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An Open Letter To Students: In Defense Of Tenure

December 13, 2006

Dear Students,

In an attempt to counter some of the anti-tenure rhetoric out there, I’d like to make a case for the practice. In terms of disclosure, I want it to be known that I do not presently have tenure and have never been a tenure candidate. I do, however, have experience teaching – more than four years worth – and was a student for years and years, almost 25 to be precise.

For those of you new to debates about tenure, Merriam Webster online defines the term as follows:

“Pronunciation: ‘ten-y&r also -“yur
Function: noun
Etymology: Middle English, from Anglo-French teneure, tenure, from Medieval Latin tenitura, from Vulgar Latin *tenitus, past participle of Latin tenEre to hold — more at THIN
1 : the act, right, manner, or term of holding something (as a landed property, a position, or an office); especially : a status granted after a trial period to a teacher that gives protection from summary dismissal.
2 : GRASP, HOLD”

It is the last half of the first definition about which this essay is concerned.

Most of the recent conversation about tenure, over the course of the past fifteen or twenty years since the publication of Roger Kimball’s Tenured Radicals (1st ed. 1990, rev. 1998), has been negative. Most of the attention has been focused on professors and higher education, but it should be noted that some states allow tenure at the secondary level.

Below are some common complaints about tenure. Please pardon the occasional repetitiveness, as some similar problems are approached from different angles, with different terminology. It should be noted that I use the terms instructors and professors interchangeably, even though these terms might precisely indicate differing ranks at various institutions.

– Tenure fosters complaisance. Teachers have no incentive to improve their skills after gaining tenure, so classes taught by tenured professors are poorly run, merely mediocre;
– Professors use the platform of tenure to espouse radical political views. This of course is the primary complaint of the abovementioned Roger Kimball. It was also the complaint of John Patrick Diggins in his 1992 book (revised), The Rise and Fall of the American Left. The standard story here is that Leftist Radicals, failing to effect change in the 1960s, moved their efforts to higher education. There they all gained tenure and have been attempting to indoctrinate students since the 1970s.
– Tenure is never given to conservatives. Since the practice has become unfair, and left-leaning professors dominate at most institutions, it would be easier – and more fair to the college-going population, to simply abolish tenure. Institutions would then be able construct politically-balanced, more diverse faculty in step with America’s diversity.
– Tenure is outdated and out of step with American social realities. It is an old construct, irrelevant to life and education institutions in the twenty-first century. It symbolizes how higher education is a kind of medieval institution – undemocratic and inefficient.
– Institutions are not discerning with regard to whom they award tenure. To many colleges have tenured professors who are bad. Most instructors are either overtly political or poor in the classroom.
– Tenured professors cannot be fired. If everyone else in America can loose their job for poor performance, why can’t professors. This is unfair.
– Tenured professors are never reviewed on their performance. Student evaluations are ignored, and institutions rely on inertia: if it’s not too broke, there’s no need to fix it.
– Tenure promotes a “tenured mentality.” This consists primarily of more emotional charge of snobbishness, but also includes the something with more teeth: elitism. Because they can’t be removed, many think that professors hold their views simply because they can: no one can really challenge them. Tenure creates an undemocratic elite class of citizens; it fosters class division both on campus and in society at large.
– If tenure had some basis in intellectual freedom, the overwhelming number of current abuses justify its abolition.

In spite of few variations, most of these complaints can be classified as ‘professors abuse tenure.’ Students and education observers think too many instructors take advantage of the tenure.

But I’d like to be contrary, to make a case for tenure’s necessity and advantages. I think it’s an institution positively relevant to the current political, social, educational, and cultural scene in the U.S. It should be kept because:

– Tenure allows for professors to formulate opinions and arguments contrary to popular opinion without fear of ad hominem reprisal. Human nature contains an element of vindictiveness, and tenure protects professors from those who do not want to argue on the points at hand. Tenure came into being in the U.S., in the nineteenth century, because college donors and trustees sought the removal of professors with whom the donors disagreed. In effect, tenure is democratic because it maintains the rights of an intellectual minority. Tenure respects the idea that there might be a range of solutions to, or explanations for, a problem.
– Tenure protects students from themselves. Human beings, by nature, all display aspects of laziness. We do not like to work, and generally take the easy way out when possible. This vice most certainly extends to students. With tenure, professors are freely able to fight against laziness without fear of being unpopular. While it is not fun to be in a class that demands much, often when those classes are completed a student experiences a great deal of unexpected satisfaction. You hated it and complained about it while in it, but you know you’re stronger for having completed the course. The professor was free to make you work because they didn’t have to worry about your immediate reactions to assignments. Tenure protects you from myopia, from students’ inherent focus on the short-term and grades. Tenure helps you learn.
– Tenure is not a “for life” proposition for professors. Instructors are reviewed; tenure reviews are conducted. Every institution that offers tenure has procedures in place to ensure that students are being protected. Tenure reviews do involve course content, instructional methods, and relations with students and other faculty. If a faculty member is found sufficiently deficient, they are put on notice. If improvements are not made, a professor can be dismissed.
– It is true that professors are slightly more likely to be intellectually “liberal” than the general population, but that is okay and necessary to the endeavor. Higher education involves intense study of the “liberal arts,” no matter one’s specialty – and that study involves sustained engagement with other opinions, a longsuffering tolerance for diverse points of view. Even so-called conservative professors, no matter the type (church-going, political, economic, etc.), are likely to be more intellectually liberal than the general population. This is necessary in order to maintain a diversity of ideas on campus. All instructors have to be patient with the opposition, if for no other reason than to engender that response in turn. Tenure forces students to be patient as well, and this prepares them well for democratic society full of wide-ranging points of view. In sum, higher education experienced under tenured professors fosters the kind of intellectual engagement necessary for the survival of America’s institutions. [Aside: The liberal/conservative split has been covered at this site before.]
– There are and always have been conservative tenured professors. Some are conservative in terms of teaching methodology, and others by politics, economics, or social views. This group does not always get the publicity that liberal professors do, but they nevertheless exist. Conservative professors, by nature, often do not express their political and social opinions in class: it’s not traditional! In fact they existed for decades on American campuses: they repressed Marxist opinion, for instance, from the 1930s to the 1960s. Just like some are advocating today, in terms of bucking the establishment, it was liberal students in the 1960s that fought the conservative establishment on campus. But any student who for a moment reflects on their classroom experiences knows this to be true. Do you like your conservative professors any more than your so-called liberal teachers? Perhaps their classes feel more comfortable, and that comfort allows you to focus on the content: you really learn something. But maybe you liked the liberal ones more. For instance, in terms of teaching methodology their classes may have been different, less focused on traditional content and methods. Or you might have liked the politically liberal professors better for the classroom energy; their opinions raised your hackles and the class seemed free-wheeling, or just less stodgy.

In sum, students need to experience all kinds of opinions and teaching methods. This is practice for the fact that there is never just one way to see or do things. If things are out of balance today, in terms of politics and tenure, it was not always so – and will not always be so.

Is it true that institutions could be more careful in awarding tenure? Yes. Is it true that some tenured instructors are snobs and elitists? Absolutely. Is it true that some tenured professors get complaisant? Sure. Is it probably true that currently the number of liberal tenured professors outnumber those who are conservative? Perhaps.

But even if in twenty years the tables are turned, and conservative professors outnumber liberal ones – which is likely given current demographics, then I hope I would maintain the following: Tenured instructors ought to be valued. They are necessary in education in order to promote a society that values tolerance and diversity.

Sincerely,

Tim Lacy

—————————————–

To learn about tenure and the debates surrounding it, see:

– Wikipedia, “Tenure
– Seton Hill (PA) professor D.G. Jerz’s explanation of tenure
– AAUP’s Statement on Tenure and Further Resources link
– National Education Association, Hot Issue

[Letter Updated: 10 am CST, 12/19/06, to reflect comments]

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4 Comments
  1. I'm glad you found my page useful.

    One small issue… I teach at Seton Hill University, which is a small liberal arts college near Pittsburgh. I'm not affiliated with the New Jersey school with the similar name.

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  2. Dennis: Thanks! I've made the correction. – TL

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  3. TL:

    I didn't find this paragraph to be persuasive. You might try to define what sort of institution you're talking about. Economics and Poli Sci departments tend to be conservative; English, History, et al are almost exclusively liberal of some flavor. I mean seriously, do you know ANY history professors who voted for Bush? And why is liberal dominance of the faculty necessary to ensure intellectual diversity on campus? The point of this objection is that tenuring a liberal faculty stifles intellectual diversity by protecting the liberal point of few. Thus, faculty=liberal/students=conservative is no “intelllectual diversity” because of the inherent power disparity between faculty and student.

    Tenure indeed does foster good things, but I don't think anyone will be persuaded by the line of reasoning in this paragraph. I certainly wasn't, and I'm a big fan of tenure.

    – It is true that professors are slightly more likely to be “liberal” than the general population, but that is okay and necessary to the endeavor. Higher education involves intense study of the “liberal arts,” and that study involves sustained engagement with other opinions, a longsuffering tolerance for diverse points of view. Even so-called conservative professors, or church-going academic types, are likely to be more liberal than the general population. This is necessary in order to maintain intellectual diversity on campus. All instructors have to be patient with the opposition, if for no other reason than to engender that response in turn. Tenure forces students to be patient as well, and this prepares them well for democratic society full of wide-ranging points of view. In sum, higher education experienced under tenured professors fosters the kind of intellectual engagement necessary for the survival of America's institutions. [Aside: The liberal/conservative split has been covered at this site before.]
    ——————————–

    In the paragraph below, I think you conflate different meanings of conservative. I've had socialists who refused to do anything other than lecture, still used typewriters, and wouldn't check voice mail. “old” teaching methods do not a “conservative” make. I'd be careful here. There is no inherent reason why a Bushie wouldn't use power points and interpretive dance to present his view of american history. Technology and methodology are apolitical. In fact, given that most conservative (=right leaning, not resistant to change) professors tend to be younger, I bet that they are MORE likely to be engaging, dynamic, and have that “revolutionary” swagger that captures the hearts of 18 year olds everywhere.

    – There are conservative tenured professors. This group does not get the publicity that liberal professors do, but they nevertheless exist. Any student who for a moment reflects on their classroom experiences knows this to be true. Did you like them any more than your liberal teachers? In fact, you probably liked the liberal ones more. Their classes were different, less focused on traditional content and methods. But you know that conservative methods also served you well. In sum, students need to experience all kinds of teaching methods. This is practice for the fact that there is never just one way to do things. If things are out of balance today, in terms of politics and tenure, it was not always so.

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  4. CM: Thanks a million for your comments. I've updated the letter, in the paragraphs you specified, to better reflect my definitions of 'liberal' and 'conservative.' I'm not sure I covered all your points (i.e. technology), in part because some of what I was trying to do was provide fictional instantiations that play toward stereotypes. I hope that comes through now. Let me know. – TL

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