A Philosopher's Blog


Posted in Business, Philosophy, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on September 15, 2011
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Education “reform” is a popular thing for Tea Party governors. However, their view of reform is generally not well received by people who are actual educators. In Florida, tenure at state universities and colleges is expected to be once again the subject of legislative scrutiny.  Rick Scott, the governor of Florida, is also apparently interesting in reviewing tenure.

For those who are not familiar with tenure, it is earned by a rather challenging review process. After several years of service a professor can apply for tenure, typically by submitting a rather substantial application as well as supporting documentation (my application package was hundreds of pages of material including letters, evaluations, publications and so on). Naturally, the professor has to meet the requirements for tenure such as having the minimum number of publications and having evidence of effective teaching and university service. The application package is then reviewed at the department level and the  faculty vote on the matter. The application then goes to the college level (such as Arts & Sciences) and then on to the university level for review. They also typically go on to the governing body of the college/university. The process typically lasts almost an academic year (applications at my university are submitted in August and the results are usually known at the end of the Spring semester). As such, the review process is rather extensive.

If a faculty member does not get tenure (it happens more often than one might think) s/he can apply one more time or request another review. If tenure is granted, then the faculty member is usually very happy.

Tenure is often bashed by people outside of academics because they believe that tenure means that a professor cannot be fired. While this is a misconception, it is understandable that people who work outside of fields that offer tenure or other forms of job security would resent the idea that a professor would be (supposedly) immune from being fired. As such, attacks on tenure are often supported by people in ignorance of the truth of the matter.

The truth is that tenured faculty can and are fired. Tenure means that a faculty member cannot be fired without a just cause. Prior to tenure, faculty can often be simply let go by the simple expedient of not renewing their contracts. That does happen, especially in times of budget cuts. It also happens on the rare occasions when a faculty member proves to be incapable of doing his/her job adequately. This is uncommon because someone who can get a doctorate or other terminal degree  is usually capable of at least operating at a minimal level of competence in academics. Of course, faculty can also be fired (or let go) for many other reasons: personality conflicts, spite, revenge, jealousy, and so on. As such, to get tenure you have to get through years of job insecurity after spending nine years or more in college.

Of course, some people still think that tenure is a problem. One reason is that people can still resent the idea that a tenured professor can only be fired for just cause. After all, not all jobs have that option and some folks think that those in charge should be able to fire people as desired or needed, such as when there is a desire to cut corporate taxes and hence a need to cut budgets. Firing a tenured professor and hiring adjuncts in his/her place would be, of course, a money saver.  This is the academic equivalent of replacing permanent employees with low paid temps.

However, this seems unreasonable. After all, to fire someone without just cause would certainly seem to be firing them without justification. That, of course, seems rather unfair. This does, of course, raise the rather significant question of what counts as just cause-but that is a fish for another fire.

Another reason is that tenure provides protection for professor who hold views that are unpopular or controversial. While this protection of academic freedom is actually one of the main reasons for tenure, some folks do find the idea that students are exposed to such views problematic. For example, conservatives often think that universities and colleges are dens of liberalism and thus are sometimes inclined to regard tenure are protecting the inhabitants of these dens from the firing they probably deserve. However, this same protection applies to conservative thinkers as well-and if academia is a liberal den, then conservatives would certainly want the protection of tenure.

Yet another reason is that some people think that tenure is granted for the wrong reasons (such as research) and that tenured faculty then are free from doing “real” work. For example, Scott seems interested in following Perry’s Texas model in which tenure is based more on teaching evaluation and student satisfaction rather than on research. There is also more incentive to teach more classes.

This view does have some appeal. After all, there are faculty members who teach very little or do not teach at all. Instead, they focus on research. Since I, a tenured professor, teach four classes a semester, I do find it somewhat appealing that my less burdened brethren might be compelled to get into the classroom more often. After all, if I can crank out books while teaching four classes, surely they can. That said, it should also be pointed out that some of these low/no teaching faculty do generate large revenue streams for the universities via their research, that they are engaged in research that has significant benefits, and that they are advancing knowledge. This research aspect is what contributes to America being the world leader in universities. It would be unfortunate and perhaps even catastrophic if this was destroyed by the “Tea Party” ideology. Ironically, a successful attack on tenure by these people would be a serious blow to the corporations they adore. After all, these corporations benefit greatly from university research as well as the professionals who are trained within the research environment.

Another point of concern is that teaching evaluations and student satisfaction are not the best methods of faculty evaluation. While they can currently be useful, go to Rate My Professor and see some of the comments. While some students provide fair and objective assessments on a professional level, evaluations are often rather unfair, biased and unprofessional. While student satisfaction is important, what tends to satisfy some students is getting good grades for little effort. What would be needed is ways of providing student based assessment that would successfully distinguish between, for example, bad reviews based on the fact that students were mad they had to write a paper and bad reviews based on the professor not putting adequate effort into the class.

In reply, it might be said that the students are the customers and the customer is always right. After all, in the business world employees are assessed in terms of how well they satisfy the customers (well, in theory). However, academics is a different environment. While students (or someone) is paying for the education, the relationship between student and professor is not the same as between a customer and employee. While I am there as a professor to provide a service (education), I am also there to provide an objective evaluation of the student and I am in a position of (very minor) authority in my role as educator. While students should not be powerless, if a professor’s tenure depends significantly on his/her student evaluations, then students will gain considerable leverage over faculty and this could impair academic standards. This is not to say that student evaluations should not count but that their role should be limited because of these factors.

One final point is that if the “Tea Party” governors weaken or eliminate tenure, then the effect will be a negative one on their states’ universities and colleges. Faculty who can get jobs elsewhere in states that still have tenure will go to those states. This will tend to result in an exodus of the best faculty (and the best connected). Only those who either cannot get jobs elsewhere or who are unwilling to leave for some reason (family, loyalty, laziness, etc.) will remain. Of course, the “Tea Party” governors seem like the sorts who would be happy with a less educated population and inferior universities. After all, they could cut taxes for corporations even more since they could pay faculty even less.






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4 Responses

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  1. Anonymous said, on September 15, 2011 at 7:16 am

    Tenure has been under attack, true, but it is more due to economics than to Tea Party politics. Arnold Kling explains using a Genghis Khan analogy:

  2. FRE said, on September 15, 2011 at 1:13 pm

    Student input for tenure decisions is important. In one class I took on industrial relations, the instructor spent most of his time dictating notes for the students to write down. That was a waste of time for the students; instead, the instructor should have had the notes printed and passed them out, then spend most of the class time leading class discussions on the content of the passed-out notes, the text book, and his personal experience in the field of industrial relations. I would have vetoed tenure had I been given the opportunity to do so.

    In another class, the professor did very well. The grade was based entirely on a term paper which required considerable research. Class attendance was optional, but those students who chose not to attend did not get better than a “C” on the term paper since they missed the background material and class discussions. Because the professor was highly experienced in his field, the lectures and discussions were very interesting. In that case, had I been given the opportunity, I would have voted for tenure.

    So, student input should be considered in tenure decisions. However, the motives behind student opinions must be considered and probably more weight should be given to the opinions of good students. Making the subject interesting, motivating students to do well, helping the students to increase their knowledge are important considerations.

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