What is academic tenure?

When you hear the term “tenured professor,” what does it mean?

I’ve been asked this question many times over the years. With another school year about to begin, let me take a quick digression into the world of academe to offer a short explanation.

Unique to education

Tenure is unique to educational settings. Attaining tenured status usually means two things:

First, it conveys an enhanced level of protection for academic freedom, grounded in the conviction that knowledge creation and expression of ideas should be free from intimidation or retaliation.

Second, it provides an elevated form of job security. Generally speaking, tenured professors can be dismissed only for serious misconduct or severe economic necessity.

Tenure is conferred by a single institution; thus, it is not automatically transferable. A tenured professor who wants to move elsewhere typically spends a year doing what’s called a “look-see” visiting professorship at another school to determine if there’s a mutual attraction.

Ideally, the transition to tenured status transforms the employment relationship from one of contract to that of covenant. In other words, tenure should create a special bond, a mutual investment, between the institution and the professor. (Umm, it doesn’t always work that way.)

The tenure track

The path to earning tenure can be arduous. It’s a long-term probationary period, and for most candidates it can be quite stressful.

It starts with getting a tenure-track academic appointment, no small accomplishment in a tight academic job market. For that fortunate few, being a “tenure-stream,” “pre-tenure,” or “tenure-track” faculty member means that you’re still in the evaluation stage, which at most schools runs around five or six years.

During that time, your classes are observed by tenured faculty peers, your scholarship is reviewed by inside and outside referees, and your overall performance is tracked by an oversight committee, a department chair, and/or various deans.

The big three

Teaching, scholarship, and service are the holy trinity of criteria for a tenure evaluation. At schools that emphasize classroom instruction, teaching counts the most. At schools that emphasize research, scholarship counts the most. Many schools strike a balance among the two. Service tends to rank a distant third in any event.

Tenure procedures vary widely among colleges and universities, but basically it involves a faculty tenure committee or department making an initial recommendation based on a vote taken by secret ballot (with a supermajority often required), followed by a recommendation by a dean to the board of trustees. Unless there are unusual circumstances, the faculty vote is what really counts.

Unstated 4th criterion

At some schools, collegiality is the unstated fourth criterion for tenure.

If someone is a four-star bully or jerk or otherwise deemed untrustworthy, it may come to haunt him. On the other hand, someone who is socially popular may find colleagues willing to overlook substantive weaknesses in performance. At less-than-wonderful places, collegiality is code for ensuring the homogeneity of the group.

Tenure votes

Most tenure votes are fair ones. Most tenured faculty understand what’s at stake and apply the evaluative criteria honestly and evenhandedly. Ultimately, despite the stress of the process, most tenure candidates succeed.

However, the world of academic employment is littered with accounts of unfair, unjust tenure denials, typically at schools where the institutional culture is dysfunctional, mean-spirited, or politically divisive.

In any event, it boils down to this: A yes vote brings happiness and a sigh of relief. A no vote typically means the individual is given a year to find another position. It’s a high stakes, up or out game.

The future of tenure

Tenure is under attack. Some claim that tenured professors are too coddled and privileged. Others say that in the face of rising tuition and a difficult economy, tenured and tenure-track professors are too expensive.

In recent decades, we’ve seen a marked shift toward hiring for non-tenured positions and part-time, adjunct positions. Many of these folks are carrying heavy teaching loads in return for very modest pay. More than a few of them have credentials worthy of tenure-track appointments.

If you see corollaries between the attack on tenure and the attack on unions, then give yourself an A.

Lots more

There’s a lot more I could say about tenure, but I think I’m at a point where readers not working in academe have heard enough! For those who have wondered what tenure means in higher education settings, I hope this has been a helpful explanation.

***

Tenure provisions developed by American Association of University Professors are considered the industry standard in academe. For more information, go to the AAUP’s page on tenure.

For more of my blog articles on academic workplaces, go here. I’ve written lots of commentary on bullying & incivility in academe; the (mis)management of colleges and universities through consultants, strategic planning initiatives, and the like; and the state of academic freedom.

Personal note: I earned tenure at Suffolk University Law School in 2000. Later that summer, I visited relatives in Hawaii and came back with eight new Hawaiian shirts, the beginning of my post-tenure wardrobe. Heh.

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4 responses

  1. Even-handed, succinct, and entertaining into the bargain. Or as they say, “collegial”! They could use you at the Oxford Union, if not on Capitol Hill.

  2. Pingback: The part-time experience | shanaligovender

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