Thursday, September 1, 2011

Is tenure worth it? (by anon)

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.


  1. We are better with the tenure system than without for the reasons you list but for other reasons as well. Shared governance, program and curriculum development would be meaningless without the tenure system.

    Do you really think faculty members would be connected to the institution without tenure. They do a lot of unpaid work because they are connected to the institution.

    Tenure is not just for the faculty, administrators use it too. Do you believe that any person would take the position of chancellor, vice president, or dean without being tenured in an academic department. How can you expect a dean or provost, to function effectively without tenure?

    Biddy Martin, former chancellor at Madison, was pushed out because of politics. While she was able to get another gig, she was tenured and could have moved into a teaching slot. Thus, there are many sides to this tenure issue.

    Finally, we already have a contract system. Check out the status of academic staff. They teach more classes and receive less pay at all system campuses. They teach their classes and go home. So would you like to have an entire campus composed of academic staff? We increased their teaching loads to overcome our budgetary shortfall because they are on contingent one year contracts and they are not tenured.

    Without tenured faculty we would lose our accreditation from the Higher Learning Commission, NCATE, and AASCSB, major accreditation agencies for the campus as a whole, education, and business. They require institutions to have a set percentage of tenured faculty. Without external accreditation your degree would be worthless.

  2. What do you do about all that dead weight then? Nothing? Let them bring down our school?

    You say that tenure is good because administrators can fall back on it. But my guess is that they would make sucky teachers being that they are are pushed back as teachers. They would most likely harbor resentment and ill will towards the school. So I'd say that tenure is not good for the school when it comes to administrators in the capacity you are talking about.

    Also, I didn't say that everyone would then become academic staff. There are certainly ways to set up contract systems with different expectations matched with differential salaries.

  3. There are bad professors on every campus, as there are bad cops, bad presidents, bad judges, bad lawyers, bad parents, and bad students, yet we manage to survive. There are 600 or so faculty, so a few bad apples will not tip over the apple cart. Do a few bad students bring down the school? The answer is no!

    If you really believed bad profs are a serious issue here, then you should transfer to another school. If you do, you will discover the same exact situation there.

    Regarding administrators with tenure, I said it is extremely difficult to recruit high quality administrators without tenure. These jobs are simply too political. The assumption that administrators make bad teachers is false. Are you aware that they teach classes here. You may have already taken a class taught by an administrator.

    My final point, Brett Favre ended his career badly. He bombed in his final season and received tons of negative criticism. He went out as a loser, but as time passes, he will be considered as one of the greatest players to have ever played the game because when we evaluate Favre we will look at his total body of work. He is a Hall of Famer! Yet, we do not do the same for faculty members. In one or two semesters of bad teaching, we classify them as dead weight and pull out the guillotine. In our rush to judgement, we do not take into consideration their life circumstances or the body of their work.

  4. According to Gillespie, class instruction should not be different in most cases between an instructor and a professor.

  5. There are the rare few professors that are older and still excellent researchers and teachers. These few have served as my role models and inspired me to believe that the system can be made better.