Tenure: What Is It?

In higher education, tenure is a professor’s permanent job contract, granted after a probationary period of six years. A faculty member in such a probationary position is said to be in a “tenure-track appointment.”

At larger universities, a faculty member’s ability to publish research and attract funding plays a major role in tenure decisions. Teaching ability and service to the university play a supporting role.

At most smaller universities, a faculty member’s teaching ability is rated first, followed by research and service (to varying extents).

Service can include administering university programs, mentoring younger faculty members, advising student groups, and serving on committees,

CC image by Bryan Costales.

Informally, pursuing tenure is referred to as “chasing the brass ring,” which refers to the carnival practice of awarding free rides to paying customers who compete with each other to grab a brass ring while the carousel is moving.

Most college teachers have earned or are about to earn “terminal” degrees (the highest degree it is possible to earn in a field; usually a Ph.D., M.D., or similar doctorate degree; but in some fields, the highest degree is an M.F.A.). The degree is the result of many years of hard (and expensive) study. The culmination of a Ph.D. program is the dissertation — a book-length original study. College teachers may also be may be ABD’s, an informal term meaning that the person has completed “All But the Dissertation.” At larger schools, the lower-level undergraduate courses are regularly taught by graduate students.

Many holders of terminal degrees don’t find tenure-track jobs until they are in their mid-thirties, after 10 or more years of racking up full-time college bills. These people won’t be eligible for tenure until they are past 40. By that time, their college classmates who went to work right after graduation could have amassed 20 years of pay raises and retirement savings.

A personal note: I completed all the requirements for my Ph.D. in my early 30s; my wife is still working on hers. For many years, our living room couch was a futon and in the kitchen we ate from a card table (though over the years we have acquired better furniture through inheritance and gifts).  I didn’t really mind, because I love what I do; and I consider my own tenure as a benefit that made the many lean years as a graduate student a worthwhile investment.

Nevertheless, several good arguments can be made against tenure.

First, some large research universities deliberately hire more tenure-track professors than they can possibly keep. At one point, one English department had ten people competing for two tenure-track slots. While the profession as whole advances when such competition allows the best and brightest to emerge from a pack of promising and accomplished candidates, spending years knowing that you are competing with your co-workers can create a very stressful working environment.  While many jobs involve competing with co-workers, I mention this detail because it works against the stereotype of professors as mild-mannered, bookish, and leading a relaxing life. (Professors may only spend a few hours a week in front of students, but a tenure-track professor’s job requires research — intellectually demanding and time-consuming work that is often invisible to students and to members of the general public.)

Second, while a tenured professor can be fired for incompetence or gross misconduct, universities occasionally feel it is better just to wait for troublemakers to retire. Why? Because lawyers are always happy to sue on behalf of anyone who claims a breach of an employment contract. If a cost-conscious university could fire every professor who seems to be going through a slump (perhaps because he is working on one long book instead of producing several short articles a year, or perhaps because she is teaching a ground-breaking new course on an unfamiliar subject, so that the quality of her lectures drops), then political in-fighting and personal vendettas could overshadow the long-term educational needs of students (who are largely unaware of what may be going on in the professional lives of their instructors).

A third argument against tenure is that it is not even a possibility for many college instructors. Because a university cannot lay off its tenured faculty members during periods of low enrollment, departments need a pool of expendable workers, so that they can add or cancel classes as enrollment fluctuates. The salaries of these part-time workers are lower than more experienced faculty members, so when budgets are tight, department chairs feel pressure to hire several part-time instructors instead of one tenure-track prof. Many of these instructors are happy to be given the chance to teach at all. Unfortunately, since their contracts do not include the possibility of tenure, there is no mechanism to reward them for their long-term contributions.

American Association of University Professors

Elsewhere on the WWW

In the Library

  • Tenured radicals : how politics has corrupted higher education (LA227.3 .K56 1990)
  • Academic freedom : an everyday concern (LB2300 .N44 no. 88)
  • Academic freedom in American higher education : rights, responsibilities, and limitations (LC72.2 .P63 1993)