A nationwide study of law professors' perceptions about the tenure process co-facilitated by a University of Arizona faculty member has yielded some interesting and concerning results.
Overwhelmingly, law professors surveyed said they felt the tenure process was fair, but interesting and sometimes troubling differences emerged when gender, race and the era in which faculty members completed the tenure process were considered.
"There have been several studies on the diversity of law faculty pre-tenure but very few of the same questions have been investigated post-tenure," said Katherine Barnes, an associate professor at the UA's James E. Rogers College of Law.
Barnes collaborated on the project with Elizabeth Mertz, an American Bar Foundation senior research faculty member who also is serving as a visiting research scholar at Princeton University.
Their study's findings are presented in "Is It Fair?: Law Professors' Perceptions of Tenure," an article that has been accepted for publication by the Journal of Legal Education.
The study is part of a broader project on the lives of tenured law school professors, sponsored by American Bar Foundation, with additional support from the Law School Admission Council.
Tenure, a policy that became common in the mid 20th century in the U.S., exists to provide faculty members with autonomy and academic freedom.
"Before their tenure track job, law professors have worked in legal practice, often had clerkships with judges and have had a fellowship of some sort," said Barnes, who also directs the college's Program on Law and Society.
"All of those things mean they have been vetted a bit more than junior faculty in some other disciplines," she added. "So most law schools consider it a failure of mentoring and the hiring process if faculty do not achieve tenure."
In the last 30 to 40 years, law schools have seen a dramatic shift toward increased emphasis on scholarship, which has been somewhat contentious, said Barnes, who also directs the college's Program on Law and Society.
About the same time, law schools began to see pointed demographic changes. Prior to the 1970s, law school faculty members were largely homogeneous based on race and gender, Barnes and Mertz noted in their co-authored article.
"There has been some suggestion that minority faculty were leaving academic disproportionately pre-tenure, and we wanted to see what was happening post-tenure," Barnes said.
For their study, Barnes and Mertz surveyed 1,200 tenured law faculty members at institutions across the U.S. about their experience with the tenure process, their law school career and their job satisfaction. They also performed in-depth follow-up interviews with 95 law faculty. All told, faculty members received tenure between 1956 and 2005.
They also considered committee memberships, workloads and service-oriented commitments for different cohorts of law faculty.
Among their key findings:
- About 70 percent of those surveyed believed the process to be fair.
- Among women, 63 percent found the process fair, though female professors of color had the most negative perceptions, with 46 percent believing it was unfair.
- Men were about two times as likely than women to strongly agree that the tenure process was fair.
- White female professors and male professors of color were more likely to agree that the tenure process was fair at 64 percent and 71 percent respective.
- White faculty were nearly two times as likely as faculty of color to either agree or strongly agree that the process was easy.
- White men were the most satisfied with tenure with fewer than one-third believing the process was difficult.
- Overall, about 40 percent said the tenure process was not easy, with 57 percent of females believing it was not easy compared with 34 percent of men.
- Nearly one-third of male faculty of color said the tenure process was rewarding, compared with 27 percent for white men. For women, it was 20 percent.
"Thus, while the majority of each demographic group perceived the tenure process to be fair, there are significant differences in degree and amount of negative feeling across lines of gender and minority status, with female professors of color being most negative about the fairness of the tenure process," the co-authors wrote in their article.
Barnes and Mertz noted that studying faculty perceptions is a way of "illuminating much about variation as well as continuities among law professors and law schools."
Barnes, who has worked on issues including diversity, affirmative action policies in law school admissions, said the study's findings are important for several reasons.
A nationwide conversation has been under way among board members, presidents and faculty members about whether the tenure system should continue, or if it is outdated.
In law, the American Bar Association is considering changing their requirement for accreditation regarding the percentage of tenure track faculty members in law schools.
And, nationwide, the percentage of tenure track faculty members has fallen significantly.
Also, the National Center for Education Statistics reported in 1993 that about half of all full-time faculty members had tenure. In a November 2010 report, the center found that of all full-time faculty members, 21 percent had tenure and 9 percent were on the tenure track.
While it is promising that Barnes and Mertz's study found that recent cohorts of female law faculty members are more positive abut the tenure process, findings suggesting that African-American, Asian-American, Hispanic and Native American law faculty have not is troubling, Barnes said.
"What stood out most for us is that, overall in terms of diversity, women and men have actually become more and more similar in how their perceive the tenure process," she said.
"But, with minority faculty, that's not the case," Barnes also said. "There is still a significant gap in whether the process is fair, easy and rewarding."
A follow-up article is forthcoming, with Barnes and Mertz currently analyzing data on faculty's perceptions about the value of tenure.
Despite the great variation, "it was heartening to see that the majority of people – at more than 70 percent – thought the tenure process was fair," Barnes also said.
She and Mertz also suggested that part of the slow rate of integration is partially because a disproportionate number of faculty of color leave before receiving tenure.
"Law schools are the labs that create the lawyers in the country, so I think the fact that we are still struggling with diversity issues is troubling for the profession as a whole," Barnes said.
"I think these findings suggest that there are improvements in law schools," she added, "but we still have a ways to go and that it might take some time."