Tenure: to be or not to be

By: Ryan Mohr

Academic tenure is designed to provide professors a safe-haven to express opinions in research and teaching without fear of reprisal and job loss from the institutions employing them. Freedom in research is fundamental to the search for truth because higher education is conducted for the common good, not to further the interest of the academic or the institution as a whole.  But in relation to students, the ones paying to be taught, do the advantages of tenure outweigh the disadvantages?

On average, tenure takes seven years to achieve.  Within that probationary period, assistant and associate professors, as defined by the 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure, are to have the same academic freedom as tenured professors.  This notion is a misnomer.  The reality is that departmental majoritarianism encourages professors to hire clones of themselves.  Probationary professors are more inclined to keep their heads down and mouths quiet for seven years for fear of upsetting the other professors in charge of their peer-review process or the universities holding the position of ultimate power, despite claims of academic freedom.  With tenure-track positions evaporating each year at the hands of cost-cutting, late-capitalist driven universities who would rather fill-up their departments with lowly-paid adjuncts, rather than nurture newly minted PhD’s,  how could anyone expect them to dissent?

When it comes to the professoriate, teaching should be the biggest responsibility.  After all, doesn’t that duty constitute most of their pay?  Yet, most universities place more emphasis on publication than on teaching because of the notoriety and dollars that publication brings.  Ever hear the phrase “publish or perish”?  This inevitably leads to the hurried, decreased value of scholarship, and more importantly, detracts time away from the teaching of undergraduates.  A 2005 report in the Journal of Higher Education found that professors actually get paid less for every additional hour spent in the classroom.  This was true for both large research universities and small liberal arts colleges.  Academic officials seem to think that teaching and publishing are entirely compatible when in reality it’s extremely difficult to do either one alone at an extremely high level.

What is a solution?  How about renewable three or five year contracts which will help eliminate older, coddled professors who no longer publish much of anything, and do not find teaching intellectually engaging and have since pedagogically “checked out;” serving only as conduits to grade inflation?  This would ensure a better overall education for students and also give the swarms of hungry new PhD’s at least a decent shot a getting a job after spending ten years of their lives doing intensive training and having nothing to show for it.