When you hear the term “tenured professor,” what does it mean?
I’ve been asked this question many times over the years. Let me take a quick digression into the world of academe to offer a short explanation.
Unique to education
Tenure is pretty much unique to educational settings. Attaining tenured status as a professor usually means two things:
First, it conveys an enhanced level of protection for expression of academic freedom, grounded in the conviction that knowledge creation and sharing of ideas should be free from intimidation or retaliation.
Second, it provides significantly elevated levels of job security. Generally speaking, tenured professors can be dismissed only for failure to competently perform essential job responsibilities, serious misconduct, or severe economic necessity. In the United States, only unionized employees with strong collective bargaining agreements enjoy similar job protections.
Tenure is conferred by a single institution; thus, it is not automatically transferable. A tenured professor who wants to move elsewhere typically must negotiate with another institution to be appointed with tenure, or perhaps do what’s called a “look see” year as a visiting professor to determine whether a lateral hiring with tenure is a good match.
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, as the academic workplace can be as full of ups and downs as any other. Nevertheless, most tenured professors take their responsibilities seriously and appreciate the benefits conferred by this status.
The tenure track
The path to earning tenure can be arduous. It’s a long-term probationary period, and for many 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 they’re still in the evaluation stage, which at most schools runs around five or six years.
During that time, their classes are observed by tenured faculty peers, their scholarship is reviewed by inside and outside referees, and their overall performance is tracked by an oversight committee, a department chair, and/or various deans.
Tenure procedures vary widely among colleges and universities, but basically they involve 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.
Ultimately, it boils down to this: A “yes” decision brings happiness and a sigh of relief. A “no” decision typically means the individual is given a year to find another position. It’s a high stakes, up or out game.
The big three, plus one
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.
At some schools, collegiality is the unstated fourth criterion for tenure. If someone is a bully or a jerk or otherwise deemed untrustworthy, it may come back to haunt them. On the other hand, someone who is socially popular or well-liked may find colleagues willing to overlook substantive weaknesses in performance. At less-than-wonderful institutions, collegiality is hidden code for ensuring the homogeneity of the group.
Most tenure votes are fair ones. Most faculty and administrators who have roles in tenure decisions 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, corrupt, discriminatory, and/or politically divisive.
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 some cases, political and university leaders are going after tenure to diminish academic freedom in higher education.
In recent decades, we’ve seen a marked shift toward hiring for full-time, contract-based, non-tenured positions and part-time, adjunct positions. Many of these folks are carrying heavy teaching loads in return for very modest pay and little job security. 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.
There’s a lot more I could say about tenure, but I think I’m at a point where readers working outside of 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. Aloha!
This post was revised in December 2016 and August 2021.
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