At some point every board member will hear arguments for and against tenure, the policy that has been called “the most sacred cow munching on the ivy that covers the towers of academia.”

That description is from Matt Forster’s article in the Spring 2012 issue of In Trust: “Tenure no more: How one school eliminated faculty tenure.” 

The article describes the experience of Winebrenner Theological Seminary in Findlay, Ohio, whose board eliminated faculty tenure in 1998. The impetus for this change was not financial. In fact, Forster notes that “no dramatic internal or external pressures forced them to act.” Rather, a business person on the school’s board encouraged then-president David Draper to rethink the school’s tenure policy in terms of its long-term ramifications. They reasoned that tenure was a “million-dollar decision” -- indeed, the estimate of the cost of hiring and keeping a 30-year-old until retirement has since been revised up from $1 million to something closer to $2.5 million. In the rapidly changing theological landscape, how could an administrator know if someone who seems right for the school today will be what is needed in 20 or 30 years?

In addition, “Tenure was not a good model, from an educational standpoint, for the people we were preparing for ministry,” Draper says. “We do not send any people into tenured pastorates.” 

Naturally, the decision to eliminate tenure came with a cost. When the board voted to end tenure, some of the seven full-time faculty members quit. The board’s decision had not been unanimous, and this could have caused rifts among board members. However, once the vote had been taken, board members stood by the decision and worked together to replace tenure with a system of rolling faculty contracts.

In retrospect, the school believes that this decision was beneficial for its educational mission as well as its financial stability. The change made it possible to offer classes year-round, with one-week intensives, evening classes, and weekend classes – all built around the schedules of students who are already active in ministry, and of faculty who know that teaching at Winebrenner requires a good deal of flexibility. Students and faculty attracted to this model of education enable the school to be more nimble in changing to reflect needs and trends.

Is tenure right or wrong for your school? There is no simple answer that fits every school and every situation. For a deeper look, see The Questions of Tenure, edited by Richard Chait (Harvard University Press, 2005), which presents data from colleges and universities -- both those with tenure and those without -- to paint a comprehensive picture of how the issue plays out at different institutions.