Why College Professors Need Tenure

This article is the first of a two part series that explores the merits and shortfalls of tenure. Russell Eisenman is a professor of psychology at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. In this article, Professor Eisenman defends tenure. Read the second article, against tenure, here.

“It’s a good thing he has tenure.” That’s what many will say when a professor is in hot water over something he said or wrote. The protection of tenure, which can shield professors from false accusations and calls for political correctness, is worth appreciating.  Not too long ago, Mark Regnerus, a sociology professor at the University of Texas-Austin, published research indicating that opposite-sex parents are better for children than same-sex parents.  Many saw this as a political attack on homosexuality and called for him to be fired.  But academic freedom prevailed, and the university upheld his right to write according to his findings.  One person commenting on the story in Inside Higher Ed wrote “Fortunately, Mark Regnerus is protected by tenure.”

Tenure does provide a layer of protection, but not perfect protection, as has been seen recently in post-tenure reviews,  sexual harassment charges, and other misconduct charges leading to firings, thus reducing the power of tenure. People with tenure can be fired, but it is much more difficult than if these faculty member did not have tenure. When a tenure-track professor was fired at my school a few years ago, for relatively mild “misconduct,” a faculty member said to me “Until this case, I never realized the importance of tenure. It would have been difficult to fire him if he had tenure.” 

I would like to respond to four objections to tenure, which rest on weak arguments.

Objection 1: No job should offer lifetime employment. 

Few other jobs need the same high level of protection for what the person says. When Laura Kipnis, a film professor at Northwestern University, criticized how colleges handle sexual harassment and assault cases, she faced retaliation, including an intimidating Title IX investigation.  Universities can easily protect their reputations in such cases by firing faculty, unless they have tenure. The chair of the Faculty Senate at Northwestern, Dr. Stephen F. Eisenman (no relationship to me) spoke out in favor of free speech for Dr. Kipnis, and even he was subject to pressure, including a Title IX complaint and a demand that he be removed as president of the Faculty Senate.  In this time, when so many ideas are taboo on the college campus, and professors can be so easily vilified for what they say, any protections we have, such as tenure, are badly needed.

Furthermore, academic tenure is not the only professional setting for lifetime employment.  Federal judges are appointed for life so they can be free of political influence in making their decisions.  And many other jobs become lifetime employment.  For example, when I worked as Senior Clinical Psychologist in a California state prison for youthful offenders, I and others were on probation for six months, and after that the employment was permanent.

Objection 2: Tenure enables laziness.

Many think that faculties are filled with deadwood, professors who no longer do their job adequately, and thus would have been fired if they did not have the protection of tenure. What is the evidence for this?  Surely, given human nature, some use alleged lifetime employment as an excuse to let up some, or a lot. But the academic freedom that tenure provides can motivate them to write even more and to be even more innovative in their classroom teaching and research. The person has an incentive to try new things but within the context of still being a good teacher and good researcher. Many full professors have tenure but they keep doing excellent work.

Objection 3: Administrators know best.

Implicit in Objection 2 is the idea that wise, fair administrators can decide who should be employed and who should not.  But my life in academia has shown me the truth of the saying that “power corrupts.” Many administrators are fine, decent, fair-minded people, but even they are capable of abusing their authority. 

In recent times universities are responding to economic and other pressures to act less like havens of intellectual thought and more like businesses.  To the extent that administrators and others go along with this corporate model of the university, there will be more and more attacks on free thinking within the university and more emphasis on making money and not offending anyone.  Thus, tenure is more important than ever to protect academic freedom and freedom of speech.

Objection 4: Professors can find another job.

Some do not realize how difficult it is to get another job if you lose yours.  An economics professor at University of Chicago said, a few years ago, something like “If you lose your job you just get another one, someplace else.”  He was arguing that tenure is not necessary.  But, the job market was as bad then as it is today.  I suspect he thought if he did not have tenure and was forced out he could go to UCLA, Yale, NYU, or some other highly-rated school.  But the reality was that he would be lucky to get any job. As the states and the federal government have given less and less money to colleges, jobs have become much harder to find. With limited funds, colleges are frequently hiring adjuncts and others who are not on tenure track and who usually receive no health care or other benefits, saving money for the college but lowering the quality of education. Jobs at the elite schools have always been very competitive, and now with a struggling economy, they are even more so.

* * *

Tenure is our best protection against attacks on faculty members’ academic freedom and freedom of speech. It is amazing that education, once highly respected and seen as a cornerstone of our culture, is now under frequent attack. The attack on tenure is often part of that attack on education, by those preferring to see colleges run like corporations, with less emphasis on ideas, freedom of thought, true learning, etc. and more emphasis on profit, conformity, and an authoritarian obedience to authority.  Perhaps now more than ever, college professors need the protection of tenure.  As colleges act like businesses the real value of education gets lost or at least minimized. A professor with controversial ideas may be seen as a threat to enrollment and thus subject to retaliation by the college.  So we not only have the problems of budget cuts for many colleges, but also their desire to try to ensure high enrollments and profit. The idea that students are customers leads to a desire to keep them comfortable, and faculty members who challenge them to leave their comfort zones are seen as a threat to the university’s reputation. Because one of the most important purposes of higher education is to lead students in pursuit of the truth, however uncomfortable it may be, a good professor must challenge and provoke. The freedom to do that comes from tenure. 

Image: wikipedia

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