Jonathan Rees

Professor of History at Colorado State University - Pueblo

Tenure Is on Life Support

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Image: Litter carriers at the Red Cross Emergency Ambulance Station, in Washington, D.C., during the influenza pandemic of 1918 (National Photo Company via Library of Congress)

Earlier this month, the University of Tennessee system coined the term “de-tenure,” apparently by accident. The system’s president immediately got an earful (on Twitter of all places) that the ability to detenure someone would defeat the very purpose of tenure. Whether or not university officials actually believed that argument, they at least backed off their initial effort to make detenuring a possibility.

Unfortunately, it may be hard to put the detenuring genie back in the bottle. The fact that any university system is willing to even consider detenuring as an option demonstrates just how much damage has already been done to this vitally important academic principle. Tenure may not be dead, but it has been on life support for some time now. The patient remains well worth treating despite the high costs of intensive care, but to act as if the University of Tennessee’s shortsighted cost-cutting measures were the only threat that tenure faces would be disastrous.

Anybody who has tenure (and I do) knows it sure ain’t what it used to be. My father was a college professor, an economist by training. For much of his career, he sacrificed an enormous amount of potential income to work in academia, in part because of the job security and stability of tenure. That’s one of the things that attracted me to academia, too.

One look at the higher-education headlines should make it clear that stability is gone. Tenure isn’t going to protect the faculty at Sweet Briar College when it shuts down in a few weeks. Tenure didn’t protect the French, Russian, Italian or Classics professors at the State University of New York at Albany when that institution decided to end those departments in 2010. Tenure can’t protect the jobs of any faculty in any department if the university decides that it wants to declare financial exigency.

So why is anybody still interested in tenure then if it’s shot through with so many holes?

Because tenure -- even in its current sick, dilapidated state -- is more job protection than most American workers get. In an industry full of the precariously employed, having at least a few people around to serve as the institutional memory of a place becomes particularly important. Indeed, there has been a recent movement toward awarding tenure to instructors, based upon the philosophy that if you’re good enough to teach tuition-paying students for seven years then you deserve to only be fired with cause. That kind of protection would have done tremendous good for a whole bunch of nontenure-track people recently fired from the history department at Boise State University.

Did you notice how I’ve barely even mentioned academic freedom yet? The really groundbreaking thing about that Tennessee proposal was the way the administration there justified it in purely economic terms, as if the effects of detenuring on academic freedom didn’t even exist. Yet academic freedom in this time of increased contingency is more important than ever. For example, a Spanish professor in Georgia is facing termination for being rude. While I’m no fan of rudeness, the fact that tenure could be bypassed for such a flimsy reason may be the most telling sign available of its current ineffectiveness.

If we want to cure this patient (and the future of higher education depends upon tenure surviving its current spate of bad health), the best thing to do is to defend how it helps people beyond its immediate beneficiaries. Tenure, and the academic freedom that goes with it, is the best form of quality control that higher education has. Suppose an administration wants to gut its instructional support budget or set up an online program with no academic rigor whatsoever. Who is in the best position to call campus officials out on that? Tenured faculty, of course. The more people who have tenure, the more potential whistleblowers there’ll be if things on campus take a turn for the worse.

Of course, it takes a particularly wise administration to not just recognize but welcome the role that tenured faculty play in making a campus successful. As Kelly Baker recently explained in Vitae, the Tennessee system has apparently been counting the days until tenure finally kicks the bucket for some years now. To cash-strapped administrators, replacing all the tenured professors with unprotected adjuncts must look awfully tempting.

But taking that path would be the dumbest kind of reform possible. The free exchange of ideas is the lifeblood of higher education, and that goes double when it comes to ideas about higher education itself. Teachers are experts in teaching. Without them the university would not exist. If they don’t get a voice in decisions which affect that function, the university itself will soon require hospitalization of its own.

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