“Tenure” is such a flashpoint in K-12 that it’s easy to forget that it’s really a higher education issue.  This week’s School of Thought column at TIME takes a look at the debate over tenure and asks whether it’s not time to mend it rather than end it.

These days tenure for teachers is such a brawl in America’s elementary and secondary schools that it’s easy to forget that it’s more a cornerstone of higher education. When Austan Goolsbee, Chairman of the President’s Council of Economic Advisors, announced earlier this month that he was leaving the White House to return to the University of Chicago it was a reminder just how strong the ties — and inducements — of university tenure can be, and why it has recently come under fire.

At colleges and universities, tenure basically bestows a job for life unless an institution runs out of money. Originally intended to shield professors from meddling by college administrators, donors or politicians, tenure has evolved into one of the most coveted perks in higher education. It signals excellence and it confers employment stability.

Critics of tenure contend it has outlived its usefulness and is a poor fit for the modern university. Supporters counter that the intellectual independence it confers is essential to a culture of inquiry.

You don’t need tenure, or even a job at all, to read the entire column right here for free.

3 Replies to “Tenure!”

  1. Thank you for boiling it down fairly. “Where people come down on these questions is mostly a matter of values — for instance, efficiency versus unconstrained inquiry.”

    You are being consistent. I wonder how many other “reformers” would give up THEIR university tenure, or the First Amendment for efficiency.

    To paraphrase, those people who would give up the free exchange of ideas for a boost in tests scores, will get neither. If we get to that point, we won’t deserve a public education system, much less a constitutional democracy.

  2. Tenure as a public school teacher is much different than tenure as a university professor. “Tenure” for a public school teacher simply means that a teacher may be fired at any time FOR CAUSE (that is, for poor performance). Tenured teachers may also be laid off as part of a Reduction-In-Force (RIF), although decisions about which teachers leave are usually based on seniority. Teachers without tenure at public schools may be fired at any time for NO REASON AT ALL.

    Tenure does not afford public school teachers the protection of a job for life; It simply forces the school administrators to document poor performance before firing an employee.

  3. Perhaps you should do a little more research before you write columns like this one. You’re right, of course, that at many research universities teaching does not matter to the tenure decision. But research universities make up the minority of all institutions of higher education in this country and educate only a small fraction of college students. At liberal arts college, public comprehensive colleges, private tuition-dependent institutions, and community colleges with tenure systems, teaching is a significant part of the tenure decision and in some cases even the majority factor. Teaching is evaluated by combining many criteria, including observations by peers or supervisors, student evaluations, statements of reflective pedagogy, submission of complex and detailed portfolios of assignments and graded student work, contributions to pedagogical scholarship, and in some cases even student outcomes evaluation. Indeed, some institutions go so far as to deny tenure to faculty members whose low teaching evaluations suggest only that their courses are challenging to students! It is tenure, therefore, that protects faculty so they are able to challenge students in ways that help them learn (which I thought was your goal). Next time, get your facts right.

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