Hired but can’t be fired: professors’ tenure needs reform

September 23, 2010 — by Parul Singh

In early February of this year, a biology professor at the University of Alabama opened fire during a faculty meeting and killed three professors. The professor, Amy Bishop, was arrested and charged for murder. The twist, however, is that the shooting was provoked by the rejection Bishop’s recent appeal for tenure.

This event involved one very deranged woman, of course, but it also rekindled the debate about whether tenure for professors should be preserved. Tenure, or job security for professors after five to 12 years of work, essentially prevents these professors from getting fired.

Instead of attempting to completely eradicate tenure, many states are passing bills to lengthen the amount of time it takes to achieve tenure or making it more difficult. Maryland, for example, is implementing a system in which increases in student test scores must be apparent before tenure is granted.

California is no exception, because of the current budget deficit in California, tenure is becoming a less and less viable option for many universities. Although advantages of tenure include job security, academic freedom and incentive for professors to remain in the work force, granting tenure to a professor can prove to be very costly for a university. For every professor with tenure, the university is forced to pay his or her salary for anywhere from 30 to 50 years. This is not only hugely expensive, but the return for students after paying this much money is surprisingly little.

This occurs because after 20 years on the job, the professor’s ideas—although not irrelevant—may not be as fresh as those of a younger teacher trying to get a job. Tenure prevents new teachers from getting hired simply because professors refuse to quit their jobs until they reach extremely old age.

Even if the professor’s ideas remain current, many tenured teachers’ main priority is not even teaching. The luxury of tenure allows professors to research and publish papers. While this may seem like a good thing, the truth is that many professors prioritize publishing a paper over teaching their students.

The university is not paying these professors to do their research; the university is paying them to teach their students but due to tenure the teachers who do not perform their duty cannot be fired. Although research is important for making new discoveries, educating the future generation should take precedence.

When considering the timeline for achieving tenure, it also becomes clear that tenure discourages women from becoming professors. Since it often takes four years to get a college degree, six years to get a doctorate degree and then 10 years to achieve tenure, a person would be around 40 years old by the time they are granted tenure. With this track, it becomes harder for women planning to have children to ever achieve tenure, thus discouraging gender diversity in teaching.

It is true that without tenure fewer people will become professors due to job security fears. However, if tenure is eliminated or significantly reformed, only the people who really love teaching will become teachers. As a result, this new committed workforce of professors will increase the quality of education because they won’t be motivated by thoughts of tenure.

Eliminating teacher tenure will not only free up money to remedy the state’s budget crisis but also allow for a rejuvenation of California’s education system.