Judges and Professors: Why We Need Tenure

Judges and professors are unusual positions in our society for both involve tenure. Although few argue that federal judges shouldn’t have tenure, the practice in higher education has been criticized for decades. Opponents argue that tenure creates unproductive faculty, hurts teaching effectiveness, and costs institutions and students money that might be better allocated elsewhere. Indeed, this is just the tip of the iceberg as there are seemingly as many ways to criticize tenure as there are tenured faculty left. In today’s post, I want to share the arguments of why we need tenure and why it is critical to the long-term success of American higher education.

Photo credit: Phil Roeder

First, why do we give judges tenure or a lifetime appointment? The Founding Fathers wanted judges to base their opinions on the rule of law and not public opinion. To help insulate the judges, a lifetime appointment provides protection from direct political or societal pressure.

The same holds true for faculty. Society needs researchers and teachers that seek and disseminate knowledge free from undue political or social influence. Just as judges should be solely driven by the rule of law. We need faculty who should be driven by data.

When I write a research article, teach class, or write an op-ed in my local newspaper, my sole focus should be on sharing my expertise. If my findings offend powerful interests inside or outside of the university, I should be protected assuming I have based my opinions on my expertise and research. I fear for our democracy without professors free to pursue the truth.

Moreover, the governance of colleges and universities require a free and independent faculty voice. In fact, this is where I have found tenure to be most important in my own career. Whether in deciding admission of a student from a prominent family or a difference of opinion with an administrator, tenure helps make sure that my judgments are my own without fear of reprisal. While most administrators that I have met in my career would not retaliate against a faculty member, tenure helps both sides know where they stand.

Faculty are not primarily motivated by the financial interests of the institution. Of course, faculty are aware of the financial impact of decisions, yet it is not the primary motivator. As a result, faculty decision making helps focus on the need to preserve academic interests and integrity. We need financial officers that are concerned with the university’s budget.  However, they can’t be the sole decider. Their views must be considered along with those with a primarily academic excellence focus. When considered together, institutions make better decisions.

In light of the financial challenges many institutions have faced in recent years, can institutions afford to continue tenure? When I was tenured, the university essentially made a $3 million decision and that only considers salary. $3 million is a lot of money.  And we wonder why the stakes for tenure are so high— on both sides.

Yet, the reality is that most faculty could make more money outside of higher education. Even in the most narrow of fields, faculty have research and communication skills that could be applied in many ways and most would be more lucrative. Tenure provides individual financial security that helps make sure faculty can afford to pursue their careers. The financial advantage of tenure helps the cancer researcher pursue a cure rather than the next profitable drug for Big Pharma.

One of the greatest concerns that I have for higher education has been the rapid decline of tenure earning faculty positions. The growth of non-tenured faculty, both full and part-time, represents a serious threat to higher education. This trend weakens faculty authority and autonomy that will ultimately hurt the future of our higher education system. Think about the comparison: what if this happened with federal judges? Would we have the same faith in judges if they had to go back to Congress and the President after each term to get reappointed? Would our rule of law be as strong? Would our country? Like the old saying about democracy goes— tenure is the worst form of higher education, except for all the others that have been tried.