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A Response to Critics of Tenure

In the past month, I’ve been in at least four meetings in which tenure has been heavily criticized by those who do not have it or operate outside academe.

As an educational historian, I have written extensively about tenure and academic freedom, especially within the black-college environment. As a professor, I think about my own tenure weekly. I may do this more often than most professors due to the fact that I write a lot of op-ed essays and I’m fairly outspoken. I’m grateful to have tenure as it protects my ability to speak out on issues that are important to me.

I find that those outside of academe do not understand the value of tenure. They often think it is unfair for faculty to have a “job for life” after tenure, often referring to the “one” professor they had who earned tenure and then never wrote another thing. They’ll say, “name another job in which one has total job security.” I can’t think of many jobs like that, but I think there are valuable reasons for tenure that supersede “having a job for life.” Critics of tenure also think that faculty members, protected by tenure, impede progress because they are not held accountable. There’s some truth to this claim, although I don’t think tenure is the reason for the stubbornness of some faculty members.

I value tenure and think it is necessary for several reasons:

First, tenure allows a professor to purse research regardless of its political or controversial nature. Some of our best discoveries might not have taken place had “crazy” professors not had the freedom to pursue their ideas.

Second, tenure allows a professor the ability to speak up about issues on which he or she is an expert. Even controversial perspectives are protected. Even the perspectives I don’t agree with are welcome in the academic discussion. Colleges and universities are about ideas and knowledge and it’s important that we have a climate open to different perspectives.

Third, tenure allows a professor to disagree with university administrators, who may be too swayed by the bottom line or college rankings, without being reprimanded or fired. Although many people think of higher education as a business, it is not. Yes, we need to be fiscally sound and follow best practices in terms of leadership and management. However, with education there is no bottom line or profit to be made. We are educating young people and they aren’t cogs in a machine. They are living, breathing, unpredictable, mistake-making, bright-eyed, forward-thinking individuals. Those outside higher education don’t understand shared governance and its main benefit—providing a system of checks and balances—because it is wholeheartedly different from the way most organizations are run.

Whenever I defend tenure to its critics, they always say, “Well, Marybeth, you are the exception, you would be productive with or without tenure. Others are not like that.” True, I would be productive regardless. I’m driven by something internal to pursue my research. However, I would not have the same freedom I currently have to pursue controversial ideas, push back against administrative actions that I think run counter to the ethos of the university and education in general, and speak out on national issues. I’m not sure I’d enjoy being a professor at the same level I do today without tenure. If I could be fired at a moment’s notice for disagreeing with my dean or president or for saying something controversial, why would I stay in academe? I might as well go work for a corporation where I could earn more income. Having my ideas supported and enabled by my university is something that I cherish. Caring about the well-being of my university and participating in its well-being is crucial to my role as a faculty member.

Interestingly, there is ample research that shows that faculty members remain productive after tenure. Researchers have even charted productivity by age, rank, and institutional type. Critics never believe or consult this research because they only remember that one professor who did nothing after he was tenured. It is unfortunate that universities and faculty members do not do a very good job of communicating the benefits and merits of tenure to the public at large. Despite being laughed at by critics when I say it, I think tenure keeps universities honest, pushes them to support important research, and protects the integrity of the institution.

But….the critics have one thing right. Faculty members are often rigid and adverse to new trends (accountability, new technologies in the classroom, etc). We get comfortable in our ways and think we know best. Often this approach impedes progress. However, tenure is not the root of this problem. Instead, I think the problem is our sense that we are experts and above being held accountable for student learning. This has to stop. Tenure protects our ideas and voice, but we still need to make sure that those students we teach are learning and if asked how we know, we need to have an answer.

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