A record 21 million young Americans have just gone off to college. In recent years, college education has become a rite of passage, an initiation into what psychologist Jeffrey Jensen Arnett (2000) calls “emerging adulthood.” Some see it primarily as job preparation. Others see it as a way for young people to develop a sense of history, learning to think deeply and critically to solve complex problems. For Thomas Jefferson, who founded the University of Virginia, an educated electorate was essential to our democracy (1984/1787).

Yet even as more parents and political leaders talk about the importance of college education, its very definition  is changing. College was once a four-year educational experience when young people expanded their minds with required courses in history, science, foreign languages, literature, and the arts, then specialized in a major,   supported by faculty advisors and mentors. College students often gathered over coffee to discuss life’s deepest questions and the challenges of their times. Now college administrators are adopting new technologies, on-line class modules instead of professors and classrooms, although research suggests that this on-line experience may not provide a quality education (Samuels, 2013). And in the past two decades, the “business model of higher education” has replaced most college professors with temporary contract workers who may not be around from one term to the next, undermining the long tradition of faculty advising and mentoring. While in the 1970s most college faculty held permanent tenure track positions, now more than 70% are on contingent contracts (Ginsberg, 2011, p. 161). Contingent workers, paid by the course, are much cheaper than tenure track faculty and can be terminated at any time. Paradoxically, as the cost of higher education has skyrocketed, college students are paying more for less. In the past 35 years, American colleges have reduced spending on instruction while dramatically increasing the number of administrators—provosts, vice provosts, associate vice provosts, associate provosts, deans, associate deans, assistant deans, and their staffs—most of whom have very little to do with the academic life of  college students (Curtis & Thornton, 2014).

This change in faculty/administrator demographics has gone unnoticed by most parents of today’s college students. And many fail to understand the difference between tenured and contingent faculty, believing rumors that incompetent tenured faculty members cannot be fired. But this is untrue. Tenured faculty are “dismissed for cause” for incompetence, neglect of duties, or professional misconduct. The purpose of tenure is to support academic freedom, essential to higher education. According to the American Association of University Professors, “Academic freedom is essential . . . to both teaching and research. Freedom in research is fundamental to the advancement of truth. Academic freedom in its teaching aspect is fundamental for the protection of the rights of the teacher in teaching and of the student to freedom in learning” (2006, p. 3).

Before the advent of tenure, in the early 20th century, professors could be fired if their research was unpopular with university donors, even when their teaching and scholarship were exemplary. In 1900, when noted Stanford economist Edward Ross’s research on reforming railroad monopolies upset Mrs. Leland Stanford, the founder’s widow, he was summarily dismissed. Many Stanford faculty members resigned in protest. The remaining faculty were asked to sign a loyalty oath agreeing with Mrs. Stanford or be fired as well. Faculty at universities around the country began to organize, founding the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) in 1915, with distinguished philosopher and psychologist John Dewey as the first president (Ginsberg, 2011). Becoming the voice of the profession, the AAUP established national standards for tenure and academic freedom.

Without tenure, academic freedom is at risk. In 2000, Dr. David Healy, a noted psychiatrist, had his faculty job offer revoked by the University of Toronto. His research revealed the inconvenient fact that Eli Lilly’s drug, Prozac was associated with an increased rise in patient suicide: important information for health care professionals and the general public, but Lilly was a major university donor (Ginsberg, 2011, p. 159). With tenure and academic freedom, vital research findings cannot be suppressed. College faculty can pass on the latest knowledge to their students and the public at large to promote the advancement of learning and the common good.

So what is the point of a college education and the purpose of a university?

The ongoing advancement of knowledge for our students and our future as a free society.


American Association of University Professors. (2006). 1940 statement of principles on academic freedom and tenure with 1970 interpretive comments. In  AAUP policy documents & reports (10th ed., pp. 3-11. Washington, D.C: Author.

Arnett, J. J. (2000). Emerging adulthood: A theory of development from the late teens through the twenties. American Psychologist, 55, 469-480.

Curtis, J.W. & Thornton, S. (2014, March-April). Losing focus: The annual report on the economic status of the profession, 2013-14. Academe, 100, 4-17.

Ginsberg, B. (2011). The fall of the faculty. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Jefferson, T. (1984). Notes on the state of Virginia. In Jefferson: Writings. M.D. Peterson (Ed.). New York, NY: Library of America. Originally published 1787.

Samuels. R. (2013, January 24). Being present. Inside Higher Education. https://www.insidehighered.com/views/2013/01/24/essay-flaws-distance-edu...


Diane Dreher is a best-selling author, personal coach, and professor at Santa Clara University. Her latest book is Your Personal Renaissance: 12 Steps to Finding Your Life’s True Calling.


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