Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Why We have Tenure

Tenure is a funny thing, and not always easy to justify to people outside of academe. Heck, it can be hard to justify to people inside, too – I certainly have encountered individuals who should not have it. One reason people have trouble with it is they don’t understand it – many non-academics are unaware, for example, that those who fail to get tenure are fired as a result – or, more precisely, their contracts are not renewed. On the other had, at my own school, we do not have a system of merit raises, so there’s a real question as to why anyone should make any extra effort once they get tenure – pride, I suppose. Any system of tenure that does not include real accountability is prone to produce at least a few disasters.

As I come up for tenure for the second time (I gave it up once before to leave an institution I was very unhappy at), I am however reminded of why we have tenure in the first place. Out of Iran, we hear that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is calling for liberal and secular professors to be purged from Iran’s universities. Already many have been forced out – now Ahmadinejad wants conservative students to agitate for further purges. Tenure, whatever its flaws, is designed to prevent just this. Tenure does not protect me from budget-based layoffs. It does not protect me if I’m caught sleeping with students, or if I shoot someone on the campus lawn. It does not protect me if I am manifestly not doing my job. But if the voters in the great state of Tennessee decide to elect a whole host of wingnuts to the legislature and the Governor’s Mansion, I can’t be fired for my politics or my religion. For that matter, I can’t be fired because the Governor decides that postmodernism is the only way while I remain wedded to a fuddy-duddy form of empiricism. I whistle past the graveyard reading a story like this. Tenure could be abolished at any time, and I doubt there would be much public outcry. But some form of tenure must continue into the future to prevent scenes like the one in Iran from happening here.

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