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Tenure's deadly grip on the betterment of academia

Illustration by Jennifer Kearney
By Mike Morefield
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Friday, October 7, 2005
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T enure is the golden chalice at the end of a long adventure. After battling through the trials of academia, seen as theses and lectures, a professor can be awarded the grand seal of approval and mark of a true academic: coveted, untouchable job security.

A tenured professor is relieved of the pressures of constant publication or research; he or she does not have to fear arbitrary release from contract or worry about the evaluations from disapproving officials.

The system was created to protect professors so they don't have to conform to external pressures just to secure a teaching position, but this admirable goal is marred by the stories that circulate campuses about lazy professors who have lackluster performance and pride themselves on their untouchable status. Thus, tenure is an anachronistic concept that stands in the way of the betterment of the education system.

The idea of tenure has roots in a time of insecurity. In the days of the great industrialists in America, professors were hired on yearly contracts and could be fired and removed at a moment's notice.

A prominent case that sparked the debate to create security in teaching was when a professor was fired from Stanford for advocating government control of railroads (Stanford was founded by a railroad tycoon). Tenure was adopted soon after, allowing faculty to voice their opinions without fear of reprisal.

Currently, tenure has become a heated debate between universities and faculty. But removing tenure allows universities to remain competitive, allowing them to cut professors who are weighing down the progression into the new age or have anchored themselves to outdated concepts. By streamlining the educational system, the students and the university overall, can become more successful.

Tenure is at its worst when professors protect themselves instead of looking to the ultimate question in academia - what is best for the students? Everyone has had that English teacher or biology professor who counted the days to retirement more than the number of people in his or her classroom.

Positions of tenure should not be unassailable; a professor should always be accountable for his teaching and his work ethic. Protection from politics should not be linked to protection of disinterest. The desire for job security should be enough of a motivator to continue teaching and researching at the best of your abilities.

The true professor loves to share his information with his students, passing on the knowledge he or she has collected through many years pursuing a passion. This does not seem the case anymore.

Colorado State Sen. Ken Arnold, chair of the Senate Education Committee there, is one of the loudest opponents of tenure. He has called it lifetime employment and argues that it has weakened the academic system.

Mike Morefield

If a professor lags in his duties once he has obtained his tenure, he is irresponsible to his faculty and pupils. They may see the acclaimed path to tenure as a path to well-earned vacation, which hurts everyone around them.

At a meeting to discuss tenure's future at Harvard University, education experts predicted that tenure is in "no danger of extinction. " They have seen an increase in tenure alternatives and post-tenure reviews, though, instituted by universities to stave off the growing critics of tenure. These steps will be the footholds to bring tenure's abuse to the forefront of higher education issues.

There is a lengthy process to becoming a tenured professor, as well there should be. But there should also be a process to evaluate the professors once they earn this badge of honor.

It's more dangerous to the academic realm to have a teacher who forsakes his students than a professor who voices his opposition to the administration.

Getting rid of tenure will not create drones of the administration that shuck the radical concepts that inspire the learning process to adopt an approved curriculum. The education system is more accepting of differing opinions than ever before, rendering tenure on par with the dinosaurs and flat-Earth theories in history.

The true professor who deserves the tenure is the professor who has an undoubted thirst for knowledge and exudes pride in his work, even if only accountable to himself.

If this means that the path to tenure becomes more of a test of character than a trial of wits, then so be it. I would rather have a professor with less to say but the energy to say it than everything to say but no interest in acting upon it.

Mike Morefield is a political science senior. He can be reached at

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