Tenure: That single word can garner an avalanche of responses, from whole-hearted support to vehement condemnation. I wonder, though, how many of those people who have an opinion on whether or not teachers at all levels, K-12 and higher education, should be able to earn tenure actually know just exactly what it is. In this post, I’m going to define tenure, break down the pros and cons of the system, and present my position on the subject.
What is Tenure and How Do People Get It?
Discussions about tenure are often characterized by a common misunderstanding about just exactly what tenure is. As McGill University’s Academic Personnel Office explains, tenure is “the right of a staff member to hold his/her appointment and not to be removed therefrom except for just cause.” Most people don’t know about the last part of the definition: tenured faculty can, in fact, get fired. The National Education Association (NEA) writes,
“Tenure is simply a right to due process; it means that a college or university cannot fire a tenured professor without presenting evidence that the professor is incompetent or behaves unprofessionally or that an academic department needs to be closed or the school is in serious financial difficulty. Nationally, about 2 percent of tenured faculty are dismissed in a typical year.”
There are countless stories of tenured professors losing their positions; all you have to is Google the phrase “tenured professor fired” and you’ll see.
Also, tenure is hardly automatic or easy to achieve. As the NEA reminds us,
“If it is difficult — purposely difficult — to fire a tenured professor, it’s also very hard to become one. The probationary period averages three years for community colleges and seven years at four-year colleges. This is a period of employment insecurity almost unique among U.S. professions. People denied tenure at the end of this time lose their jobs; tenure is an “up-or-out” process. During the probationary period, almost all colleges can choose not to renew faculty contracts and terminate faculty without any reason or cause. Throughout this time, senior professors and administrators evaluate the work of new faculty teaching, research and service before deciding whether or not to recommend tenure. The most recent survey of American faculty shows that, in a typical year, about one in five probationary faculty members was denied tenure and lost his or her job.”
Achieving tenure is so notoriously difficult that stories of what it is like to be on the tenure-track often read like a Kafkaesque black comedy, in which tragedy and triumph sit perilously close to each other and keep the faculty member on the edge of sanity.
The Arguments against Tenure
Still, critics of tenure have presented important arguments against the system. Some, like tenured professor Steven D. Levitt, argues that tenure is a form of job security that encourages faculty to become lazy and soft: “What does tenure do? It distorts people’s effort so that they face strong incentives early in their career (and presumably work very hard early on as a consequence) and very weak incentives forever after (and presumably work much less hard on average as a consequence).”
Naomi Schaefer Riley, who might be familiar to readers due to her recent controversial dismissal by The Chronicle of Higher Education for criticizing dissertation topics in Black History without having read the research first, recently argued in The Wall Street Journal that,
“There are a lot of problems with tenure for college professors, but they all lead to the biggest one: It isn’t good for students. Tenure has created and enforced a system that rewards research over teaching. That’s because tenure, by giving professors permanent jobs largely on the basis of the work they have published, has created and enforced a system that rewards research over teaching.”
Her position echoes some of the concerns of those who examine public K-12 teaching, who share a similar tenure system. Critics of K-12 argue that because of tenure, it is nearly impossible to remove bad teachers from the classroom because the unions protect tenure.
The Arguments for Tenure
The arguments in support of the tenure system point out that teaching is a unique profession because “quality” teaching is subject to far more amorphous evaluation standards than, say, the performance of someone in sales. There evaluating performance is easy: those who sell more are more valuable and better at their job than those with low sales figures. Therefore, they argue, it is this fact that makes it absolutely necessary for faculty to be protected from political attacks designed to remove tenure because the standard by which a teacher’s or professor’s performance is measured changes depending upon the political, ideological, religious or other values of parents, students, colleagues, etc.
In fact, it’s difficult to think of another profession outside of politics in which people are constantly evaluated for their political views than teaching. Physics teacher Boris Korsunsky underscored this point in Education Week Teacher when he wrote,
“It is notoriously difficult to assess the quality of a teacher in any objective manner (some policymakers’ faith in student test scores notwithstanding). In reality, any teacher is only as good as his boss thinks he is. Without tenure, the teachers who would be fired first may not be the least competent ones. Rather, the principals may target the most experienced (that is, most expensive) teachers and, of course, the ‘”troublemakers.’” The latter often includes the most creative-and hence, potentially controversial-employees.”
In response to Steven D. Levitt’s argument (discussed earlier in this post), one contributor to the online discussion highlighted the importance of tenure in ensuring that important research is continued and completed. He wrote,
“You miss perhaps the most important aspect of tenure: it allows someone to pursue a project for an extended period (years) relieved of the burdens constantly to publish and present. The tenure system obviously has its problems, and should be changed. But any change that did not allow us scholars some breathing room (say 5 years at least, maybe 10) would not be worth the benefits.”
Which argument is more persuasive?
To me, the arguments in favor of tenure are clearly more persuasive. It took the University of Pittsburgh Medical School’s Jonas Salk seven years to research and develop the polio vaccine that has virtually eradicated that horrific disease from society. Should he have been fired because he didn’t come up with it within a pre-determined time frame? How many businesses would allow someone that much time, and the inevitable disappointments and failures that routinely occur during attempts to make significant scientific progress?
Also, as Korsunsky explains,
“the main beneficiaries of the tenure system, in the end, are the students and their parents, not the teachers. Without tenure systems, the nation’s public school teachers would be either much less competent or much more expensive-or both. The evidence of the positive effects of tenure can be found, for instance, in the generally higher levels of student achievement in the “tenure” states as well as in the presence of tenure-type systems in some of the best American private schools, such as Phillips Exeter Academy.”
Chad Orzel added in a post on ScienceBlogs.com that despite protests to the contrary from opponents of tenure, there is a real need to protect faculty at all levels who are interested in employment justice and quality education. He wrote, “it’s tenured faculty members at my university who’ve fought for partner benefits, who’ve fought for benefits for adjuncts, who’ve fought for greater transparency in the tenure process. It’s tenured faculty who make sure that things other than the bottom line go into administrative decision-making.”
This suggests that while there may be problems with certain tenured individuals, but that doesn’t mean the system is bad. There are plenty of problems with individual politicians, for example-but that doesn’t mean you throw out the whole democratic system. The simple fact is that education is not in the same business as any other field because the profit cannot be quantified in dollars and cents. That makes most arguments against tenure tenuous, at best.