Scholarly Essay

PFP Scholarly Essay – Academic Tenure

Nicole Arnold

Academic tenure has surfaced as being controversial in nature within higher education in the United States. Tenure is defined by Merriam Webster as “the act, right, manner, or term of holding something (such as a landed property, a position, or an office); especially : a status granted after a trial period to a teacher that gives protection from summary dismissal” (1). The majority of universities in the United States offer tenure-track positions where faculty members apply for a status that typically provides insusceptibility from being released as an employee. Academic tenure has a plethora of both positive and negative characteristics. It is frequently criticized by those that do not possess it and often praised by those that do.

The problem (and advantage) of tenure is that it makes it difficult for university leaders to dismiss a faculty member. Once tenure has been obtained by a faculty member, university officials must have overwhelming evidence to support why this individual was desired potential employee during the hiring process, but is no longer fit to carry our his or her job responsibilities. Only about two percent of tenured faculty are let go each year (5). The probationary period allows ample time to determine whether the faculty member will or will not be a worthy asset to the university. However, even throughout the probationary period, there are challenges associated with dismissal for those that were hired for tenure-track positions. Tenure-track faculty have certain rights that they can exercise to extend the time they have until they are up for reappointment. Even after a tenure-track faculty member is dismissed during the probationary period, they often have an ample amount of time to search for other jobs options. About one in every five probationary faculty members are not granted tenure or lose their jobs (5).

Academic tenure is an emerging topic of conversation due to a variety of factors. The ending to mandatory retirement has lead some to question the productivity and commitment to older generation professors (2). Some states have actually begun to disrupt this process. In 2015, Governor Scott Walker adopted more lenient tenure policies for the state of Wisconsin (3). The leniency allows university officials more leeway in potential employee dismissal. These policies enable post-tenure reviews, where administration will in charge of signing off on the reviews (4). If administration does not sign off on the review, then a remedial plan will be implanted (4). The changes to tenure in Wisconsin were met with a lot of backlash, where some tenured professors willingly left university positions to seek out other opportunities.

Ultimately the tenure phenomenon is one that the universities support themselves. Universities are under no legal obligation to implement this process and status (2). When new hires to tenure track positions first join a university, they are usually quite beneficial to the university. This is due to the fact that they are well aware that they must hit the ground running in order to be successful in relation to their tenure application packet. Tenure serves as an accolade for professors that have clearly demonstrated their hard work and dedication to their university and field of work. Tenured professors take on a new title that signifies status and a sense of seniority. Additionally, being granted tenure often comes with an increase in salary.

Job security is one of the most valued facets of tenure. In a time where job security is not what it used to be, academics can feel comfortable building their life around their job. Individuals can feel at ease when making significant decisions such as purchasing a new home or having/raising children, without the fear of suddenly being uprooted due to a job change. It also can take years to build up a laboratory with its required space, equipment, and laboratory personnel. Constructing a network in regards to those that you may be serving or assisting can also take time. If faculty members had to change jobs every few years, they may never be able to fully accomplish their academic goals. Building up a laboratory program is similar to that of building a small business. One must put forth an extensive amount of time and effort before seeing the returns on the initial investment. The returns take form in publications, graduated students, and most importantly, grants being awarded to that professor.

Academic freedom is accompanied with faculty members being able to earn tenure. Professors are able to explore their own personal interests without fear of there being repercussions for doing so. Some research topics happen to be very controversial (i.e., stem cell research, chemical warfare, etc.). Additionally, some research may be based upon that professor’s own political views. It is important that a faculty member be able to comfortably perform their own specific research without fear of backlash. This also allows for faculty members to be more comfortable to report results that may not make companies or the general public happy. They can be more confident in presenting data in an unbiased way even if it is not what everyone else prefers to hear.

The process for applying for tenure is lengthy and quite involved. It typically takes about seven years until a faculty member is able to apply for it. Professors that are not tenured, or are currently in the process of applying for tenure, are typically the individuals I see running around the department most frequently. These professors often stay in my building even later than the graduate students themselves, then come back early the next morning to do it all again. The pressure for those that do have tenure-track positions continuously keeps them on their toes. Tenure packets consist of items such as published articles, teaching reviews, involvement in professional groups, extension and outreach work, etc.

Despite the various positive features of tenure that are experienced by both the faculty member and the university itself, there are numerous ways in which tenure can be detrimental to many different stakeholders. Although its intent is to offer more security for faculty members, some critics believe that it provides them with too much safety. This safety net can oftentimes interfere with ones ability to implement necessary ramifications when faculty members do not perform at the level desired by the university.

The idea that tenure provides immunity creates an atmosphere where some faculty members believe that are no consequences for their actions. Personally, I have seen where tenured professors have had a different mentality and demeanor than those that do not. From my experiences, tenured professors are more apt to treat students with disrespect. I have seen this enacted in the classroom setting and with the graduate students in which they advise. In my opinion, this is the most dangerous trait of tenure. Departmental leadership may get put in a place where a tenured professor has not upheld the standards of a university, however, because it is so difficult to fire the individual, it is the student that ends up taking the hit. Students are much more disposable than tenured faculty as they will eventually graduate through the program. On the other hand, a tenured professor is there to stay. Punishing a tenured faculty member can lead to conflict, which is unwanted when they probably will not be leaving the university setting anytime soon. Oftentimes, other faculty members will have to continue to work with this individual so some feel it is best to not ruffle feathers. Rather than addressing issues that arise, concerns are often swept under the rug, not to be dealt with at all.

Unproductiveness if often associated with tenured professors because of the feeling that they no longer need to prove themselves in the workplace. Unlike job positions in industry that habitually thrive off of a competitive environment, once a professor is tenured, they may not feel the immediate need to continue to operate at their best. For example, a professor may no longer feel the need to put forth efforts into his or her teaching because student evaluations are no longer taken into account in relation to the tenure process. Although there are still departmental standards that must be reached, the motivation to continue to grow as a faculty member is ultimately intrinsic. Professors will not necessarily be rewarded for good teaching or for being a respectable mentor. Because there is not a requirement for professors to retire at a certain age, it is not unheard of for older generation professors to stick around the university environment until it is absolutely no longer an option for them. Although age is not an indication of a professor’s abilities, they must continue to familiarize themselves with emerging technology and information and integrate these into the classroom setting.

There are also some employees that spend their entire lives in academia and tenure can be a contributing factor to this. While a life in academia is not necessarily a bad thing in itself, there can certainly be negative aspects. If a person has never participated in anything other than academia, then they could be delivering general information to students, but not actually helping them to acquire the skills necessary for the workforce. In Food Science, the information students learn at a university can be very different than what is actually practiced. For example, science says that foods needing refrigeration should be kept at 41°F or below. However, per the Food Code, restaurants and food businesses may often hold their products above this recommended temperature without receiving a violation. Unless students work with health inspectors directly, they probably will not have been exposed to this concept. Moreover, some of the most influential professors I have had are ones that have told me stories and provided scenarios about what they had experienced in industry. In this case, students may not be receiving the most effectual education if the majority of their professors are speaking from the standpoint of a textbook, rather than from experience itself.

My personal opinion is that the benefits of tenure far outweigh the negative aspects of the status, however I believe that changes to the process are needed. Faculty play so many different roles within the university that they should be rewarded for their time and efforts. As the salary for university faculty members is not always ideal, tenure offers other incentives. It is also of the utmost importance to protect the security that comes with academic freedom. I do believe that there should be practices put in place for reviews that should occur after tenure is obtained. An unproductive faculty member does not benefit anyone: not themselves, the students, or the university as a whole. These reviews should not be nearly as extensive as the tenure application packets, however they do need to provide sufficient evidence that the individual at hand is still a contributing member to the department.

I also feel strongly about there being more leniency towards dismissing a faculty member. Making this difficult to do can lead to an unhealthy situation where the university may feel that it would be less of a hassle to keep a faculty member around regardless of their behaviors. Students pay a great deal of money to be in attendance at universities. There is also characteristically a surplus of candidates qualified for academic positions. Due to these circumstances, in no way do I believe that a student’s safe learning environment should be compromised due to a tenured professor. Every university employee and every student deserves to be treated with the upmost respect by tenured professors. If a tenured employee is not willing to do this, then he or she should absolutely be forced to find a different place of work.





(2) Journal of Economic Perspectives-Volume 13, Number 1-Winter 1999-Pages 85-98     Tenure Issues in Higher Education