Tenure 2/26/20

Thoughts by Richard Bleil

Most people have heard the term tenure and may even realize that for the most part it is a guaranteed position for life. My guess is that few people really know what tenure is (unfortunately including some administrators), so let’s take a minute to discuss this topic.

Yes, tenure does indeed mean a guaranteed position for life, but it’s more than that. Tenure is as close to the proverbial “all of your eggs in one basket” scenario as I’ve ever seen. To begin with, once in a tenure-track position, a professor cannot back into a non-tenure position (such as lecturer or instructor). A tenure-track position has five years to prove that they deserve to be tenured (as I was at one of my institutions) as determined by a tenure committee and the administration of the institution. If granted tenure, the professor is guaranteed a position for life provided they don’t do something monumentally stupid (as in illegal stupid), but if they don’t get tenure, they are given one more one-year teaching contract. In that year, they are expected to find a new job, and the institution will use that time to find a replacement professor.

This begs the question of why, exactly, an institution might offer tenure track positions at all. The concept began in the proverbial “Research-1” institutions. These are the universities where the main goal of professors is to publish papers and land research grants. They’re given token teaching assignments but it’s not their focus, which is why I’ve never been interested in working with these institutions. Yes, I enjoy research, but my first love was teaching. These institutions like publications because it helps promote the name and reputation of the institution, and grants because of the money it brings in. The government dictates the maximum amount of any given research grant that can be kept by the University for “overhead”, which the professors tack onto the grant request. Basically, the tenure-track professor is more or less on a type of probation for five years to prove their research prowess.

These grants are typically mainstream grants. Grants for groundbreaking ideas are granted, but while this type of research is the only way to really have tremendous breakthroughs, it’s also rare that it actually works out. As such, these grants are rare and usually reserved for faculty who are very well-known with incredible reputations. Tenure-track faculty will seek those grants that are on “hot” and well-funded topics. This is why tenure was originally granted. Once a professor proves that they can land grants and get publications, tenure gives the faculty the opportunity to apply for those more difficult grants without fear that, if they don’t get it, they’ll lose their job.

At smaller institutions where the focus is teaching, tenure is offered as a perk. I’ve known of some institutions that have even offered particularly desirable candidates grant just to sign on with them, which is funny really because every example of this that I’ve seen has been with professors who never produced again. Usually, in these cases, the main question is how the students like the professor. There are other requirements as well, such as service of some sort to the institution or community, and publications or grants, but these are really just icing. Unfortunately, at these positions, tenure is too political, but that’s another topic.

The current debate is if tenure should still be offered or not. I’ve been involved in a few of these discussions in my role as dean. In these discussions, I would bring up the reasons for tenure. The reality is that where I was dean, the institution was painfully small, with a poor and sliding reputation, in a location with no cultural activities or even decent restaurants in town. So, the question becomes, why would any professors of quality want to teach there without some perk to entice them.

Frankly, at this point, I don’t know if they did away with tenure or not. Unfortunately, at that same institution, I learned of the darker side of tenure. Whether or not to grant tenure, as I said above, is determined in part by a tenure committee. Too many of the older faculty would use this as leverage to influence the new incoming faculty to support them in their ambitions. It was always done in a “joking” and “fun” way, periodically dropping in a comment like “don’t forget, I’m on the tenure committee” and laughing, but to the younger faculty this was certainly not a joking matter. Of course, they felt pressured to side with these faculty whether or not they agreed. It’s sad that even in the sciences, where faculty are supposed to be trained to be unbiased and critical thinkers, politics and immorality is still the norm.

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