Why Academic Tenure Is Vitally Important

The way it should be: Enthusiastic teachers, engaged students

Richard Sahn

Perhaps the profession that requires job security more than any other is teaching, especially college teaching.  Tenure traditionally meant that a teacher/professor could be terminated only for moral turpitude (e.g. sexual abuse of students), blatant racism, unfair or unjust grading,  gross incompetence, failure to obey basic institutional rules such as not showing up to class on time, or not teaching the subject matter he or she was hired to teach.  Nowadays, however, “Just Cause” is often grounds for termination of a tenured faculty member.  But “Just Cause” in any work contract is far too flexible an instrument for employers and far too vague for employees who rightly worry about job security.

Job insecurity prior to acquiring tenure and tenure granted with a “Just Cause” basis for termination of employment work to stifle academicians’ free expression of creative ideas, theories, and perspectives in and outside of the classroom. Any psychiatric or psychological clinician knows, or should know, that the threat of losing one’s livelihood produces stress and anxiety.  Going to work each day, knowing your job is “contingent,” can become a dreaded and stressful experience.

Not only does academic tenure reduce or eliminate anxiety and stress: It ensures the free expression in the classroom of controversial and unorthodox ideas and pedagogical methods.  Colleges, all schools for that matter, should remain faithful to the ultimate purpose of education, to bring students out of darkness—e-ducare in Latin.  It therefore should be difficult to dismiss a teacher/professor once that person has acquired tenure.

Alas, much has changed in the groves of academe. “Make America Great Again” has come to mean—long before Trump—make life easier for administrators of educational institutions, especially those who primarily view education as preparation for the world of work. Colleges and universities are top-heavy with administrators. In fact, it’s easier to find employment as an administrator than it is as a full-time faculty member.

Colleges are also becoming increasingly technocratic in their organizational structure.  Form is becoming more important than content. The typical teacher/professor is expected to be virtually robotic in his/her performance. (God help a member of a college faculty nowadays who does not know the finer points of PowerPoint or refuses to use technology at all in the classroom.)  Scores on multiple-choice faculty evaluations are more valued than what students are learning.  The goal (often unstated) of pedagogy is to prepare students for becoming employees who will fit neatly and quietly into niches in the business and corporate world.   Professors are subtly urged, sometimes threatened, to become unindicted co-conspirators in what appears to be the ultimate purpose of education in contemporary American society: to produce graduates who will unreflectively accept the status quo.

Today’s system of compromised tenure limits the ability of teachers/professors to encourage students to question and challenge the status quo.  At its best, traditional tenure promoted an atmosphere in the classroom where teachers felt free to discuss contemporary political, social, and science/technology issues.  Job security encouraged teachers to provide the cognitive tools for what Neil Postman called “crap detecting” (critical thinking) in his book, “Teaching as a Subversive Activity.”  Education for Postman included the ability to distinguish reality from propaganda—and it often worked.  For example, college-educated students were more likely to resist the draft, protest the Vietnam War, and oppose Richard Nixon’s invasion of Cambodia.  In short, they questioned authority because they had the tools, mindset, and commitment to do so.

In his 1923 book, “The Goose Step: A Study of American Education,” Upton Sinclair had this to say regarding colleges and universities: “Suppose I was to tell to tell you that this education machine has been stolen?  That a bandit crew have got hold of it and have set it to work, not for your benefit, nor for the benefit of your sons and daughters, but for an end very far from these?  That our six hundred thousand young people (supposedly in higher education) are being taught, deliberately and of set purpose, not wisdom but folly, not justice but greed, not freedom but slavery, not love but hate.”   Worshiping or conforming to a socio-economic system based on the values and goals of capitalism is the leading obstacle to an education that promotes democratic and humanitarian values, according to Sinclair.

Sinclair further argued that college professors should not “merely have job security” but also should have “collective control of that job.” He insisted that the faculty “must take from the trustees, and from the man they hired, the president, the greater part of their present functions.”  Sinclair’s message is telling: It’s undesirable for democracy for administrators to treat professors as employees who are readily dismissible.

“Readily dismissible” is an apt description of adjunct/contingent faculty today.  The number of adjuncts teaching college courses now outnumbers full-time tenured faculty.  On the adjunct level there is no job security from semester to semester. The academic goosestep is always outside the door.

Teachers on all levels of formal education have vital roles to play in getting all of us to question authority.  How can they do that, however, when their jobs can be eliminated by administrators whose first loyalty is often to an establishment that sustains that authority?  To challenge hegemonic social systems and structures, teachers and professors need job security.  They need tenure.  Is that why they’re not getting it?

Richard Sahn, a retired professor of sociology, taught at the collegiate level for four decades.

5 thoughts on “Why Academic Tenure Is Vitally Important

  1. Me: It seems that 90% of college students go to college just to pay tuition so that the other 10% can actually get something out of it.
    WJA: It’s probably way more than 90%.

    Seriously, do you remember that conversation that we had?

    I can’t speak for other people who actually found their education to be of value, but I’ve never held a job that fit with my degree. Even in the process of starting my own business, I’ve found a use for less than half of what I learned in college, not counting elective courses. However, I once told someone who sneered at my knowledge of “useless trivia,” that “no knowledge is useless if it ever comes up in conversation.” Some people think only in terms of a false dichotomy of purpose vs. pointlessness – these are the people who think liberal arts as a whole is a waste of time and money. The strange part is that such people are nihilists who don’t realise it: everything can be shown to be pointless if you look deep enough.


    1. I’m sure I was joking. 🙂

      We have such an instrumental view of education. This is especially true of a trades-oriented school like Penn College, with its “learn to earn” mantra focused on “business and industry” (mentioned three times in the school’s mission statement).

      But it’s true at the Ivy League level as well. So many students are really in it for the money and connections they’ll make. The good life is measured in $ signs. They go into finance and banking because that’s where the money’s at.

      Looking back on my years in college, a big part of the experience was the friendships I made, the good times we had, what I learned about myself and others. The specifics of courses seem far less important today.

      When employers hire college grads, they’re not usually looking for specific skills, because they’ll train you as needed. They’re looking, I think, for whether you’re disciplined, motivated, willing to work hard, able to learn and work with others, etc.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. The fact that you need a “union card” (a bachelor’s degree) in order to work anywhere other than McDonald’s is truly an indictment of our high schools. Businesses have very low bars for most of their employees, yet not even high school graduates have what it takes, apparently. My aunt recently retired from running her own floral shop, and she said her biggest problem was “finding people who would show up to work.” College requires work, whereas primary education requires just putting in your seat time – rather like prison.

        Jumping back to an earlier part of your reply, have you ever noticed that the business world has devolved into little more than banking? The majority of businesses are middlemen, sucking profits from manufacturers and customers alike. It’s easy profit, because middlemen don’t have to do anything. Manufacturing is challenging, as is selling products, but generating paper is easy. The stock market (investors) tends to favour distributors, ad agencies, and insurance companies, because of their high profit margins. The real market (consumers), however, is becoming increasingly drawn to small manufacturers who have fully embraced 21st century technology so that they can cut out all the middlemen and sell their products for a fraction of what a major retailer could.

        That’s not something any business school will teach, by the way. Funny how all the successful entrepreneurs I’ve met have never taken a single business class.


  2. I was working in a steel mill in South Chicago when I was drafted in Sept 1969. I was sent to Vietnam as a combat infantryman. One night while pulling guard duty in Cambodia, I decided I did not want to go back and make a career out of the steel mill. The VA paid me a monthly stipend, plus the state of Illinois paid my whole tuition if I went to a state college or university.

    I received a BS Degree in Business – Finance major. I was hired by a multi-national Commercial Lines Property-Liability Insurance Company. The person who hired me said the company looked for college grads since they had proven they had the intellectual discipline to complete their education. My major definitely helped me on the job.

    Now I will say this, some of the courses I took did not have much applicability to the job I was hired for.
    That said, the “Liberal Arts” piece and Trigonometry classes demonstrated to me the brilliance that was out there beyond my business classes. These classes helped me become a more complete person. Not only was there the critical scientific thinking of math and statistics, there was the critical thinking necessary to evaluate and question in the Liberal Arts piece.

    Education it seems these days has been consumed by steroid capitalism. Instead of “Education” as a goal, our colleges and universities have become profit centers. Once you become a profit center everything else falls into place. Educators are expendable and replaceable, the vampires of high finance hook students into massive student loans. Then if you miss a loan payment the other arm of high finance – bill collectors (modern day bounty hunters) follow you relentlessly.

    You have to wonder what kind of stipulations are attached to an endowment from some billionaire or the Koch Brothers for instance??? I read recently where Denmark, not only provides “free higher education”, Denmark also pays a student a stipend.

    The corruption in our system was exemplified by the recent disclosure of the wealthy being able to buy their children’s way into prestigious centers of higher learning.

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