As the high cost of university education has come under scrutiny in our fragile economic climate, significant attention has been devoted to the value of tenure. In my small corner of academia, the American Bar Association—the accrediting body for law schools—is considering abolishing tenure requirements. The attack on tenure is a much broader phenomenon, though.
Much of the criticism of tenure seems to be that it provides job security to lazy professors—those who don’t bother to conduct research, those who don’t care about and don’t invest time in good teaching, and those who don’t do either. For example, a recent Harvard Business Review article explains that, “despite a technological revolution,” “[a]cademic teaching techniques remain calcified.” “Professors’ reluctance to use technology to revamp the way they teach is understandable,” the article continues, because “tenured professors, of course, don’t have to.” Another critic argues: “The best way to improve the quality of education . . . is to get professors to focus more on teaching. And to do that we need to ditch the tenure system and start evaluating professors on the basis of their teaching ability, without any guarantee that they will keep their jobs if they don’t continue to measure up over the years.” These seem to be the common choruses of tenure critics.
One of the most common responses to these critics is that tenure is necessary for academic freedom in scholarship. For example, one scholar has explained that “tenure allows a professor the ability to speak up about issues on which he or she is an expert” and also “allows a professor to purse [sic] research regardless of its political or controversial nature.” Another scholar has stated that, “[w]ithout the freedom granted by tenure, the conditions necessary for creativity will be threatened,” and “data and experience suggest that the overwhelming majority of faculty members at our best universities and colleges are highly self-motivated individuals who strive to produce new, important discoveries, and to write books that will redefine their fields well after they receive tenure.”
Academic freedom, though, is also salient to teaching. As the American Association of University Professors has stated, “[a]cademic freedom is essential to” the common good, which “depends upon the free search for truth and its free exposition.” “Academic freedom . . . applies to both teaching and research. Freedom in research is fundamental to the advancement of truth. Academic freedom in its teaching aspect is fundamental for the protection of the rights of the teacher in teaching and of the student to freedom in learning.” Although defenders of tenure often focus on tenure’s importance to scholarship, tenure remains important to teaching as well. There are nontraditional approaches to teaching that could potentially benefit students but that might be unpopular with students (and thus lead to lower student evaluation scores) or that might be questioned by colleagues more comfortable with traditional teaching techniques. Take “flipping the classroom,” for example. Many teaching experts laud the advantages of this teaching method, but some anecdotal evidence suggests that students sometimes don’t appreciate this approach with which they are unfamiliar. I’ve been advised not to experiment too much with various teaching techniques until I have job security, i.e., tenure. My guess is that if tenure protections are abolished, some professors may feel less free to experiment with teaching techniques that could very well benefit students. And without the freedom to experiment and innovate, student learning and student experiences could suffer. Thus, in defending the importance of tenure, supporters of tenure ought to consider how tenure advances teaching and student learning in addition to scholarship. Policy decisionmakers, too, should consider the role that tenure plays in faculty approaches to teaching.