Higher EducationPrimary EducationSecondary Education

Tenure! Is it vitally important or an obsolete concept?

The recent court decision throwing out seniority as the be all and end all of who gets pink-slipped in the Los Angeles public schools has stoked a firestorm of discussion.  Seniority in universities and public schools is often equated with being tenured.  Roughly speaking, all faculty fall into two categories: the tenured and the wannabe tenured.  As a member of the former, I can honestly appreciate its value.  Who wouldn’t want the security of knowing that minimal proficiency in your job means you can’t be fired?   I also recognize the privilege of tenure – very few other professional choices give such a lifetime guarantee.  But obvious questions keep arising.  What is it about teaching or being a professor that warrants such a special protected job status?  Why shouldn’t we be like most others, where poor performance risks one’s replacement?

The Costs of Tenure

Without a doubt any system that promises lifetime security after a relatively short trial period, will have abuses.  There will be people who put on a good enough ‘show’ until they achieve their status, and then quit expending effort.  Others may simply burn out – teaching and professorhood are not necessarily low stress occupations.  However, unless you become egregiously incompetent, neglectful or immoral, tenure is very hard to lose.  Anybody who has been educated in the public school system or has gone to university will certainly have encountered people who have no business teaching in classrooms or running labs any more.

A secondary, but very real cost to tenure, is that it locks away opportunities for the next generation of talented, dedicated and motivated teachers and researchers.  It is soul crushing to train for so long, to be so prepared, to be so GOOD at what you do, and yet to be jobless with obvious incompetents snugly nested in their positions for decades to come.  If the science and education pipeline is leaking talented people, some of that blame must be laid at the feet of tenure.

We cannot, however, give in to the idea that academe and the teaching professions are overrun with layabouts.  By a large majority the ranks of faculty are filled by hard working, committed people.  I’ve experienced across a number of universities that most faculty continue to improve both as teachers and researchers after getting tenure.  Deadwood exist, but they are the exception and not the rule.  Similarly, most of the teachers I had growing up and that my kids have had in their public schools assuredly deserve their positions.  The awful, apathetic school teacher is also the exception.

If it’s the case that most are doing their jobs well, then why is tenure needed at all?  The good will keep their jobs and the system will weed out the bad.  Nice thought, but eliminating tenure for universities could very much change the nature of those institutions.  Let me share my fears.

Why tenure is important for colleges and universities.

You may think that tenure at the university level preserves “academic freedom”.  Noble renegade professors being able to say and pursue uncomfortable truths in the face of obstinate resistance from a vindictive status quo!  Well in reality, 99%+ of past, present and future professors have never and will never say or do anything that gores any powerful interest group.  We are in truth a fairly bourgeois lot that have the academic freedom to bother nobody!  Historically tenure was akin to joining a trade union, where the pre-tenure period was an apprenticeship.  New professors used to be hired immediately as they finished their PhD’s.  Such hires had no practical teaching experience and research-wise had not accomplished much.  The applicant pool was shallow and job searches often just involved asking one’s colleagues if they knew anyone that might be appropriate (and available!) for the job.

To gain tenure, one had to prove that they could actually do research and teach to some minimally competent degree.

No more! Applicant pools for professor jobs are deep.  Candidates, more often than not, have already established teaching resumes.  To be competitive, one’s research has to be as or more exciting than probably a number of the faculty on the hiring committees!  At UCLA, we only hire those that really have already proved they can do the job.  Keep it up, and tenure is practically assured.  Grad school and postdocs are where people do their apprenticeships now.

So what does tenure at universities still protect?  In my opinion, it is the barrier against ambitious administrators turning the university into a corporation.  Within most universities there are divisions and departments that come close to or do pay for themselves (e.g., the hard sciences, which is my home), and those that do not (I am looking at you Humanities and Social Sciences).  If you are CEO of General Electric, you can lay off the entire toaster division simply because toasters aren’t profitable enough.  Now imagine if Jack Welsh could run a university like GE – Good bye, you profit-sucking Philosophy Department, and more money for Biomed and nanotech engineering.  And even in the sciences, adios to you Behavioral Ecologists (e.g., me!) who can never expect to get a million $ research grant.  More genomics, please!

Corporations are in the business of making products that maximize their bottom lines.  The only such “product” a university can make is research that attracts outside funding or generates profitable patents.  Thus as the world would change, so would the university with wholesale firings of faculty in left behind fields.  Of course, if your ideal is for universities to be able to pivot quickly to chase the next research bandwagon and monetary windfall, then tenure IS the problem!

But should tenure and seniority be available similarly in K-12?

Now I become conflicted!  I would be no more comfortable with a captain of industry running my kid’s high school than with such a person turning my university into a business.  Public schools have to do many things and serve interests that are not always compatible with a bottom line of maximizing standardized test scores.

The broader question is, however, that whatever your vision of what a public school system should be, does having teachers with tenure actually advance that vision?  One argument is that without tenure, a good teacher could still be stifled and fired through arbitrary and capricious decisions of administrators with personal agendas or a disgruntled parent with an aggressive lawyer.  But that once more begs the question.  Bad bosses and bad managers exist in all professions.  Life and work can be unfair.  What makes teaching so uniquely special that it deserves the protection of tenure?

In the tenure case in the Los Angeles courtroom, the plaintiffs could show real damages to real kids and that this damage was most severe in poor and minority communities that have the greatest need for empowering education.  The defenders of tenure and seniority showed that it well serves a particular category of teachers, but not how that translates into the greater societal good.  Is it any surprise that tenure lost?

Hence my dilemma.  What is the proper balance that both best educates children and protects and rewards those who educate well?  Increasingly, I have shifted to the opinion that true tenure is something that only higher education can afford to have.  For K-12, there has to be something else.

As one of the tenurati, this opinion certainly appears the height of hypocrisy.  But think of it this way.  You can choose which college you might want to attend based on faculty teaching reputations.  Once there, you can choose a major on the same basis.  Then there is word of mouth and with a little creative scheduling, the truly abysmal teachers can be avoided.  But even if they cannot, the cost is a few hours a week which have to be endured.  Basically, in universities and colleges, tenure protects a few useless faculty that other adults have to navigate around.

But for many parents such choices do not exist across the many years in elementary, middle and high school.  It is the nightmare of every parent – that horrible teacher you can’t avoid who gets to mold your kid for a year.  Yes, 18 year old freshmen are impressionable, but the effect of a bad teacher on them is nowhere near the effect that a bad teacher can have on an 8 year old (here’s one person’s own story).  Tenure in K-12 does protect some people that can f**k up children for years to come.  Is this a cost worth bearing?

If not tenure, then what?  Again, most teachers do their jobs and deserve the security and rewards that doing them well should garner.  I have no golden solution to propose but I am open to suggestion and discussion.

What do you think?

Tenure: obsolete idea all around.

Tenure: good for university professors, dodgy elsewhere.

Tenure: keep it for everybody!

Replace tenure and seniority in teaching with….?

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Peter Nonacs

Peter Nonacs

Professor of behavioral and evolutionary ecology at UCLA. I study the evolution of social behavior and cooperation, and anything that ants may do. And occasionally people, too.

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