Tenure or No Tenure: A Ph.D. Student’s Opinion

The first time I ever heard the term tenure was back in elementary school when I overheard a couple my teachers discussing how close they were to earning it. At the time, I didn’t know what the word meant, nor did I care. As I progressed through academia in pursuit of higher education, I continued to encounter tenure in a variety of contexts. Most notably, I recall it coming up during a discussion between my classmates and I about a rather awful professor who taught our freshman level chemistry course. One of my classmates mentioned that, no matter how much we complained about our professor’s inability to teach, our professor could not be fired because she was “tenured”. It was at this point I asked myself “what exactly is tenure, how did it come about, and why does it seem strictly prevalent in academia?” Now, as a doctoral student with close to 20 years of academic experiences, who is preparing for a career as a collegiate professor, I’m going to present my understanding and opinions on tenure.

What is tenure and how did it come to exist?
Tenure is an esteemed and privileged appointment one can obtain working in academia that lasts until retirement. Tenure exists because of the principle of academic freedom, which is based on the conviction that scholars have the freedom to teach, research, or communicate facts or ideas without being targeted for repression, job loss, or imprisonment.  Those who support academic freedom believe student and faculty inquiry is essential to the mission of educational entities such as schools or universities. Historically, there have been incidences where scholars communicated ideas or facts that were inconvenient to external entities (i.e. political or societal authorities) and thus were persecuted and even sentenced to death (e.g. Lysenkoism in Soviet Russia). To protect scholars, many countries have recognized and adopted tenure allowing scholars to freely to express their opinions without fear of institutional censorship or discipline.

Why is there controversy and debate surround tenure?
Presently, tenure is a hot-topic of discussion for academics and non-academics alike. Popular news-media outlets including National Public Radio (NPR), US News & World Report and New York Times, are continually publishing articles discussing tenure and the effect it has on educators and the educational system. Whether faculty, student, parent, or even politician it seems everyone has an opinion on the necessity of tenure. Below is a brief (and thus not entirely inclusive) summary of the pros and cons expressed for tenure.

Pros:

  • Protects scholars and educators from being fired for personal, political, or other non-academic related reasons.
  • Prevents academic entities from firing experienced, higher-paid educators to replace them with less experienced, lower-paid educators for financial gain.
  • Protects scholars who research and/or teach unpopular, controversial, or otherwise disputed topics.
  • Allows educators to advocate on behalf of students and express disagreement with school or university administration.
  • Promotes scholarly performance and entices people to engage in education-based careers by rewarding educators for years of successful teaching and contributions to academia.
  • Encourages the careful selection of qualified and effective educators.

Cons:

  • Creates academic complacency that poor teaching performance and very few, if any,  contributions to academia.
  • Makes is difficult to remove under-performing educators due to a lengthy, complicated, and costly “tenure revocation” process.
  • Promotes seniority as the main factor in evaluating an educator’s performance instead of  the quality of their work.
  • Tenure is obsolete and no longer needed to protect educators since modern-day laws and court rulings are able to better serve that same purpose.
  • Tenure is not necessarily applicable at all levels of academia (i.e. kindergarden, elementary, middle, and high school) due to government implemented standards of education.
  • Fails to promote education of the student and solely focuses on promoting the educator’s career.

Though there are more points that could be added to either list, both sides of the argument are backed by some very solid reasoning. To me, it seems that the debate is very contextual and the issues appear to be fairly localized reflecting the challenges experienced at particular academic levels.

What’s my opinion as a student and future educator?
As I previously stated, I’m a doctoral student with who roughly 20 years of various academic experiences under my belt from which to formulate an opinion on tenure. When it comes to tenure at lower levels of academia,  I don’t believe it is as vital for preserving academic freedoms. Many schools, especially public ones, are operated based on strict guidelines from the local and state governments. There is very little room for educators to discuss anything outside of the material they are required to teach in order for their students (and schools) to meet academics standards. In this type of context, it seems that tenure would also exacerbate the issue of ineffective educators since there is already a lack of content-based competition. However, I do believe tenure is necessary to protect more established educators who, after years of successful teaching, have earned a higher pay rate. With all the debt (state and national) and budget cuts to education, schools are under financial pressure to operate with smaller and smaller amounts of funding — it seems only natural that administrators would seek to fire higher-paid, experienced educators in lieu of those who, though less experienced, come at a lower cost.

Concerning tenure at the university and collegiate level, I believe tenure is absolutely necessary in these contexts. Though students are expected to complete a specific list courses catered to their academic major, the quality and type content featured is heavily dependent upon the course instructor. Students may be required to learn about taboo or controversial topics that make them uncomfortable, and the course instructor should be able to teach this sort of material without fear of losing their job. This is especially true at the graduate school level where professors are performing research and educating students on more focused and complex topics. Now, I fully believe that earning tenure should not bestow an educator with complete academic immunity — there needs to be a system of timely, cost-effective “checks and balances” to ensure the educator is still effectively teaching students and making academic contributions. What those look like exactly, I’m not really sure. Hashing out those details should be left to each academic entity and furthur localized to be college- or department-specific. When it comes to tenure and it’s application, it is my opinion that there is no “one-size-fits-all” solution. The effectiveness and necessity of tenure should be assessed contextually to ensure the principles of academic freedom are proliferated and abuse of the tenure appointment is minimized.

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One thought on “Tenure or No Tenure: A Ph.D. Student’s Opinion

  1. Thanks for this thoughtful reflection on tenure. It’s something that I’ve thought about a lot too and can’t quite figure out exactly how I feel about it. Like you said- there are pros and cons and both sides of the argument seem valid. Your post has helped me to see more clearly that the nature of academic jobs (regarding their freedom and flexibility in what to teach and research) lends them to needing tenure more than jobs with highly fixed requirements and tasks. This is partly because evaluating a professor might be highly subjective and therefore vulnerable to bias. Like you say, I do wish there were some better way to hold professors accountable to their more objective job responsibilities, such as being an effective teacher.

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