Does Tenure Matter?

23 Aug

Yesterday’s post mentioned that the number of tenure-track positions has been declining. But does tenure really matter or is it an antiquated system that should be abolished?

Many believe that it’s time to end the practice, complaining that it protects lazy professors or that timing of the tenure push often conflicts with starting a family.  They argue the structure should change to keep the best professors productive, while making room for new PhDs with novel ideas and approaches.

I agree the system is flawed, but I’m convinced tenure matters tremendously. First, it affords faculty the freedom to teach controversial subjects and write critical letters when appropriate. But equally important, tenure serves as a strong motivating factor for many researchers to stay in academia.

Early-career scientists already subsist on meager salaries while balancing endless grant applications, teaching and advising responsibilities, committee meetings, the rigorous peer review process, irregular hours, departmental politics, running a lab, and the pressure to publish constantly.  No matter how much they love their work, denying them the hope of eventually achieving job security on top of everything else would result in the loss of a the most promising individuals to industry and elsewhere.

I’m curious to hear thoughts from readers on tenure–and please note your profession. I’ve noticed a trend among friends: Faculty members in science and engineering, postdocs, and those in pursuit of a PhD tend to share my perspective, while science writers, policy folks, and non-science professors are more inclined to want to end the practice. What’s your perspective?

4 Responses to “Does Tenure Matter?”

  1. Ethan White August 23, 2011 at 10:57 am #

    I completely agree both with the idea that tenure is valuable and with your justifications for why (which is apparently unsurprising given that I am a faculty member in science).

    Related to your first point I was just reading this post on a science blogger being shut down via threats made to their employer. It made me reflect on how valuable the concepts of tenure and academic freedom are for free discourse in the sciences.

  2. Zen Faulkes August 23, 2011 at 11:07 am #

    I’m an associate professor in biology, so I’ve been through the tenure process.

    I don’t know anyone who will argue against the idea that stability is conducive to doing good science. In many fields, experiments can take years to set up and carry out. I would not be opposed to getting rid of tenure, provided that whatever replaced it could provide reasonable long term stability for scientists.

    I also doubt anyone will argue that someone who is not doing their job should stay in that job. Given the long time scales needed to do science, though, evaluations need to tailored accordingly.

    I think the tenure system as currently practiced could be reformed rather than abolished. Currently, the tenure process in American academia is generally too competitive and stressful at the front end, and is perceived as having too little oversight at the back end. (Perception of the latter is slightly distorted, as people rarely know that post-tenure review exists.) There is room for improvement, I’m sure.

  3. Gus Lott August 23, 2011 at 1:54 pm #

    Unfortunately, academia is one of the most energetic supporters of the status quo. “Faced with the choice between changing one’s mind and proving that there is no need to do so, almost everyone gets busy on the proof.” John Kenneth Galbraith .

    Abolish and replace “tenure” with a modern, performance-based employment contract, subject to collective bargaining if so voted. The AAUP’s last published tenure “interpretation” is 1970 – proving the outdated implementation found most places.

    If teaching employees need “academic freedom”, the employment contract can define it in legal terms, perhaps following the AAUP interpretations – if updated to modern era including electronic media, remote instruction, intellectual property ownership, and an enforceable code of professional ethics.

  4. Hank Stevens May 23, 2012 at 6:23 am #

    I am an associate professor with tenure. If I hadn’t seen the stability and security of tenure ahead of me, I NEVER would have gone into academia. Perhaps that is a sign that I shouldn’t have gone into the profession, or perhaps it is a sign that faculty salaries alone do not compensate for the time and stress that come with the job. Certainly abolishing tenure would probably only increase the stress level, and require MORE compensation.

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