That's one reason the number of full-time tenured professors has dropped so much in the past few decades: Women have joined the academic work force, but some have opted to take a part-time role. It's also why Princeton President Shirley Tilghman once called the tenure system "no friend to women" and suggested abolishing it entirely, although her views have softened since.
Defenders say that tenure helps attract the best and brightest. Universities can't match the salary offered by a pharmaceutical company or an investment bank, the thinking goes, but they can offer job security. Yet the appeal of job security may be overrated. Tenure may be an added incentive, but it's almost never a deal maker. "All sorts of brilliant people want to be members of academe," says Trower. "I don't think it's because of tenure. It's because of the work." The life of the mind is its own reward.
So what's the alternative model? Renewable contracts. Some suggest seven years. Others say 10. The goal would be to give professors enough security to make them comfortable but not enough to breed complacency and lock the university into a deal that no longer makes sense.
Don't abolish tenure altogether, says Trower. Just rework it. Create a tenure track that explicitly rewards teaching. Give interdisciplinary centers the authority to produce tenured professors. Allow for breaks in the tenure track if a professor needs to take time off. Offer the option of part-time tenure, a lower-cost alternative for professors who want to hold other jobs. In other words, make tenure flexible rather than a monolithic, in-or-out club.
Some universities have already made the leap. Evergreen State College in Washington implemented renewable contracts back in 1971. Florida Gulf Coast University scrapped tenure when it was established in 1991. Boston University now offers salary premiums to professors who decide not to take tenure. Market forces will drive other universities to follow suit, whether they want to or not. But it wouldn't hurt to get a head start.
Correction, Aug. 12, 2010: This article incorrectly suggested that associate professors do not have tenure. In most cases, they do. (Return to the corrected sentence.)