Pros and cons of teacher tenure for college students

The advantages and disadvantages of teacher tenure in higher education have been debated, but what about tenure’s effects on student success?

The debate of teacher tenure has its pros and cons. (Credit: Cagle Cartoons)

The debate of teacher tenure has its pros and cons. (Credit: Cagle Cartoons)

Tenure in academics offers professors job security, yet critics complain they may become complacent. Do tenured professors spend too much time researching and not enough time teaching?

What is tenure?

In essence, tenure means job security and academic freedom. Teachers in colleges and universities who want to attain tenure are on a “tenure-track appointment.” Teachers gain tenure based on several factors: publishing in academic journals, attracting grant money to the college, bringing notoriety to the school, serving on or leading committees, and teaching service – all accomplished in a limited number of years (usually around seven to ten). Once a professor attains tenure, he/she has job security, higher pay and academic freedom to teach or research unconventional or politically unpopular topics. Tenured professors can be fired for gross incompetence or other serious infractions.

Tenure’s effects on students

Many academics debate the value of tenure as well as the effect tenured versus non-tenured teachers have on students. Some say that college students learn more from non-tenured teachers. A Northwestern University study of the learning outcomes of first-term freshmen undergraduates tested that theory. In “Are Tenure Track Professors Better Teachers?” by David Figlio, Morton Schapiro and Kevin Sotor: “Our findings suggest that non-tenure track faculty at Northwestern not only induce students to take more classes in a given subject than do tenure line professors, but also lead the students to do better in subsequent coursework than do their tenure track/tenured colleagues.” Non-tenured teachers are more teaching-intensive, invoke more deep learning in students and engage students more easily, the study found.

Too much time researching?

In the debate on whether tenured professors spend too much time researching and not enough time teaching: “At a major research university, it is perfectly appropriate to place great importance on the faculty’s research performance,” while community colleges put less emphasis on research, according to “The Truth About Tenure in Higher Education,” published by the Higher Education Departments of the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers. “It is wrong in any case to think of research as the enemy of good teaching. Research and teaching go hand in hand. The best educators are ‘up’ on the latest research and able to inspire students with stories of their own inquiries and interests.”

Advantages of tenure

Tenure was devised to give exceptional teachers freedom to do research, teach, publish and create curriculum relatively unencumbered by politics, management style or the personal taste of whomever is in charge of the college that year. Tenure also prevents more experienced (and hence more expensive) professors from being fired and replaced by cheaper, less experienced teachers for budget reasons.

Tenure also provides a stable, dependable faculty, and gives the professor and the institution prestige, which attracts students and funding to the school. “The faculty acts as an advocate for the curriculum and are thereby afforded the authority to foster an academic environment that advances both student learning and the institution alike. Tenure is essential because it fosters stability and productivity in academic organizations,” wrote Michael Cameron in “Faculty Tenure in Academe: The Evolution, Benefits and Implications of an Important Tradition” published in Journal of Student Affairs at New York University, 2010.

Complaints against tenure

Critics fear that once tenure is finally achieved, professors become complacent because they know they are not likely to be fired, and the quality of their teaching declines. Many schools faced with an underperforming or unproductive tenured professor are likely to just wait until he/she retires rather than initiate the lengthy process involved in firing a tenured teacher.

Moreover, untenured teachers and adjunct professors, who do most of the actual teaching at colleges, are paid less with fewer benefits while tenured professors spend most of their time writing and doing research. Often the decision on who gets tenure is based on internal school politics or the personal whims of a few select people, critics argue. Ironically, the goal of tenured professors achieving academic freedom is lost when tenure candidates conform in order to please tenure voting boards. Also, tenured professors are difficult to fire, leading to ineffectual teachers being kept at the expense of more qualified candidates.

Do you prefer tenured or untenured teachers?

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