Eliminating Tenure: A Good Idea

I’m responding to Bill Maher’s blog entry, “Why Do Teachers Have Tenure?” Maher cites a California court case where students, backed by legitimate legal advocacy, are suing for their right to a good education. They argue that the tenure system retains bad teachers, in effect preventing students from receiving a quality education. This case, Vergara v. State of California, has yet to be decided, but I suspect the judge will rule in favor of the teachers’ union, based on the students’ failure to prove their teachers were, in fact, bad teachers. In his article, Maher suggests we abandon the tenure system. Teaching is the only American job where bad employees are retained, and removing tenure from our public education system might theoretically allow bad teachers to either up their game or be fired for incompetence. It’s a simple fix that teaching unions stoically resist, fighting this legitimate cure under the auspices of tenure being a job amenity, singular to the profession of teaching.

As a former teacher, I wholeheartedly agree with Bill Maher’s argument, and I believe that eliminating tenure should be the first and best change towards improving the American education system.

The tenure system has its roots in higher education. The ethical premise of tenure involves allowing college professors the ability to argue against college administrators, who might not have professional awareness of a professor’s discipline, without fear of being removed from their professorial position because they disagree with the “higher-ups.” Traditionally, an assistant professor is a tenure-track professor, and an associate professor is one who receives tenure. Assistant professors have to earn tenure by not only teaching three to six collegiate courses (usually the 300 to 400 level), but they often have to publish articles, lectures, or books that contribute to the furtherance of their discipline, proving their validity for tenure to a university. Additionally, tenure-track professors are often given excessive administrative duties and public-service responsibilities, many of which can interfere with necessary research and classroom management time. The process usually takes several years, anywhere from five years to a decade, and tenure is not guaranteed after committing to this tenure track. Often, an assistant professor is denied tenure, and at times, these assistant professors are given an additional year at a university, after which they might be excommunicated from campus. Thank you for your years of effort, but we decided to go in a different direction…

Most American public education systems work this way: once a teacher is certified and commits to teaching for two or three academic years, they are granted tenure, meaning they have the full support of their union, without fear of being fired. Tenure is not intended to be a means for teachers to resist administrative control or persuasion at this level; it is intended to be a job amenity that allows teachers to breathe a sigh of relief, to become lackadaisical in their pedagogy, and to incentivize toeing the company line without fear of losing their paycheck, no matter how awful a teacher they might become. The tenure system has created a teaching environment where the employees are more concerned with keeping their job, instead of becoming professionals who advance their discipline or prove their acumen. Our public education system, nationwide, is packed with ineffective, stagnant teachers, all of them tenured, who cannot be removed from their position for incompetence. The documentary Waiting for Superman is most effective at providing evidence of this.

I am not advocating that the public education system should mimic the process used in collegiate environments; the tenure system has proved to be a failure in higher learning, also. In today’s money-driven, hyper-inflating college market, administrators have subverted the system, and tenured college professors have failed to stand against the tide, cowering before the assumed superiority of business administrative policy. Tenure has become a job amenity more than a professional component in college, especially in liberal arts disciplines. In fact, more and more instances of tenure are being granted according to how much money a professor brings to the college, rather than academic acumen or teaching prowess, leading to more MBA teaching/administrative positions and less liberal arts teaching roles. Tenured liberal arts college professors do not resist modern college policies, such as sub-letting unenviable 100 level classes to graduate assistants as cheaper labor…as long as they get to teach their literature, philosophy, and pop-culture courses of choice, why make waves? At Purdue University, Mitch Daniels became president and summarily started cutting back on liberal arts under the auspices of strengthening their identity as an engineering college. Little more than a murmur could be heard from the liberal arts faculty (Though, props to Dr. David Detmer for fulfilling his ethical role.). In Indiana, Ivy Tech Community College president, Tom Snyder, more openly attacks the liberal arts discipline in his article, “Bachelor’s Degree in Liberal Arts Is a Poor Investment.” A year and a half later, I am still waiting for an Indiana liberal arts professor to refute Snyder’s obviously illegitimate claim about the validity of a liberal arts education. STEM programs are promoted by corporate agenda, as the potential for STEAM programs (Arts is the missing component) are meekly suggested by tenured arts professors, drowned out by administrative certainty and corporate lobbying within our national education system. In Indiana colleges, I have seen how tenure is treated more as a privilege, allowance for the defunding and decimation of college disciplines, rather than an advocacy position to fight for the advancement of the discipline, or an opportunity for students who might follow into the teaching of that discipline…Who cares if the legitimacy of our discipline is fading on the academic horizon? I got mine, Jack; sucks that you had to come into this so late in the game…

One final point about the failure of tenure at colleges: Jerry Sandusky was a tenured professor at Penn State. I would suggest that the main reason that Sandusky was retained by the administration for so long AFTER knowledge of his vile acts came to light was that Sandusky was tenured. Joe Paterno’s legacy was tarnished, mostly because he was expected to fight for ethical standards as a fellow tenured teacher/coach; I suspect Paterno did fight, but he ran into the wall of college administration that insisted that Sandusky was untouchable, as most professors are told when they turn on their fellow tenured professors, no matter the legitimate rationale for removal. Former Penn State president Graham Spanier still fights the notion that any of Sandusky’s crimes were his fault or responsibility, probably because it is difficult to convey to the public how completely ingrained the practice of tenure works within the college system. Penn State and most every college institution in America have been shaken to its core because Jerry Sandusky was able to ruin young boys’ lives under the protection that tenure granted him.

Tenure, as it was conceived, should be a foundation upon which teachers can stand to defend their ethical roles as educator, anthropologist, and philanthropist. That foundation has eroded under the constant weathering of corporate influence, the desecration of teaching as “job” instead of profession, and the social pressure to demean and devalue the social role of teacher. Teachers have allowed this to happen because their footing has grown so shaky on this crumbling foundation, and maintaining their balance has become more about self-preservation. It might behoove teachers to collectively worry about rebuilding this foundation entirely, starting over again at the drawing board, instead of trying to save the disintegrating cornerstone of tenure.

{If you appreciated this writing and want to help support the continuation of this blog, please consider sending a donation to:

Scott C. Guffey
P.O. Box 53
Michigan City, IN 46360

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