According to the Wesleyan Connection, eight Wesleyan faculty members have received tenure this month: Gloster Aaron, biology; Nadja Aksamija, art; Sally Bachner, English; Hilary Barth, psychology; Daniella Gandolfo, anthropology; Phillip Resor, earth and environmental sciences; Elise Springer, philosophy; and Deb Unferth, English. Go nuts, faculty friends. You’re free! An additional eight professors have been promoted.
Not that, you know, those professors don’t deserve it. I can’t really speak for seven of them. The one I’ve studied with is indeed fab. But is tenure beneficial to students—or anyone—in the long run? Noting that as few as 31% of full-time college professors had tenure in 2007, a 2010 Slate article answers “No,” laying out the case with one snappy analogy:
Imagine you ran a restaurant. A very prestigious, exclusive restaurant. To attract top talent, you guarantee all cooks and waiters job security for life. Not only that, because you value honesty and candor, you allow them to say anything they want about you and your cuisine, publicly and without fear of retribution. The only catch is that all cooks or waiters would have to start out as dishwashers or busboys, for at least 10 years, when none of these protections would apply.
The dominant argument is that tenure values publishing and research over teaching. Or so goes the case against tenure in a recent Point/Counterpoint style feature in the Wall Street Journal. Tenure, Naomi Schaefer Riley argues, “has created and enforced a system that rewards research over teaching.” And students are suffering—at small liberal arts colleges as well as the Penn States and Michigans:
According to a 2005 study published in the Journal of Higher Education, the more time college professors spend in the classroom, the less they get paid. This was true not only at large research universities, but also at small liberal-arts colleges.
Professors have gotten the message, busily churning out research for a growing number of publications that in most cases are read by next to no one.
Riley’s solution is to reward teaching ability over publication record while eliminating any guarantee of job security altogether. Cary Nelson, Professor of English at the University of Illinois, rebuts. Tenure is “the ultimate quality check,” he claims; by keeping the best faculty in place, it actually ensures topnotch teaching. Most significant, I think, is Nelson’s point that offers protection to those professors who do take risks and speak out against poor university decisions (perhaps in blogging form)—at least once they’ve received tenure:
Tenure doesn’t guarantee that every faculty member is courageous, but it protects those who are. Not every faculty member will speak out against bad plans proposed by powerful administrators, but tenure protects those who do from retaliation. Not every faculty member takes risks in challenging students, but many do. . . . The history of American higher education demonstrates that the quality of teaching and research is greatest when faculty are secure in their freedom to inquire, speak, teach and publish. No one has shown that anything other than tenure can produce that result.
Nelson’s argument focuses on the “protection” tenure offers. Riley questions whether that protection is always deserved, at least in the teaching sphere. Both make salient points. But neither gives an inch. I’d support more moderate changes—a revised tenure system that values teaching ability over publication record while still offering significant job security, perhaps with systematic check-ups along the way. (An interesting case from the annals of Wesleyan’s history: Professor Henry Abelove was initially denied tenure in the 1970s. The case made the front pages of the Argus, which I sadly don’t have on hand right now. According to the Hermes, queer students put up a fight, the decision was overturned, and Abelove became one of the most beloved English faculty members for decades.)
What do you say? Ditch tenure entirely? Revise the system? Here’s the full Wesleyan Connection report, with more information on the lucky faculty members.
- Slate: The Case for Getting Rid of Tenure
- Wall Street Journal: Should Tenure for College Professors be Abolished
- New York Times: What If College Tenure Dies?