Tenure Talk Revisited

“No other job has tenure for life; faculty positions shouldn’t either.”

I’ve heard this claim for years, but these days the repetitions are more frequent and more strident. This is partly a result of the national debate about the cost of higher education and partly a consequence of the high unemployment rate and general job insecurity. But is it true?

On Sept. 26, 2008, I wrote in The Scroll about the importance and value of tenure, including the freedom to pursue and disseminate knowledge and understanding. I was really pleased that one of our students (James Heaney) called it “a robust defense of tenure” in his comment. I won’t repeat those arguments here, though they are still timely.

There is a downside to tenure. I alluded to this in that blog but never revisited it, probably because the downside is a rare occurrence. It is the possibility that a faculty member may sit down on the job once tenure is attained. We should all be willing to admit that this happens occasionally. Among ourselves, not only do we admit it but we have a name for it – deadwood. If shirking reaches the stage of failure to perform the duties of a faculty member, tenure may be revoked.

But from my long experience in higher education, shirking is indeed rare. Mostly, faculty push themselves and each other to improve in all facets of the work. That may best be understood by looking at teaching as a calling, not just a job.

Other jobs are callings, too, of course – and some you’d hardly expect. My dad was a rural letter carrier in the hills of Arkansas. For some people on his route, he would be the only person they would talk with for weeks. For some, he brought medicine from town. From children on the route, he bought eggs – dozens per week when the hens were laying. He went with the county sheriff to deliver news of deaths of sons in Vietnam. He drank white lightnin’ with Charlie, an old man on his route who distilled a fine (if illegal) elixir. My dad made his job a calling, but he didn’t have tenure.

Does any other job have tenure attached? Ron Jenkins, in the Sept. 16, 2011, Chronicle of Higher Education, cites Clayton Christensen and Henry Eyring, who argue that there are other knowledge workers who have tenure for all intents and purposes. They point out that professions such as law and accounting offer partnerships to those who prove themselves in the field. Like tenure, a partnership may be revoked under extreme circumstances, but such instances are rare.

Economists would consider these partnerships (and tenure in academe) to be ties committing not only the employer to the worker but the worker to the employer. Partnership and tenure are rewards for acquiring the years of education and proving one’s worth to the organization. Partnership and tenure give a voice in decisions and a guarantee of longevity with the firm or the university.

And that is good for the faculty member and good for the university.