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Is the Tenure System Good for Education?

Posted by Lori Reese on Mar 8, 2018 5:30:00 AM
Topics: faculty relations

The academic world is rife with speculation that the time-honored tenure system may be reaching its end. Many scholars and educators regard this as a tragic result of hiring trends that put former CEOs and corporate execs at the helm of major universities. To outsiders, the tenure system — which guarantees lifelong employment — can seem charmingly antiquated at best. At worst, it interferes with an institution’s ability to maintain solvency, serve students and recruit young, ambitious scholars. Why not discard tenure altogether? The question goes right to the heart of your school’s beliefs about the purpose institutions of higher education serve.

Is the Tenure System Good for Education?

There’s a stereotype of a tenured professor. He (and, yes, it’s usually a he) spends the bulk of his time lounging in a well-appointed office, resting on the laurels he acquired in the days before he won guaranteed, lifelong employment. Because he has no fear of joblessness, he is a consummate slacker, a drain on the institution. He hasn’t changed his classroom approach in decades, because he memorized his lectures years ago and would rather replay the same old schtick than assess his ability to reach students. Who cares if kids doze off in class or don’t bother to show up? That’s on them. Meanwhile, he hasn’t published in years, and he’s lost touch with contemporary scholarship. When he serves as an advisor to PhD students, he does so in name only. He passes the real work along to a younger woman in his department, someone without tenure who can’t risk making a complaint.

The stereotype is not without reality. If you talk to students, you might even hear them gripe about teachers that “don’t care, because they’re tenured.” And they have a point: What is the value of education if the teachers don’t make the effort to reach students?

The academic world is fiercely competitive. Freshly-minted PhDs fight over the ever-shrinking number of positions that offer financial stability. Many end up working as adjuncts, annually enduring the arduous and often humiliating task of applying for jobs on the academic circuit. This wasn’t the case in the 1960s, when colleges and universities nationwide saw record growth in enrollment and funding. Back then, you didn’t need stupendous credentials to land a tenure-track position.

For this reason, it’s not uncommon for a job candidate with stellar credentials — a degree from a top-ranked program and multiple publications — to find herself rejected by a committee of far less accomplished tenured professors.

If tenure were abolished, it seems you wouldn’t have these problems: You could replace mediocre talent with faculty that build your school’s brand. You could ensure that teachers would keep teaching and scholars would keep publishing. You would also experience more harmony between educators and administrators, because faculty would be subject to the same rules that govern a free-market economy. They wouldn’t dare defy the people responsible for writing their paychecks and securing their insurance. And they would take care to make school a pleasant place for students, because they would know the tuition dollars that keep them employed depend on retention.

That’s the catch. Scholars and educators believe solid work depends on freedom from market whims. Truth upsets people. No one who smoked in the 1960s wanted to know cigarettes cause cancer. If researchers had been concerned about how well their discoveries would play to the market, they would have kept their knowledge to themselves. They probably wouldn’t have made the discoveries at all.

Sometimes a student deserves a low grade. Sometimes he won’t learn without receiving the unwanted message that he needs to make more effort to succeed. One of my former colleagues had a student who raised his hand on the first day of class and said, “I actually don’t have to come to class. My tuition pays your salary. That means you work for me.” A student like that would not benefit from an easy A. He would enter the workforce with an entirely undeserved sense of entitlement — something only the independently wealthy can afford to do.

Good scholarship and teaching depend on freedom. Tenure doesn’t just guarantee employment, it provides a refuge from forces that could undermine a scholar’s ability to conduct clear-headed research and engage in honest debate. It also gives teachers the freedom to fail any student, even if she hails from a family that has given millions to the institution.

The real question: Are those values meaningful to your institution, and, if so, can you think of a system other than tenure that would protect them? It’s not impossible, but no one’s found one yet. That means colleges and universities might have to accept the system’s imperfections for now, the occasional slacker professor and all.

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About Lori Reese

Lori Reese is a writer and an educator with 20 years of experience in higher education teaching.

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