Tenure is commonly thought of as the point in a professor’s career where they grab an invincibility star and can’t be fired afterwards.
An episode of “Futurama” features an end-of-the-world scenario where a giant mirror that deflects the sun’s rays threatens to destroy Earth. The scientist who built the mirror wants an enormous raise and tenure before he’ll fix the problem. The government quickly agrees, only to find that the scientist doesn’t care anymore because, hey, he got tenure.
Many students share this idea of tenure, especially when it comes to TEVALs, the teacher evaluation forms we fill out at the end of every semester. We often hear about how the professor does not have to care about anything we say because of his given superpower.
In lieu of this, is there any way we can look at tenure and find that it is doing good, especially if that means professors care more about research than they do their classes?
For teaching to be done well, what is being taught needs to be correct. What we know about the world isn’t grown on trees, it is produced by men and women who make it their life’s work. The professor might have dedicated years of study to something we learn in class for an hour or so.
Tenure is a secure position for research, thinking and study. Without it, professors worried about job security could be influenced on their choice of research topics.
Think about the story of George Washington and the cherry tree. This tale is meant to teach us that honesty is the best policy, but ironically, the story is a fraud. This instance of historical fabrication is relatively harmless, but consider the impact if a researcher advanced a new drug as a cure for cancer, then found out the research was faulty. Without tenure, the researcher might be motivated to protect the lie to advance his or her career, misleading cancer patients and other scientists along the way. Good researchers deserve to look down these rabbit holes without restriction.
Consider the power of a dissatisfied student’s report during a TEVAL. According to an ABC News article from last September, James Franco got a D in an acting class he was taking at NYU around the time he was filming the movie “127 Hours.” The non-tenured professor who gave it to him was fired shortly after, and alleges that Franco’s celebrity status influenced someone at NYU to fill out that pink slip. We should want a system that protects professors from that kind of retribution.
The process for attaining tenure is actually quite difficult. You have to earn tenure, or you probably won’t last long in your employment after a probationary period. Even then, tenure is just a guarantee of due process if you are in line to be fired. You can still be fired if you are tenured, for example, if you’re a bad or incompetent teacher or act inappropriately. You can even be a good teacher and get fired because the school is in financial trouble or your department is being eliminated. Tenure status by no means makes life a walk in the park.
As for graduate teaching assistants, according to the National Educational Association, these part-time teachers are around to complement tenured professors because they cost less. Tenured professors are not taking Indiana Jones-esque excursions for research. On average, tenured professors attend more meetings, work on more papers and teach more classes than their non-tenured colleagues.
The NEA says tenured professors work in excess of 52 hours a week and get paid accordingly. Any given undergraduate class will need a certain number of people to teach a few sections. Instead of hiring professors to teach those classes, we have a GTA teaching in a controlled environment.
Tenure is not the be-all, end-all. It is very hard to earn tenure and it is not a lifetime position. I think the problem with tenure is that the prevailing narrative is always about how a horrible teacher can’t be fired because he somehow got tenured. In reality, tenure is the best way to ensure a quality education for everyone involved.
Patrick White is a junior in journalism and mass communications. Please send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.