Thoughts on Tenure

by Roger Alford

I love this recent article by Stanley Fish on the abuse of tenure:

Last week we came to the section on academic freedom in my course on the law of higher education and I posed this hypothetical to the students: Suppose you were a member of a law firm or a mid-level executive in a corporation and you skipped meetings or came late, blew off assignments or altered them according to your whims, abused your colleagues and were habitually rude to clients. What would happen to you? The chorus of answers cascaded immediately: “I’d be fired.” Now, I continued, imagine the same scenario and the same set of behaviors, but this time you’re a tenured professor in a North American university. What then? I answered this one myself: “You’d be celebrated as a brave nonconformist, a tilter against orthodoxies, a pedagogical visionary and an exemplar of academic freedom.”

Three quick thoughts: First, what is a law school dean to do in the face of such irresponsibility? I know of one prominent dean at a Catholic law school who shows the tenure contract to his dilatory tenured faculty member and then makes it quite clear that if the faculty member does not live up to the contract the school will (and does) bring disciplinary action against him. This school has made great strides in recent years under his leadership.

Then there is the story of an extraordinarily productive faculty member who is at the top of his game as a torts scholar at a mid-30s law school who refuses tenure on principle. He figures if he is good enough he will be invited to stick around. He is now nearing retirement.

Finally, if tenure is so important, what about all of those great clinical professors who are on short term contracts and yet manage to remain valuable members of a law school community for decades? If you are good enough you will inevitably thrive. I have no doubt that many of these clinical professors are more valuable to the law school community than some dilatory tenured faculty members. Even in a down economy there is no thought of eliminating these wonderful colleagues.

So what exactly is the point of tenure? I am a tenured full professor, but I share Stanley Fish’s skepticism of the system.

5 Responses

  1. I agree with you. I’m a law student at Hofstra and have witnessed drastically varying quality among professors. Which makes me wonder: Why should I be required to pay exorbitant amounts of money for a professor that provides a poor quality learning experience? If the professor sucks, then the natural response would be to make him change his methods or get rid of him. With tenure, this isn’t possible. All we can do is fill out those useless feedback forms at the end of the semester.

    Tenure is a one-sided benefit. The consumers only stand to suffer or receive the same education they would from non-tenured professors.

  2. The tenure system is why I left higher education.  I returned to my university studies after nearly a decade in the private sector, working my way to A.B.D. status. (in the interest of full disclosure, I was associated with Dr. Fish’s university, but not the law school). I served as an adjunct professor at three different universities while I worked full time on my Ph.D coursework.  I was routinely told that despite my efforts (conferences, papers in review for publication, etc) and my superior reviews of my teaching practice, that it would be impossible for me to displace tenured faculty. I was also given ‘the reality’ that I would have a difficult time finding any job that didn’t require uprooting my family and spending the better part of a decade trying to “earn” tenure.  in 2006, I left my program with my Ph.D. unfinished.

    Now, nearly three years later, I chair a Social Science at a (fairly) prestigious school in South Florida.  I also teach, mentor students and faculty, and serve on school-wide committees and extra-curriculars.  I work on a year to year contract, as do my colleagues.  I throughly enjoy the prospect of having my innovations, practices, and yes mistakes, reviewed by my colleagues and higher administration on a regular basis.  

    I could (and still cannot) never fathom why universities chose to keep faculty who could not teach, did not have time to mentor graduate students (much less undergrads) or contribute anything beyond their own narrow intellectual interests.  I’m sure some tenured faculty (including some of my friends at universities) may find this unnerving, but evaluation, assessment, and reflection are actually ways we can improve our learning and teaching practices; don’t we take the same approach with our students? We discourage our students from intellectual complacency, why would we then structure a learning environment what favors the regular recycling of outmoded ideas, values, and practices?  Tenure is a system that allows for faculty and administration to be complacent; an ‘excuse’ to not strive to be the best each and every day.  The tenure system leaves our students languishing in the dregs of our worn-out ideas, our ancient pedagogical practices, and at the mercy of professors who have no interest in the goals of an intellectual community.  Tenure can be an obstacle to the intellectual development of any learning community. It is our responsibility as intellectuals and educators to revisit, modify, or (if necessary) abolish the tenure system in pursuit of higher intellectual and educational goals.

  3. Response…Response…You people just do not get it, and most likely, never will.  I’ve no time to try and educate you, even if that were possible.   I will only say that, if Socrates were alive today, he would be vigorously defending Prof. Rancourt and other true teachers of humanity (as well as vigorously defending himself, no doubt, against assaults by the mediocre minds of Athens some 2,500 years ago).

    But, for the enjoyment and edification of anyone out there who might possibly have a genuine interest in truth, I will also copy here a few posts from yesterday’s site, which I encourage such hypothetical truth-seekers to visit:

    G. Tod Slone said…
    Here’s what I just sent to the New York Times, which ran an op ed on Rancourt today ( Some of the comments left by professors would make a thinking man puke.

    It is revealing and utterly shameful that The New York Times would implant an established-order crony like Stanley Fish as a regular columnist to report on higher education! How could someone like Fish possibly comprehend what it means to buck that system, go against the professorial kowtow grain, and otherwise make waves in the la-la land of Deans? Contrary to Fish’s restricted paradigmatic mindset, Academe should not be a Business or Corporation! It should not be making collegiality far more important than courageous truth telling as it has been doing. Bravo to that rare college professor Denis Rancourt!!! Democracy clearly depends on such professors willing to risk career for truth and integrity! What we currently have today in higher education, thanks to the hiring Fish ilk, is no less than disgraceful: PC-careerist professors and administrators who seek to curtail vigorous debate, cornerstone of democracy, by restricting the constitutionally protected rights of free speech and expression with PC-speech codes. For the sake of democracy, we ought to put the Fishes on trial, not the Rancourts!
    PS: A thinking citizen ought to wonder what EMERITUS really means in academe today, as in years of service to the MAN, years of obedience, years of collegiality, and especially years of turning a blind eye. Is that what a professor or dean should be in a democracy?
    February 9, 2009 8:16 AM G. Tod Slone said…
    PS: As a professor on and off, I’ve been a long time critic of academe. I’ve dared open my mouth at institutions employing me and find myself, of course, unemployed if not unemployable today. I founded a journal in 1998 as a direct result of the corruption I discovered at Fitchburg State College and the refusal of the press to cover it. I was ordered to leave my office one day, had to have all my class locations changed, and to this day could be arrested if I step foot on McKay Campus. The order stemmed from one professor crony’s complaint to the dean that she was afraid of me.

    G. Tod Slone, Founding Editor, 1998
    The American Dissident, a Journal of Literature, Democracy & Dissidence
    A 501 c3 nonprofit organization providing a forum for vigorous debate, cornerstone of democracy,
    And for examining the dark side of the academic/literary established-order milieu
    1837 Main St.
    Concord, MA 01742
    February 9, 2009 8:20 AM Marty Stock, Brentwood, NH said…
    Below is a quote from Paul Goodman’s essay “The Freedom to Be Academic”, which was Appendix D in his 1960 book Growing Up Absurd. Prof. Rencourt’s activism echoes an opinion from 50 years ago.

    I am reasoning somewhat as follows: What is problematic for inquiry is always just beyond the known; in socio-psychological matters this is an area of confusion and anxiety, and
    of suppression and repression; then its exploration must involve interpersonal daring and personal risk, whether or not there is “acting out,” and in these matters there is a generic tendency toward acting out. The vital social questions for inquiry are those you are likely to get jailed for messing with.
    When you are threatened with academic sanctions, it is a good sign that you are on the right track; when you are fired, it is better; but when you are beyond the pale of the
    academy and “will receive no support from your colleagues,” then you are possibly touching the philosopher’s stone. My
    point is not that universities are worthless, nor that they should not or cannot be free, but that one cannot seriously regard them as primarily places of inquiry nor found the case
    for academic freedom on freedom of inquiry.
    February 9, 2009 10:31 AM

  4. Response…Correction:  I meant to say, ” (as well as vigorously defending himself, no doubt, against assaults by mediocre minds as he did in Athens some 2,500 years ago).”

  5. Mr. Slone, I would draw attention to your orrery of errors by referring to someone on the same intellectual plane as yourself:

    “The rethinking, if done, should be effected not by those of the corporate/academic mindset, but rather by untenured, free thinkers, uninhibited by the requisites of careerism.”
    -G. Tod Slone, “Is Tufts University Experimental College Really Experimental?” The American Dissident. 14 Feb. 2009 <;

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