Leave Tenure Alone


Adrianna Kezar does a nice job of defending tenure in the column she wrote in the New York Times titled No Tenure, No Nothing. She points out that there is no way we can predict the consequences of the abolition of tenure. Sure, there is the occasional professor who accesses porn from his office computer or gets caught having sex with their students, but most tenured professors are morally upright and deserve the protection that tenure provides.

We do not know what the implications are of the decline of tenure. Few studies have been conducted and those that have been done are not conclusive. What we do know, though, is that higher education institutions have generally not put policies and practices in place that would make non-tenure track faculty successful.

It is not a good situation when professors have no office or materials or supplies, have limited technology and administrative support, are not paid for office hours (thus discouraged from meeting with students), have no job security — wondering semester to semester or year to year whether they have a job — and have a limited ability to prepare, since they find out they teach within days or weeks of a class.

While these conditions vary at campuses, they exist fairly broadly across higher education. We have a major problem, and higher education leaders have taken almost no responsibility to do anything. Everyone says that limited money prevents change to support non-tenure track faculty, but many changes can be made that cost little or no money (with the exception of pay equity — which is also¬†direly¬†needed).

Colleges have generally not embraced practices that would make non-tenured professors successful.
Why have tenure track faculty not organized to stop this trend? Many did not notice it was happening. I have repeatedly been on campuses where there is almost a collective denial, even when you present the numbers. Often tenure track faculty benefited from the situation, with non-tenure track faculty doing the work they disliked, teaching lower division courses, remedial education and large classes.

Some campuses have made it difficult for faculty to organize and have a voice as decisions have become more centralized within institutions. So it is a combination of the faculty’s lack of knowledge and apathy, and institutions’ efforts to keep this trend in place for economic reasons. This combination of forces has proved difficult to overturn, particularly as the non-tenured numbers are so large now. I think people who actually realize how major the trend is throw up their hands and think how can we possibly get back now?

Sal from Mississippi made a particularly compelling refutation of the assumption, by many, that tenured professors necessarily become complacent and indolent:

Why is it that so many commentators think that college professors are inherently lazy? Without tenure, I have no protection when I am told that this year I will teach 6 classes, or that I have no rights. I teach because I love to do so. But it took me 7 years and $127,000 to get the Ph.D. I needed to teach at the college level. Because I am an academic, and therefore a dilletant (I, too, can make either/or arguments). My “summer off” has been spent drafting grants for the college, expanding my knowledge of the recent trends in my field, attending seminars and conferences so that I can bring the best and newest back to my students, and researching two articles I need to publish, if I am to advance in my career, and possibly earn enough to pay back those student loans. During the academic year, my time is full of classes, office hours, committee and department meetings, and there is no time or energy for career advancement or enhancement. But then, I am a lazy and disinterested professor who hopes to teach until I can pay off my student loans, or qualify for Social Security to help me pay back those student loans.