Faculty Privilege: Tenure and Faculty Authority in American Higher Education in the 20th Century


Faculty at American colleges and universities possess an exceptional, arguably unique, combination of job security and decision authority. In addition to the protections of academic tenure, “regular” faculty at most higher education institutions exercise significant authority over important organizational policies and decisions, including product design (curriculum) and personnel matters (appointments, promotions, and dismissals). Why some faculty — and only some faculty — should enjoy rights, privileges, and protections available to virtually no other class of employees has never been adequately explained, however. This paper identifies a source of “hold-up” peculiar to academic employment associated with the joint research and non-research responsibilities of “regular” faculty and the way the higher education market values the “academic capital” of scholars. Combining surveys of governance practices with institution-level data on faculty publication rates over the periods 1900-1940 and 1975-2014, the paper presents evidence of an association between research and faculty authority over personnel decisions consistent with (though not dispositive of) the commitment function of faculty rights and privileges posited here.