Tenure, RIP: What the Vanishing Status Means for the Future of Education

From The Chronicle of Higher Eductation

The AAUP has for years argued for the necessity of tenure. This spring Cary Nelson, president of the association, visited Principia College, a liberal-arts institution in Illinois where there is no tenure. “You could cut the fear with a knife,” says Mr. Nelson. “Faculty members are guarded, they’re not making courageous decisions about what to say, what to think, and how to challenge their students.” (Jonathan Palmer, Principia’s president, told The Chronicle that simply isn’t true. “Tenure in and of itself does not induce or allay fears of faculty members,” he said. “The deep, rich conversations we seek among our students and ourselves are not tied to tenure, but to the continuing desire to stretch, liberate, and educate.”) * [Emphasis added]

According to Mr. Nelson, though, the biggest loss isn’t what professors can’t say in the classroom. It’s what they don’t say to the president or the trustees—or to politicians. “The president doesn’t really care what you say in your World War II-history class,” says Mr. Nelson. “You can say what you want to about your subject matter, but don’t think you can say what you want to about the president’s edicts.” Indeed, what’s disappearing along with tenure, say its advocates, is the ability of professors to play a strong role in running their universities and to object if they think officials are making bad decisions.

“One of the jobs of tenured faculty is to raise a lot of questions and make people uncomfortable,” says Martin J. Finkelstein, a professor of higher education at Seton Hall University. “Nontenured faculty are very cautious. They want to be retained.”

Vanishing tenure may be bad for students as well as teachers. A couple of dozen studies over the last decade have shown that as the proportion of professors off the tenure track rises, the proportion of students who return to college the following year and eventually graduate declines.

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* Qualifies for an EDL (Empty Disingenuous Locution, aka bullshit) award.


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