The issue of whether or not teaching faculty members should be awarded tenure or work for renewal contracts is one that is debated in higher education. The subject raises questions regarding faculty performance and behavior. It also brings up the issue of whether an employee can rightly be said to have earned a position of permanent employment or not.
Tenure refers to the process whereby school faculty members are awarded perpetual employment, regardless of their performance in the classroom. This is generally awarded to those who have met the necessary research standards for their university, college or school by making substantial contributions in their field of expertise. Tenured faculty members usually cannot be fired, except in cases of misconduct or illegal behavior. Faculty members with renewable contracts are generally employed on a contingent basis, usually from one to four years, depending upon the institution. In this type of system, contracts are typically renewed after an extensive performance review by other faculty and administrative officials.
The problems with faculty tenure generally boil down to the issues of performance and entitlement. Because tenured faculty members generally do not have to worry about getting fired, it is argued that they have no incentive to improve their teaching in the classroom. In fact, as the Alabama Policy Institute notes, it is possible for a tenured faculty member to do very little to change his classes or teaching methods once he obtains tenure. The institute also notes that tenure can result in a lethargic response to change among established faculty members who have no real vested interest in changing the status quo. On the other hand, as Robin Wilson notes in a 2010 article in "The Chronicle of Higher Education," eliminating tenure has its problems, also. One potential threat in eliminating tenure is that faculty members will be less likely to speak what is on their minds. The universities may be filled with instructors who say and do only what they are expected to do and never play the role of the avant-garde scholar.
Offering tenure to faculty members can also create division within the ranks of the faculty as a whole. Naomi Schaefer Riley notes in a July 2011 article in "The Daily Texan" that the majority opinion within a university department usually ensures that there is little dissent among the other faculty members. In this environment, graduate students agree not to disagree so that they can later fall back on the support of faculty members to later get recommendations for jobs. When a school's entire faculty is on renewable contracts, all faculty are, in some sense, on equal footing. Renewable contracts may allow the faculty members to work as a team. However, these contracts may also serve as an impediment to progress if faculty members know they may be employed for only a limited period of time. Not having a vested interest in long-term goals may cause some indifference among faculty members who wish to do only what is necessary to maintain their position.
A 2010 article in "The Chronicle of Higher Education" indicates that the future of faculty tenure is questionable. Renewable contracts may be the wave of the future. The number of tenured faculty members has fallen from 57 percent to 31 percent from 1975 to 2007, the Chronicle states. Financial constraints have made it necessary for many schools to hire larger numbers of part-time faculty members and full-time nontenure track faculty members to offset funding issues. Renewable contracts offer schools the opportunity to save money in the long run and may prove to be a more fiscally responsible way to handle faculty employment. Eliminating faculty tenure altogether, though, may make it difficult for top schools to continue to attract top scholars to enhance the schools' reputation.
- Female Science Professor Blog; Slate Takes On Tenure; 2010
- Center for Digital Research and Scholarship; Theory vs. Reality: Is tenure necessary?; 2010
- The Daily Texan; Replace Tenure with Multiyear Renewable Contracts
- Alabama Policy Institute; Teacher Tenure
- American Association of University Professors; The Status of Non-Tenure-Track Faculty
- The Chronicle of Higher Education; Tenure, RIP
- Time; A Brief History of Tenure
- Forum on Public Policy; Tenure in Higher Education
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