Plight of tenure: Labor Day edition

Labor Day is the chance for Americans to celebrate the success of the American workforce. This recognition acknowledges the importance of workers to the social and economic progress of the United States. Last year, I discussed the plight of adjuncts in higher education in the tradition of Labor Day. To celebrate this year, I will discuss the plight of tenure. Across institutional types, tenure is in decline. Just a generation ago, tenure earning faculty made up nearly two-thirds of faculty in U.S. higher education. As we grill our hamburgers today, the number of tenure earning faculty has dropped below one-third. But why do we need tenure? Doesn’t tenure just protect lazy, deadwood faculty? Other professions don’t receive lifetime contracts, why should professors? In today’s post, I will share the four challenges that tenure enables and their importance for both higher education and society.

What is tenure? Simply put, tenure is a lifetime contract.

This does not mean a lifetime job. Tenure establishes clear guidelines as to how and why a faculty member can be fired. 

Tenure is expensive and limits the financial freedom of institutions. Every time a faculty member receives tenure, the university is making a multimillion commitment.

Naturally, many administrators and trustees do not want to limit their ability to make changes in faculty ten or twenty years from now. This rationale, at least in part, explains the desire to hire non-tenure earning faculty.

However, I argue this trend is dangerous for students, faculty, universities, and the nation.

Specifically, I believe we need faculty that are sufficiently protected so that they feel comfortable challenging. Proponents of tenure cite the need to protect academic freedom. Yet, I believe the notion of academic freedom is unnecessarily complicated and often misunderstood.

Instead, I will suggest that we need faculty who are willing to challenge across four areas: students, faculty, administrators, and society.

1.  Challenge students

We need faculty to challenge students- both their ideas and their intellectual abilities. I work at an elite private university with a significant number of wealthy students, parents, and benefactors. I can’t teach and challenge my students as well if I have to worry about a wealthy parent calling my dean and complaining.

Moreover, my teaching will at times make students uncomfortable. I will challenge their beliefs, ideas, and ideology. I can’t do this as well if I have to worry about my course evaluations scores being low and risking my chances of getting my contract renewed.

2.  Challenge faculty

One of the criticisms of tenure is that the system encourages and creates faculty of a single view on various issues. Instead, I would argue that tenure does exactly the opposite. With tenure, I am protected in disagreeing with my faculty colleagues. When making decisions regarding academic matters, disagreement is necessary and not a vice. Only by working through and discussing disagreements can we come to the best decision. In addition, this does not mean we need a consensus. Some academic arguments I win, some I lose, but I believe the process creates a better decision in the end.

I do believe criticism is warranted in the degree to which faculty (at the time of hiring or tenure) may let a candidate’s approach or views on an issue influence the decision. In addition, while collegiality should be a significant factor in tenure, tenured faculty must fight against the tendency to use an ideological or personality test for making a tenure decision.

However, once tenure is granted, I believe the system protects those who disagree with colleagues and helps foster a diversity of opinion among faculty.

3.  Challenge administrators

Particularly given the vast challenges and changes in administrative policies in higher education, we need faculty that are willing to challenge administrators. In my ten plus years experience as a faculty member, this is the most important aspect of tenure. I have had many administrators challenge my academic decisions or views. For the most part, this is a good thing and the administrator would not be doing his or her job without challenging their faculty. However, just as critical, faculty need to be protected and feel free to voice their academic views.

I can think of numerous examples where an administrator questioned an admission decision that the faculty made, a recommendation for a faculty hire, or an academic policy that the faculty passed. In all of these cases, my colleagues and I made the decision we made based on our collective academic expertise. At times, these decisions put an administrator in a tough position of having to overturn a decision or support a policy that they personally may not have agreed with or would not have made if given the authority.

Yet, at a fundamental level, I believe higher education institutions are best served by faculty that are willing to challenge administrators. I believe this keeps everyone accountable and ultimately leads to better decisions.

4.  Challenge society

Perhaps the greatest responsibility for faculty is to challenge society. Faculty should follow knowledge, data, and their conclusions. They should do this no matter how much their ideas challenge society, public policy, or conventional thinking.

There’s a reason the two careers that our society has decided should receive lifetime contracts are federal judges and faculty. In both cases, we want the individuals entrusted with these responsibilities to be independent thinkers and free from outside influence.

As a society, we do not want judges making rulings based on economic consequences or the politics of the moment. The rule of law should be the only factor considered.

We do not want faculty teaching and researching based on economic consequences or the politics of the moment. The advancement of knowledge should be the only factor considered.

However, many faculty face exactly these kinds of pressures. And we all suffer as a result.

In the spirt of honoring America’s faculty and the tremendous social and scientific achievements advanced by faculty, I challenge all of higher education to recommit to supporting the institution of tenure.

And for my fellow tenured colleagues with the responsibility that comes with our positions, I challenge us to remember to stand up and challenge our students, faculty colleagues, administrators, and society.

There can be no better way to honor academic labor.