Seven Observations About Why Tenure is not “All That”

There’s been a lot of talk in the social networks I travel about tenure lately because of the mess in Wisconsin. For example, there are these two pieces from the New York Times, “Unions Subdued, Scott Walker Turns to Tenure at Wisconsin Colleges” and “Tenure Firmly in Place, but Colleges Grow Wary of Lasting Commitments.” Both of these articles only mention in passing the real crisis, IMO, that of the enormous budget cuts that Walker et al are forcing in the UW system.

Also, I don’t think either of these articles makes it clear that the system in Wisconsin is also unique in that tenure was specifically protected by state law– that’s what Walker managed to change. Ultimately, I suspect there will still be a system of tenure within the UW system that is more akin to the way tenure works in other states. But because of all of the emphasis on tenure, I also have a feeling that Walker et al will be able to cram through these budget cuts without a lot of pushback.

In any event, all of this has had me thinking about tenure in general and also how it has impacted me specifically. Perhaps my seven observations are all kind of obvious to other academics, but I thought I’d write them down anyway. But before I get to these points, let me offer two very important caveats/disclaimers/preferences/whatever:

  • I am for tenure. I don’t think it’s a perfect system (obviously), but I think it’s better than the alternatives. And of course, I’ve been tenured at EMU since 2002 and a full professor since 2007, and I’m not giving up tenure anytime soon.
  • I think the stuff going on in Wisconsin is insane. I worry tremendously for my colleagues and the students in the UW system, and I also worry about some of what’s happening there spreading to other states. I mean, I never thought Michigan would follow Wisconsin’s lead as a “right to work” state, but that’s exactly what happened a few years ago. I sure as hell hope that Walker’s moves in higher education don’t catch on.

Okay, my seven (or so) observations:


What tenure and promotion means varies at least as much as what it takes to get tenure. I’ve written about this before– for example, “‘Where Do I List This on My CV?’ Considering the Values of Self-Published Web Sites.” In discussions about “tenure” in the media and online and what-not, it often sounds to me like there’s just this assumption that we’re all talking about the same thing. In reality, what it takes to get tenure varies tremendously in different disciplines and in different institutions, and it also is often a “case by case” basis sort of thing. The common assumption is that in fields like English that it takes a “book plus” to get tenure, but I know people at R1 and/or PhD granting institutions who earned tenure without a book because of a fair number of articles, grants, good teaching, etc. At more teaching-centered/non-research universities (which is to say the majority of institutions in higher education), I think it is more common that you don’t need a book to be tenured.

At EMU, the requirements for tenure are largely a function of the faculty union contract (more on that below) and in my department, the requirements are very modest– too modest in my view, but that’s another story. We hire people with the assumption that we will tenure them. While I can think of a few people in my time at EMU who left before they could have been denied tenure, no one in my department who has gone through the process has been denied tenure or promotion, and as far as I know, that’s been the case for decades.

I know this isn’t the case everywhere, even at less than top-tier universities: that is, there are some places similar to EMU that have surprisingly high requirements for tenure. There are plenty of places– particularly at R1s– where a faculty member can have a perfectly acceptable academic career but never rise to the level of full-professor.

The point is that getting tenure is not like passing a test of some sort along the lines of passing the bar or medical board exams or whatever. It isn’t standardized, and it isn’t portable. Every institution and every department has different rules and procedures that vary a lot.

Tenure is a perk that is more about job security and rank than it is about academic freedom. Whenever there are moves to curtail or eliminate tenure, academic-types usually first appeal to how tenure is about protecting academic freedom. That is of course true, and tenured faculty can be fired if they do something bad– I recently saw a case of that in my own department, actually. But as important as academic freedom is, I do think that tenure is more important as a matter of rank (and prestige) and job security. I don’t get any more votes in department meetings or whatever, but I think rank and seniority matter in a sort of unspoken way. And if the shit ever really hit the fan and there serious layoffs of faculty, tenure and rank would matter quite a bit.

This issue of job security and rank are important, particularly in more STEM-oriented fields. It is a perk that makes academic work appealing to people who could make more money in the private sector. I was chatting about the whole Wisconsin mess with some colleagues who teach stuff in computer science and IT security, and one of these folks put it pretty bluntly: “If I couldn’t get tenure, why would I want to work in academia?”

This leads to my next point:

In my experience, tenure doesn’t make people “speak out” more, and vice versa. I certainly haven’t met or worked with someone who held relatively common political views who, after they were tenured, became a radical, and the radical loudmouth gadflies I’ve met were like that long before they got tenured. If anything, if getting tenure is sort of like being let into “the club,” you could make a good argument that tenure goes to faculty who are less outspoken.

The only exception to this I’ve seen on a fairly regular basis (and I’ve done this myself) is speaking out on behalf of some person or group who doesn’t have the “protections” and status of tenure. For example, I’ve seen tenured faculty make some pretty pointed defenses of part-timers, graduate assistants, staff folks, and so forth.

Furthermore, while tenure might give you the right (and sometimes obligation) to say things without fear of losing your job, that doesn’t mean that your speech is free of any consequences. There are lots of outspoken tenured professors who no one takes seriously, for example.

Unfortunately, tenure is not magic or a super-power. When I’m reading things about the problems of adjunct labor or the anxieties of tenure-track faculty going through the process, I sometimes sense that these folks are viewing tenure as if it was this special power, the cumulation of everything that has come before, the ultimate brass ring. The reality is tenure hasn’t made me smarter, better-looking, stronger, or richer.

And for those of you who think tenure is going to “solve” whatever problems you have with academia as a non-tenured person, I have some bad news for you. It will help (see above on job security and status), but tenure ain’t all that.

Practically speaking, tenure and long-term/renewable contracts are very similar. I know a few people who have or are currently working at institutions that don’t have tenure but instead have renewable contracts of some sort. Rank sometimes plays into that renewing process: that is, tenured professors are eligible for a five year contract, while non-tenured professors are only eligible for a two year contract or whatever. At EMU, we have lecturers who have contracts that are renewed every year.

Now, I realize that there is always a little anxiety about those contracts being renewed, especially in volatile financial times. But practically speaking, these contracts are renewed– at least at EMU, and at least with the people I know. Yes, there are always exceptions to this and part-time/semester-to-semester work is a different and much worse problem. But I would bet that firing a faculty person with a renewable contracts is about as unusual as firing a faculty person with tenure.

Tenure can make it difficult to move to another position and/or can be “golden handcuffs.” Don’t get me wrong– I’m very happy at EMU and at this point, I suspect I will finish my career here, too. I have no complaints. At the same time, being tenured at EMU means it would be difficult for me to get a position at a different university, particularly a position where I’d be starting again as a tenure-seeking professor. Sure, there are some senior positions that come up in my field every year, but because the tenure clock at EMU is quick and the requirements are modest, I simply don’t have the scholarly record to be competitive for those jobs. And if I applied for an assistant professor or lecturer position in Hawaii or some other place where I’d want to live, I probably wouldn’t get the interview.

Finally, if I had to choose between a strong faculty union and tenure, I’d choose the union every time. EMU has a strong (though not as strong as it was thanks to “right to work”) faculty union, the EMU-AAUP.  I don’t want to suggest that the union is a perfect arrangement because the union does all sorts of stuff that drives me crazy. But even with all of its problems, the union is tremendously important to faculty at EMU.  The process for tenure and promotion is codified in the contract, which means that our process is all out in the open.  If a faculty member has a problem of some sort with an administrator, the union intervenes, and, in my limited experience with this, the union solves the problem.

It’s not really a question of whether faculty have tenure or they organize into a labor union because, obviously, unionized campuses do both. But what I’m getting at is I think being in the union plays a more significant role in my work than being tenured. And I think the smartest thing faculty in the UW system could do under the present circumstances is use this as a reason to organize as a union, too. I’m sure the AAUP or the AFT or another national group would be happy to help out.





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10 Responses to Seven Observations About Why Tenure is not “All That”

  1. Seth Kahn says:

    I was with you, as you might expect, until the last sentence. I’m increasingly unsure that the large national unions would go within spitting distance of Wisconsin right now.

  2. Kyla Gurganus says:

    A lot of good points to think about on tenure, even for those of us at the high school level. Tenure has been gutted for us, and now there is basically no job security with our current economic conditions, but I still feel the “golden handcuffs” you mention.

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