I’m genuinely torn as to whether tenure is worth it for a university as a whole. Now it is the case that many schools are beginning to do away with tenure, but UW-Whitewater retains it, as do all the other UW schools. It seems that tenure can be a blessing and a curse for a school.
The tenure process works like this for those not in the know. You work your butt of doing teaching, research, and service for the school. Your teaching is evaluated primarily by student evaluations. So to all you students out there who don’t think student evaluations matter, damn you’re wrong! We do have peer reviews, but the bulk of evaluation comes from the students. For better or for worse, that’s what it is. Research is evaluated by how many publications you get. UWW is fairly light on the research requirement, but research is research and it can be quite hard to publish. Service is primarily evaluated by how many committees you serve on and at what level (university, college, dept). I’m oversimplifying all this, yet hopefully you get the point. Thus, if you meet certain requirements in teaching, research, and service for the first six years you are here, you get promoted to Associate Professor. One reaches the holy grail of “tenure.” With it comes a modest pay increase and the allure of more job security. The standard line of thought is that once you make tenure, your job is guaranteed. One can then go up for Full Professor after three or so more years, but that is up to the professor. There is no penalty for staying at the level of Associate Professor. Thus, one need not have to produce at the level one did to make Associate.
Tenure can certainly be a blessing for individual professors for the reasons stated above and for others. More pay and more job security are great things!! No one can be sour over that. But here is another oft-cited perk: academic freedom. While one may feel constrained as an Assistant Professor to produce those bits of research one feels would be good for making tenure, one can branch out as an Associate Prof. One can write the four-year long book project or start working in a completely different sub-field than the one you were hired. In short, you have the freedom to pursue academic interests that might not have gotten you tenure, but are productive nonetheless. Personally, that sounds really nice. I’m much more of the journal-type of person, but writing a book sounds tempting given the time and lack of worry. I could even use that book hopefully to make Full Professor. Such research activities can feed into one’s teaching; it makes one sharper. In addition, once tenured, one can try novel teaching techniques or teaching projects. One can take teaching gambles one might not have done otherwise while making tenure all in the hopes of improving the education of one’s students. Thus, tenure can really foster great education on many fronts.
Yet tenure can be a curse to the university. You see, there are some professors who make tenure and then try to coast the rest of the way to retirement without producing any more research and without caring as much about their teaching. Receiving tenure becomes almost like early retirement. Such a mindset might not set in right away for a newly minted Associate Professor, but I think you all know who those professors are who have kind of checked out on really caring about quality education and you’re left wondering why they are retained by the university. The answer: tenure. While it is true that tenure is not absolute job security, it does make it quite burdensome to go through the process of removing dead weight. So the problem becomes that receiving tenure extinguishes the fire under some of our professors to be productive, and then their students are the ones who get shafted out of the best education they can receive. In a way then, tenure can work against great education.
Is tenure could or bad for a university? I’m wrestling with it right now. To offset the negatives, maybe it would be best to move to a more corporate model where one is evaluated every year regardless of how long one has been with the company, though more leniency seems to be granted the longer one is there. I don’t know. Where would academic freedom be in that model? Is academic freedom worth the price of the possible negatives with tenure?
I’m sorry this is not an argument. It is my present dilemma.