The question of whether or not tenure should be abolished haunts academia. Some say the process hurts students, keeping teachers head down in research as opposed to eye-to-eye with their classroom. Others say tenure is a quality check — a guaranteed freedom that allows for continued creativity.
Although professors are still expected to publish papers after receiving tenure, there are fewer people looking over their shoulder as they type. In a previous interview, Susan Adams, a professor of management at Bentley University, admitted “you have a lot more freedom in the type of things you publish and work on.”
Professor and Chairperson of Computer Information Systems at Bentley, Leslie Waguespack, has described tenure as “a guarantee of ‘freedom of speech,’ where ideas cannot be quieted even when they are not universally accepted.”
For younger professors — the ones assumed to be full of innovative, new ideas — tenure looms as something restricting and outdated. Babson’s Dean of Faculty Carolyn Hotchkiss claims one reason the process “stresses out” junior faculty is because “they feel as though there is one narrow path of approved academic activities that leads to tenure.”
With the amount of problems in higher ed, however, is tenure something colleges can afford?
Although tenure does not guarantee lifetime employment security, it has been known to protect ineffective teachers. Rather than focus on how their students are doing, faculty members are focused on how many papers they’re publishing and who they’re publishing those papers with.
“Some institutions actually count the number of acceptances you have, and some say only [certain] journals count,” Hotchkiss says. “I kind of shake my head and say, ‘Really?’ We’re not encouraging people to do their best work unless [writing papers] is really what they do. You would miss some very interesting people if that was all you looked at.”
Tenure’s role does change on school-by-school basis. Hotchkiss claims Babson likely has a different take on the process than a majority of its peer institutions. “As our faculty move toward tenure, they can take different paths,” she admits. Despite academic research being one of them, others include experimenting or blogging. “We take a portfolio approach,” Hotchkiss says. “And the immovable part of that portfolio is teaching. If you’re not a good teacher, it doesn’t matter what the rest of your portfolio looks like.”
MIT’s tenure policy claims tenured faculty members must also “demonstrate outstanding teaching and service.” At MIT, however, “teaching and service are not a sufficient basis for awarding tenure” and the Institute “regards tenure as important to ensuring academic freedom in teaching, research and extramural activity.”
If “scholarship” only means academic research, however, how beneficial is it? Hotchkiss says they’ve chosen a broader term than “scholarship,” because Babson “wants people to develop a passion for work in a field that’s right for them,” which, to me, makes more sense.
If tenure’s the only thing guaranteed to ensure a professor academic freedom, however, perhaps the question shouldn’t be tenure or no tenure, but rather what professors do with tenure once they have it.
The argument is similar to one of whether or not employers will ever take online learning seriously — or at least it should be. With over six million students now taking at least one online course, the hope is employers become more focused on a candidate’s skills rather than a candidate’s education. Shouldn’t professors be looked at in the same way?
At Babson, Hotchkiss says they hold annual performance evaluations for everyone, despite whether they have tenure or not. The process is one every school should go through if they don’t already.
Because professors should be evaluated on teaching, not on tenure.
At MIT, tenure is described as “an indefinite appointment relinquished upon retirement or resignation.” But, when you take away the fear of being fired, do faculty members start slacking off? And if there is that lingering fear of being fired, do younger professors become risk averse?
In a recent Wall Street journal article, one commenter wrote:
As senior faculty at a major university with tenure for most of my career, I fully support the idea that tenure should be abolished. It serves only the lazy and incompetent. I refused tenure in my new post, and cheerfully suggested if I was ever not doing my job well, I should be sacked. Eight years later, I still have a job. So would anyone committed to the purpose of higher education.
Sure, tenure might weed out the committed from the non-committed, but are professors headed toward tenure more committed to their research or to their students? For schools who can prove their faculty’s focused on both, tenure has its rightful place. Yet, for those who continue to let under-prepared students out into the world, perhaps tenure is a process deemed temporarily unnecessary until the teachers can prove they have the skills, not merely the tenure, to back them up.