One of the hottest topics in the education front right now is tenure. For those who are completely ignorant of the subject, tenure is a right granted by schools to university employees, as well as to elementary and high school teachers ensuring that their position is permanent; i.e., once a teacher has been granted tenure, it will be virtually impossible for her to be fired. Ever.

Tenure began at American universities in the early 20th century. Its purpose then is just as valid as its purpose now. Here was the idea: university professors–upon being hired–are expected BOTH to teach and conduct research, and they are expected to do both well (though honestly, more universities than paying parents¬†students would like to think care only about the research credentials). That is, they are expected to publish on a regular basis in respectable journals on respectable topics; they are expected to apply for and receive grants from outside sources, granting the university more money and notoriety; they are expected to give talks at national and international conferences, and they are expected to provide their universities with recognized colloquium speakers; they are expected to perform well as instructors, inspire the student body around them, and perform advisory duties; they are expected to sit on administrative committees ranging from curriculum committees that decide what topics are taught in the non-major service courses to building committees that ensure names are spelled correctly on all the doors. This is a LOT to ask of faculty members.

In addition to just stretching everyone thin, there are some professors who are really just naturally good at teaching, and who really only want to teach and forget about research projects. There are other professors who couldn’t give a cohesive lecture to save their lives, but who are extremely competitive within their field and are capable of knocking out fantastic–though very time-consuming–projects. There are other professors who are great at politics and enjoy the administrative roles their jobs entail. While all of these types can be highly valuable to a department and university, none can exist without tenure. In fact, tenure was made to ensure that these professors continue to exist. According to the all-knowing Wikipedia:

“Academic tenure is primarily intended to guarantee the right to academic freedom: it protects teachers and researchers when they dissent from prevailing opinion, openly disagree with authorities of any sort, or spend time on unfashionable topics….The intent of tenure is to allow original ideas to be more likely to arise, by giving scholars the intellectual autonomy to investigate the problems and solutions about which they are most passionate, and to report their honest conclusions. In economies where higher education is provided by the private sector, tenure also has the effect of helping to ensure the integrity of the grading system. Without tenure, professors could be pressured by administrators to issue higher grades for attracting and keeping a greater number of students.”

So, how does tenure work? After a probationary period (which varies greatly from university to university but which normally lasts a MINIMUM of three to five years), the university decides whether or not a professor is worthy of tenure. That is, after performing ALL the afore-mentioned tasks and proving themselves for the first few years of their careers, professors will either (i) be granted almost total immunity from firing or (ii) effectually be fired and given zero to two years to find another position at a different university where they get to start the whole process over again. But, once you get tenure, you’re golden: according to a 2005 Wall Street Journal study, out of 280000 tenured professors in academia only 75 lose tenure. That’s less than .03%.

Of course, one of the reasons why this topic is still so “hot” is that there are some definite cons. While as mentioned before tenure allows professors the freedom to concentrate on their favorite projects (thus avoiding the “publish or perish” problem) or concentrate solely on teaching (which desperately is needed at the undergraduate level), the freedom that tenure grants easily can be taken for granted or misused. It is the claim by critics that many professors don’t do ANYTHING after receiving tenure–that they just become “sitting ducks.” They do not publish as frequently, they do not travel, they do not teach well (nor do they care about their student evaluations anymore).

The critics do have a point. It would be wise to instate some kind of tenure-review process. That is, to eliminate these negative outcomes universities should hold regular reviews (for argument’s sake let’s say every seven to ten years) of tenured professors to ensure that quality of work is being maintained; should a professor show that his OVERALL quality of work has declined, the college then would have two options: (1) take away tenure and make the professor earn it again in the same process as before (2) fire him. While this suggestion may seem logical, it has not been put into (effective) practice.

Of course, we have not hit upon the biggest issue regarding tenure. Tenure is not just granted to professors at universities. Tenure is also granted to elementary, middle, and high-school teachers. The biggest question to raise in this case is: WHY? Pre-college teachers are not expected to conduct research–and remember that freedom to conduct research is one of the biggest reasons why tenure even started! Sure pre-college teachers have a lot to do–they must lesson plan, teach classes of 30-40 in size all day, grade, and hold parent-teacher conferences. (Though if we really want to anger readers we could say that is equivalent to making lesson plans, teaching classes of minimum size 30-40, grading, holding office hours and advising students in academia.)

Moreover, tenure at the pre-college level is comparably easy to get: all you have to do is not get fired for three years. That’s it. No traveling to national or international conferences, no publications, and some states only have minimal expectations for the actual “teaching” portion of the job. The only philosophical leg tenure supporters have to stand on is

Without tenure, professors could be pressured by administrators to issue higher grades for attracting and keeping a greater number of students.

Without tenure, some argue, a high school teacher who thinks Johnny earned a D in chemistry is going to be told to give Johnny a B because otherwise his parents will fuss at the school and the school will lose federal funding because of lower grades. Still, the country is in the midst of one the biggest teacher-cheating scandals, with 178 teachers (including tenured principals) across 44 schools in the Atlanta Public School district being called to resign or get fired. So, even WITH tenure there is still grade inflation (probably due to where the money for public schools originates).

Of course, the main reason why pre-college teachers like tenure is because it prevents them from being fired should (i) new principals take charge of a school or (ii) the market is flooded with younger, cheaper teachers. While certainly either scenario would be frightening to a working person with a family to support, are these fears really enough to warrant tenure in the pre-college sector? I’m skeptical. Especially when all that you need to do to get tenure is “survive.” Certainly it would be reasonable to insist upon the same kind of regular post-tenure review as the academics have; however between the teachers unions and the overall politicized nature of pre-college education systems, I doubt any progress will be made.


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