By David Robinson
Tenure is arguably the most misunderstood and widely maligned principle of academic life.
For many, it is viewed as a ticket to a lifetime appointment, guaranteeing that professors can never be fired no matter what. For others, it’s an elitist system that entrenches privilege and hierarchy.
Against both these claims, I want to make the case that tenure should be seen as neither a perk nor a privilege, but rather as a necessary component of the academic job.
At its simplest, tenure is the right to continuous employment awarded to academic staff following a lengthy and rigorous probationary period. It is not blanket immunity from termination. Rather it means that academic staff with tenure can be dismissed only for just cause or for financial exigency reasons.
Tenure is not an irrevocable right, but it does require the administration to bear the legal burden of proving just cause when seeking to dismiss an academic staff member. Just cause includes such things as dereliction of duties, professional incompetence, academic dishonesty, and harassment and discrimination.
The increasing number of contract faculty employed at universities and colleges have led other critics of tenure to argue that it perpetuates inequities by privileging senior faculty who are disproportionately white and men. It is certainly true that our institutions are not as diverse as they should be, but I think it’s a mistake to attribute this to the tenure system.
What is needed is not the elimination of tenure, but more tenure-track opportunities for increasingly diverse cohorts of younger academics, and tenure criteria that better recognize and value the scholarship and service of those from equity-deserving groups.
Importantly, tenure is the procedural protection for academic freedom. It ensures that in their teaching, research, scholarship, publication, participation in the affairs of the university, and exercise of their broader rights as citizens, academics are not curtailed or censored by the administration, by colleagues, or by outside bodies or individuals. Tenure ensures that scholars can exercise their academic freedom without fear of dismissal.
It’s no coincidence that in the United States today the state governments that are seeking to curtail the teaching of critical race theory and weaken equity efforts are also targeting tenure. Republican legislatures in Georgia, Florida, Texas and North Dakota have all set their sights on tenure as part of their partisan attacks on so-called “woke” culture on campus.
Tenure is not a guarantee of a lifetime job or a special reward for the privileged. It is an essential feature of higher education that enables the exercise of academic freedom for the public good. That makes it a principle well worth fighting for.