Tenure Explained

“So, why do faculty get guaranteed lifetime employment? We staff don’t get tenure. Why should they?”

A fairly new and very committed staff member asked this question. That question made me think that there are lots of things that we don’t know about each other’s work and that sometimes it is important for us to know these things.

So, I thought I’d make a start with an answer in The Scroll.

First, tenure does not mean employment for life.

There are very specific conditions under which faculty may lose employment. These range from financial exigency to moral turpitude, aka depravity. Admittedly, fairly serious grounds. Why should the requirement for loss of tenure be so high? Because tenure is protection for one of the highest values of academic life – academic freedom. To fulfill our mission – in fact, the mission of any serious university – St. Thomas faculty must be able to address controversial, uncomfortable and unwieldy issues without fear for their jobs. Curricular activities and scholarly work are protected by the requirements of tenure. Threats are real. In the not too distant past, there was the Great Margarine Massacre. Economists at a well-respected state university with strong agricultural ties were fired for failing to support the nutritional superiority of butter over margarine. Horrors, they even suggested that laws requiring yellow dye for the pasty white margarine to be sold separately were in restraint of trade.

Another, oft-overlooked value of tenure is the mentorship that comes with it. Senior faculty are able to offer advice on teaching, scholarship and service without fear for their own positions. When I was a new faculty member, senior members of the economics department – Mary Supel, Dan Fairchild, Mo Selim – gave me desperately needed tips on my teaching techniques much to the benefit of our students! Those students and I are eternally grateful. I have tried in my turn to help newer faculty over the years. I now see those then newer faculty mentoring yet newer hires.

The same security in one’s position also allows departments to hire better than themselves. Every year the academic quality of the University is maintained and strengthened as current faculty pursue the best new colleagues possible.

There is a down side of tenure, too, but that’s for another day. This is the beginning of a glorious new fall semester, a time for appreciating only the values of academe. With the falling leaves, the crashing financial institutions, and a presidential election hanging on economic issues, the itch to be in the classroom is strong for an old economist.