Perhaps, as critics and even some supporters claim, the tenure system as we know it is on its way out. But that doesn’t mean the rest of us have to sit idly by and watch it go without a fight.
Indeed, now is when we should be speaking up to defend tenure in whatever forums are available to us–especially those that include nonacademics. We need to be writing letters to our state and national representatives, penning op-ed pieces for our local newspapers, explaining the importance of tenure to our friends and neighbors. If tenure is going to survive as a system, then we have to do something to change the national attitude toward it, because right now that attitude is pretty hostile.
It’s not enough to argue that tenure is a good thing because we say so, and as academics we know more about it than everybody else. That will merely solidify the impression some people have of us as arrogant and out of touch. Nor is it enough just to insist that those who oppose tenure are idiots. For the most part, they’re not. They have a different point of view, and they may be ignorant of certain facts, but they’re not stupid, and they don’t appreciate being approached as if they were.
Instead, our responsibility is to articulate clearly the reasons we believe tenure is a good thing–reasons that, we hope, will resonate with people outside of academe. I’d like to offer one such reason as a starting point and then open up the discussion for readers to suggest others.
I’ve actually taken this idea from Clayton Christensen and Henry Eyring, who in a recent essay for The Chronicle (“How to Save the Traditional University, from the Inside Out”) state that “tenure isn’t necessarily a competitive liability; job security for proven knowledge workers is a good thing, as partners in management consulting, accounting, and law firms know.”
I’m not sure if they’re the first to compare tenure for academics to partnership for other professionals–it’s the first time I’ve come across the analogy–but I believe it’s a key point. Because one of the most common criticisms leveled at the tenure system is that people in other industries don’t have it, so why should professors?
As Christensen and Eyring point out, that isn’t exactly true. Leaders of knowledge-based professions that require a great deal of education and preparation, including law, accounting, and academe, have long understood that intellectual capital is worth preserving. That’s why they’ve developed systems that enable them to retain their best people. In academe, we call that system tenure. Other professions offer partnerships. But the principles behind the two are much the same.
In order to be considered for a partnership in a law firm, for instance, you have to spend years acquiring all of the necessary education and training, then put in several more years establishing your value to the organization. Once you’ve made partner, you still have to work hard–perhaps even harder, or at least shoulder more responsibility–but in return you now have a seat at the table, respect from peers, and a voice in major decisions. You’re also better compensated and more difficult (but not impossible) to fire.
All of the same things could be said about tenure in the academy–except that the difference in compensation usually isn’t quite as dramatic.
So next time you hear someone say that college professors shouldn’t get tenure because other workers don’t, you might want to point out politely that comparable “real world” professions do in fact offer something remarkably similar, and for much the same reason.