoral institutions are rewarded mostly for their research. It’s no wonder that, even though most faculty fulfill many roles, arguments over their productivity often center only on the potential conflict between the demands of research and teaching.

Faculty productivity within doctoral institutions is typically defined and measured in much of the literature primarily in terms of research. This scholarly productivity, what we call in this article “traditional forms of productivity,” is sometimes even equated with faculty vitality. On the surface, research appears to be an excellent way to compare pre-tenure and post-tenure faculty productivity, but the data in Figure 1 indicate that accounting for productivity, overall, is more complex. In particular, college faculty devote time to many activities that would not fall under the umbrella of traditional productivity—hence, the large devotion of time to “teaching” and to “other activities,” i.e., nontraditional forms of productivity.

Is productivity different between tenure groups?

As illustrated in Figure 2, over a two-year span, tenured faculty produced significantly greater numbers of articles, books, chapters, and book reviews than the non-tenured. They also produced more presentations, exhibits/performances, and patents/software. Tenured faculty thus appear to be more productive in traditional forms of scholarship than the non-tenured. Interestingly, they also appear more productive in this regard than peers at colleges without a tenure system. Much of this difference is likely a function of experience, as tenured faculty in this data set had, on average, 22 years’ experience compared to an average of six, 10, and 13 years’ experience by tenure track, non- tenure track, and no-tenure-system faculty, respectively. Because of their experience, tenured faculty members can develop research agendas that lend themselves to the production of traditional scholarly materials, whereas non-tenured faculty are still developing those agendas or are not expected to. Nonetheless, there is no evidence suggesting that, over a given two-year period, tenured faculty are less productive, in terms of traditional forms of scholarship, than their non-tenured colleagues.

Figure 3 allows us to see that in terms of nontraditional scholarship (i.e., teaching and service activities), tenured faculty continue to display statistically greater or equivalent productivity than the nontenured. There are some differences between tenured, non-tenure-track, and no-tenure-system faculty in that the two latter have slightly higher levels of productivity. But it seems that tenured faculty make up these hours in thesis/ dissertation committee work and administrative work. Such work is the foundation of much of doctoral students’ education, from general examinations to theses. Additionally, nonstudent committee work is the basis for governance and policy making at most institutions. These nontraditional forms of productivity are, arguably, as important to the educational mission of many institutions as more traditional forms of scholarship. What is clear from these data, once again, is that there is little empirical support for the idea that tenured faculty are significantly less productive, even in terms of nontraditional scholarship, than the non-tenured. Overall, whether faculty productivity be defined in terms of traditional or nontraditional forms of scholarship, tenured faculty show higher levels of productivity than their tenure-track and non-tenure-track counterparts. They also show higher levels of traditional productivity and only marginally lower levels of nontraditional productivity than peers working at institutions without tenure.

Regardless of tenure status, nontraditional forms of productivity occupy substantial time and effort, even though, in many of institutions examined by the survey, these forms of productivity have little to do with the awarding of tenure.

One question at the heart of the debate is whether
tenured faculty members are less productive
then non-tenured peers, i.e., academic deadwood.


The data ultimately indicate that faculty work is complex and multidimensional. What work activities faculty engage in is as much a function of institutional mission as it is of personal choices, inclinations, and abilities. Faculty at different types of institutions are mandated to perform different types of tasks and, in most cases, are rewarded only for productivity in those domains. Therefore, simple accountability measures must be re-conceptualized in order to avoid misinterpretations of the faculty role.

And yet the data show that, even when examining faculty within doctoral institutions—where often the expectations for research productivity trump those for any other type of activity—tenured faculty are not less productive (any way we define it) than their tenure-track counterparts or even peers at institutions without the tenure process. Where tenured faculty spend less time on research than the non- tenured, they make up for it by devoting more time to service or administrative activity. The bottom line is this: A given faculty member’s work, like the work of any person in any career, evolves over time in ways that reflect the person’s changing interests. At some points in time, a faculty member will be motivated to spend more time in one area of work (say, research) and—later on—will perhaps be motivated to spend more time in another area (say, teaching). Too many institutions assume that a decrease in a faculty member’s productivity, defined strictly in traditional terms, is somehow a signal of low vitality. In such cases, the faculty member might be viewed as having become “deadwood.” But, an institution should also examine the possibility that a downturn in traditional forms of productivity might be accompanied by an increase in nontraditional forms of productivity. Variations in productivity are natural and need to be examined on an individual basis, by considering the faculty member’s work as a whole, in order to determine if there is cause for concern. Current movements towards the introduction of post-tenure review systems, though typically rooted in unfounded concerns about tenured faculty becoming unproductive over time, can be useful in stressing this last point.

Post-tenure review systems are most useful when they are sensitive to the multidimensionality of the faculty role and ensure that faculty time spent on all activities that contribute to institutional vitality—not just those traditionally regarded or rewarded by the institution—are taken into account. Such systems can allow institutions to acknowledge areas of productivity to which a faculty member’s interests, passions, and skill have become oriented over time and—as such—may allow the institution to work with a faculty member to design their role in a way that continues to be personally fulfilling and acknowledged and rewarded by the institution.

Many post-tenure review systems, rather than adopting a punitive approach, treat faculty careers developmentally. In these sorts of reviews, faculty who show lower levels of productivity (based on a given institution’s accepted definitions of productivity) are assisted in order to increase productivity. Often, during these reviews, it is uncovered that faculty with lower productivity are dealing with the inevitable changes in interest and expertise often associated with being a scholar. Many scholars find that what once made them intellectually alive no longer drives them. What these scholars need is support to begin new research agendas. Other scholars report that their interests in activities traditionally rewarded by the institution have decreased but that their interests in other important activities have increased. In the case of some research universities, scholars such as these have been found particularly well suited for demanding teaching, student mentoring, or program development work. With the provision of proper levels of support, many of these senior scholars can have a profound impact on students’ lives and, once again, feel like a viable part of the institution.

Such non-punitive approaches to reviewing the productivity of faculty resonate with the findings of this study because, rather than force faculty to remain productive in the same ways over the span of an entire career, they recognize that faculty work can be multidimensional and valuable in many forms. The future of tenure policy should borrow from the findings of this study and from present post-tenure review policy, by rewarding all types of faculty work. In the future, if nontraditional post-tenure faculty productivity is encouraged and supported to maintain the vitality of tenured faculty , it may open the door for alternative ways of rewarding (and awarding) tenure. Specifically, pre-tenure faculty work that extends beyond the scope of traditional scholarship may also be recognized as important—and rewarded in kind. A broader conceptualization and recognition of faculty work will have a profound impact on reshaping not only how faculty engage themselves over the span of a career, but also who becomes successful in the faculty role. AM

James Soto Antony, Associate Vice Provost & Associate Dean for Academic Affairs, The Graduate School and Associate Professor, Educational Leadership & Policy at the University of Washington. Ruby A. Hayden is a graduate student at the University of Washington’s College of Education.