What does tenure really protect?


In the three years I’ve attended Mount Holyoke, I’ve encountered more than one scandal involving a professor exhibiting, to put it lightly, questionable behavior. And each time, I’ve encountered the same reasoning for why the professor will face no accountability for their actions: “Well, they’ve got tenure.”

There are undoubtedly some advantages to academic tenure. Initially created with the intention of preserving academic freedom, the system allows professors to be more outspoken and bold without fear of losing their job. James Harold, Chair of the Department of Philosophy at Mount Holyoke, noted “... tenure also protects faculty from [the potential ramifications of] pursuing politically unpopular research, and I think that’s incredibly valuable. For people working on immigration policy, gun violence, or climate change, for example, this can be a politically risky time — but that work is so important.” Tenure allows professors to openly advocate for what they believe in without fear of ramifications from the college’s board, whereas prior to the existence of the tenure system, a college’s board of trustees and even significant donors had a disproportionate amount of control over the employment choices of the college, according to the American Association of University Professors. This meant that if a wealthy donor didn’t like a particular professor’s practices, they could potentially have them removed. The introduction of the tenure system prevented such incidents from occurring.

But tenure’s advantages are outweighed by its disadvantages, which range from generating poor classroom dynamics to seriously harming students. For example, tenured professors aren’t required by their colleges to amend their teaching styles as times change. If a student requests a tenured professor add more writers of color to the course readings, the professor doesn’t have to do so. But a liberal arts education prides itself on student engagement and individual attention; while professors have the right to form their own syllabi, students deserve professors that listen to their concerns and they deserve to be represented in their course readings. In the above example, refusal to engage with a student’s concerns is to aid in perpetuating the lack of diversified viewpoints in academia. Additionally, more than once I’ve heard a student complain about a professor, but decide not to bring up their concerns in course evaluations “because there’s no point.” Being unable to honestly critique a professor’s teaching methods results in a stagnant and disengaged classroom environment, both for the student and the professor.

The 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure states, “After the expiration of a probationary period, teachers or investigators should have permanent or continuous tenure, and their service should be terminated only for adequate cause, except in the case of retirement for age, or under extraordinary circumstances because of financial exigencies.” “Adequate cause” is not defined in the 1940 Statement, implying that the term’s meaning is up to the interpretation of a college’s board. While this isn’t a blanket of invincibility for tenured professors, it just falls short of being so. Tenure isn’t meant to be a defense for serious misdemeanors, but it is nevertheless a powerful symbol of protection, a factor that dissuades students from making complaints where they are due. And while arguments for tenure cite that it can be revoked, a 1994 study in the Chronicle of Higher Education found that out of 280,000 professors, only 50 to 75 lose tenure each year — less than one percent. According to Harvard University researcher Cathy A. Trower, that number has likely not changed since then.

Three years ago, a tenured Mount Holyoke professor used a racial slur in a classroom, but was allowed to continue teaching for the rest of the academic year and was never formally dismissed. The harmfulness of his action is undeniable, and the professor faced little to no repercussions — he is still lauded as Professor Emeritus of the College. If the professor’s tenure status had nothing to do with the lack of consequences he faced, I wonder why this semester, the manager of Rao’s was removed from her position relatively swiftly for using the same racial slur.

The institution of tenure also results in the mistreatment of non-tenured professors. At many colleges, tenured professors reap the benefits of their positions, while non-tenured professors suffer from higher workloads, lower compensation, fewer benefits and less academic influence. This disproportionate distribution is unfair and contributes to enduring systems of inequality in academia. Suggestions to improve the tenure system without abolishing it include imposing more stringent rules for approval, periodic review of professor performance and more consideration of student input and concerns.

This isn’t to say that professors shouldn’t want tenure, that tenured professors are all bad or that all tenured professors are to blame for the few of them that do abuse their tenure status. I recognize the fact that there are tenured professors who continue to go above and beyond for their students, using their positions to evoke positive change. It’s also important to note that many of the issues that arise with tenured professors are indicative of wider, institutionalized problems. However, while recognizing the benefits of tenure, we can’t ignore the abhorrent detrimental effects it can have on students, ranging from the small to the massive. Tenure still remains a shield of protection for professors that places them a step above students on the credibility ladder. Yes, academic freedom is important. But I do not believe academic freedom is worth the emotional wellbeing and educational experience of a college’s students.