What if…?

What if tenure were outlawed tomorrow?  What would happen?

Some teachers who haven’t been teaching would get laid off.  

  • This would be a good thing.
  • It would also encourage others to keep doing their jobs.
  • A sweeping round of layoffs would be demoralizing.

Some good teachers who have high seniority, and the attendant price tag, would get laid off.

  • We would expect that they would be hired by someone else, but perhaps not.  How do you prove you are the high seniority gifted teacher rather than the poor teacher who hasn’t been working?
  • This would be negative for the teacher, financially and emotionally.
  • It would be bad for the students because some good teachers would be gone.

lightbulb-smSome bad teachers would not be laid off.

  • They have social clout or are donor’s family members.
  • It would appear to those outside that the teacher is good, else they would be laid off.
  • The status of the college would go down with those in the know, because they would know a bad teacher was being kept on when all the excuses were gone.

Some good teachers would not be laid off, despite high seniority.

  • Their administrations would recognize their worth.  Thus they would be feel more valued than before.
  • A meritocracy would begin to be formed, since only good teachers would be kept on at higher wages.

So, what do you think?  What else would happen if tenure were abolished tomorrow?  I would really like to know.


Erin O’Connor at Critical Mass wrote a post on tenure.

One reason people want tenure is for academic freedom. If you have tenure, the theory goes, you can oppose the administration politically at no cost to yourself.

Let’s think about that for a minute.

If you are opposing the administration, are you really going to wait until you are tenured? No, you’re not. And as a result, you won’t get tenure.

If you are opposing someone at no risk to yourself, isn’t it possible that you will oppose them out of vengefulness, pettiness, or simply desiring to be annoying? Yes, it is.

So tenure = academic freedom is a “get out of jail free card” for teachers who just want to make the administration miserable. No, everyone doesn’t do it, but some of them do. You probably know one or two.

Then there’s the idea that tenure rewards hard work. As my grampa used to say, “The reward for work well done is more work to do.” If a teacher is teaching (and researching, at a research institute), then they will be rewarded. No administration in the world wants to have to pay to go look for candidates to replace good people they already have. And they’re not going to do that, most of the time. Yes, sometimes someone gets in a squabble and maybe it isn’t the teacher’s fault, but most of the time this won’t happen.

My high school had tenure. (Yes, you read that right.) And there was a Spanish teacher who didn’t teach anything in her classes. She had tenure, so she didn’t have to. Now, there were forty teachers in my high school and only one wasn’t doing her job. But the 39 who were doing their job, would have done it without tenure. And the one who wasn’t, could have been let go without tenure.

On the other hand, if there’s no tenure, then full-time faculty may be increasingly replaced with part-timers, or, more likely, as new teachers are needed, only part-time faculty will be hired.

How can we get around that?

adjunct-bag2First, schools who are hiring lots of adjuncts don’t have high standing, in their communities or in academia. And, believe it or not, all schools want to have a high standing. So why are they hiring mostly adjuncts? It’s financial considerations. And tenure or not isn’t going to change the financial considerations for most of those schools.

Next, what about fixed term contracts? My SLAC has three-year fixed term contracts. Most of the teachers there have been there for the last twenty years on those contracts. They haven’t needed tenure to have job security, because they and the school fit each other.

Now, however, there are differences coming, and some of them may not have notice the changes in the wind. The SLAC is moving towards being a research institute. So without publications and presentations, a person won’t get hired there. I would not be surprised if, eventually, the school starts letting go people who don’t have the publications they want. But that won’t be soon. Remember what I said earlier? It’s way easier to keep what you have than to get something new. So even with the winds of change blowing, most of those teachers will keep their jobs for multiple more contract terms without needing to improve their publication/presentation rate. And those who want to stay on and who people want to keep, they’ll get the idea (either themselves or through a nudge) that they need to get to work.

Therefore, I am for fixed year contracts over tenure. I don’t think tenure does much for a school and I don’t think it really does a lot for the teachers.

Of course, I’m speaking from the outside, as someone without tenure, without a full-time position, so some may discount my opinion. But I think it makes sense. And I think we are moving towards that model in academia.

“Education in the Balance” and my response

Perhaps the most surprising finding is the relatively high percentage of the upper- division undergraduate courses taught by non- tenure- track faculty members across all three institutional types. English departments do sometimes hire journalists, artists, actors, technical writers, and members of the legal profession for upper-division undergraduate courses in literature, composition, film, and writing. But the numbers here suggest that there are not enough tenured or tenure- track faculty members to cover upper-division under-graduate courses. Or, perhaps, for tenured or tenure- track faculty members to maintain their involvement in the lower division, department chairs have had to turn to non- tenure- track faculty members to teach courses for majors—even a very small percentage of courses for graduate students. (8) 


So said MLA’s “Education in the Balance,” their 2007 report.

Obviously at my CCs there are no upper-division courses. The sophomore courses are 99% taught by the tenure-track instructors. The 1% is the May-term class which doesn’t count toward the 10.5 month contract and is taught by whatever willing adjunct can be found, which in this case was me.

At SLAC, I know the upper-division grammar class is taught by an adjunct, but I think that is the only course that is done that way. And they have enough faculty to teach it; no one wants to though. That teacher has a PhD and is a grammar specialist, though, so her work is not a sloughing off of a bad job to a poor adjunct.

MLA seemed to be surprised that full-time faculty in baccalaureate institutes taught just as many first-year courses as they taught upper-division classes. But there are a lot more first-year courses than upper-division classes and in most BA schools, there are still plenty of faculty teaching and not focusing on research.

These figures show that, of all the faculty members hired by departments, no more than one in seven was hired to a tenure-track position. (9)

This is not surprising at all. For every tenure-track position, most colleges have to hire two part-timers to cover the same amount of classes. But they can afford to hire six for the same amount of money. So they get the equivalent of three full-timers for less pay. Of course they are going to hire part-timers as long as the emphasis is on finances.

The committee is drawn, on the one hand, to the argument that the concept of a non- tenure-track faculty is an illegitimate exercise of institutional authority; it is, and it ought to be, contested by whatever means available. (15)

I do not understand why hiring non-tenure-track faculty is illegitimate. My SLAC has three-year renewable contracts. Those have been stable for decades, although they are changing now as the president moves the college towards more research-intense work. Even when the letting go of traditional faculty who have not been publishing happens, as I expect it will in a few years, most of these teachers know it is coming and can do something about it now.

Neither of my SLACs, including the one where I taught as ft, are mostly staffed by part-timers. 90% or more of their English departments are full-time. Obviously one has no tenure-track, but even so most of its faculty has been there for years, with the exception of two new hires last year who replaced people who left four years ago when the college was in a downturn. (They retired.) The other has one position in the department that is full-time, non-tenure track. It is staffed by an MFA who does not intend to get a PhD. This is exactly the position she wants.

At a time when the percentage of undergraduate courses taught by tenured or tenure-track faculty members is in decline, it seems imperative that we set standards for the appropriate levels and areas of participation by tenure-line and full-time non-tenure-track faculty members in the undergraduate curriculum. We understand that the first obligation of the tenured and tenure- track faculty is to majors and graduate students. (17)

This goes back to a discussion I started in Adjunct Crunching as a response to Erin O’Connor’s “Adjunct Crunch.

Erin is arguing in her post that freshman composition should be the main focus of teachers in the English departments. Obviously MLA disagrees with her.

What do I think? I think that most English departments are supported by their freshman composition classes and they should give support back to those classes. In a CC most of the tenure-track teachers are teaching two freshman and three sophomore classes every semester. Some teach three freshman and two sophomores. But that means that in a year they teach 7 or 8 freshman comp classes. An adjunct, who can now teach 7 classes a year, will teach all 7 as freshman comp. And at CC1 there are three adjuncts for every full-timer. At CC2 it is a 1 to 1 ratio. There are as many full-timers as there are part-timers. At SLAC, there is a ratio in favor of full-timers, but not by much. This means that at CC1 far more of the freshman classes are taught by adjuncts than are taught by full-timers.