What is Tenure?

Metternich (c. 1835-40)

If you don’t like tenure, you might be a fan of this guy. Klemens von Metternich. Portrait by anonymous, via Wikimedia Commons.

 Many people think tenure means job security. That it means that educators, unlike everyone else, can’t be fired.

This is nonsense.

Tenure does not equal job security. It does not exist in order to protect the jobs of teachers.

I could say this a thousand times, and still many people in this country would refuse to believe me, even though what I say is undeniably true here on planet reality.

That is because many people are listening to politicians who lie.

The same people tend to be cynical about politicians, but nevertheless, they choose to believe this particular lie.

It’s sometimes comforting, when times are hard, to identify someone who seems to have it better, and to hate that person.

The thing is, the people identified as scapegoats in these situations (historically speaking) tend to be people who do not, in fact, “have it better.”

So it is with teachers.

This is why tenure exists.

That link goes to a historical document, known as the Carlsbad Decrees, dating to 1819. It represents the true reason that tenure exists, and it also explains the purpose of tenure, but you may need some context to understand why.

In 1819 Europe had recently experienced some revolutionary movements. European revolutionaries at this time wanted the same basic rights of citizenship that Americans now take for granted as defining who we are as a people: freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and the right to vote for a government that is made up of representatives of the people, not of kings. In the first half of the nineteenth century, these ideas were still scary and radical in Europe. The monarchs who sat on thrones across most of Europe at that time did not want to acknowledge such rights. And many rich, powerful, landed aristocracies sure as heck didn’t want to extend voting rights to a bunch of uneducated, not-terribly-hygienic “masses.”

By “masses,” they meant my ancestors, and most likely yours.

In this climate, in the various German-speaking provinces of Europe (some of which were independent tiny principalities at this time, some of which were part of an enormous Empire ruled by Austria but made up of many peoples, from German speakers to Poles to Hungarians to Muslim Serbs), some people liked the ideas that the French and Americans were so excited about, that people have “natural” rights. But these people were ruled either directly or indirectly by an Emperor, and their Emperor was in his turn ruled by a powerful minister, Klemens von Metternich.

Metternich thought social classes (that is, ranks in society that were determined by birth: aristocracy, middle classes, working classes, peasants) were ordained by God and should not be meddled with. People who were not born to wealth and social rank should not vote because, Metternich thought, God said so. It was the natural order of things, and upsetting that order would lead to chaos. Also, Metternich himself was born to wealth and social rank (pure coincidence, I’m sure), and he liked that, and didn’t want anyone else horning in on his privileges.

Metternich, in other words, was the embodiment of everything the American Revolution fought against.

Metternich was the man behind the Carlsbad Decrees. He forced the German Confederation (a loose group of German-speaking states that Metternich dominated) to all agree to sign this document.

What does the document say?

You can, and should, read it yourself. Here’s the quick version: it is based on an assumption that universities are a hotbed of revolution (of ideas like those that founded the American Republic, in other words). Students are young and silly and get persuaded by their over-educated professors to think wild ideas. Sound familiar? It’s something we’re hearing in the news in the USA right now, in 2012. But the “wild ideas” that Metternich was so terrified of were the same ideas that ALL Americans, liberal or conservative, now hold dear, that freedom of the press, freedom of speech, and the right to vote for a representative government are the best way to go. Metternich was terrified of students learning these ideas from their professors at university. So, in the Carlsbad Decrees, he made it the law in all the signing German-speaking states that universities be watched over by a government appointee whom Metternich selected. Students would not be allowed to meet in groups. Any professor caught saying things in class that Metternich didn’t agree with, would be fired.

Sounds familiar? Yeah, it’s totally the plot of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Yeah, that’s probably not a coincidence. J.K. Rowling is an educated lady.

Tenure was created because of the Carlsbad Resolutions, and other laws like it in Europe in the decades following the French Revolution. The main idea of tenure is that professors should not be fired for disagreeing with a prevailing political view.

Professors can be fired for other things, like not doing their jobs. They can, and are, fired for not showing up to teach, for not being qualified to teach. Probably not as often as they should be, but can you honestly say that everyone in your field of work is fired as soon as anyone realizes they’re not terrific at their job? Of course you can’t. Incompetent people exist in every profession.

Tenure does not technically prevent anyone from being fired for incompetence, and protecting such people certainly isn’t its purpose. It does prevent people from getting fired for saying something that others disagree with. The tricky bit is that the line between these two things can often be grey and is almost always contentious, but it’s a VERY important line.

Why? Because the nature of education (when correctly understood as a process of exploring and learning about the world, not the way Metternich understood it as a process of making everyone think just like he did), is that professors MUST discuss ideas that not everyone will agree with. Students are not forced to agree. But they are forced to be exposed to ideas they may not agree with. This is the very definition of education.

And if a student is secure in his or her beliefs, there is nothing dangerous about this process, and much that is beneficial.

Also, not all teachers have tenure. In order to get tenure, you have to go through a process. This process varies from place to place and from level to level of teaching, but no matter where you look, that process is difficult, and more intense, I argue, than any review anyone undergoes in any other profession as a contractual part of employment.

Whoa. Think about that for moment. No one else, in any other profession, has as part of their employment contract the requirement to go through a process of scrutiny this intense. This is after all the scrutiny required to get the degrees you need to even apply for a job (for university professors, it’s the highest and most difficult degree you can get), and after the job application process. This is in addition to all that.

Usually, at the university level, the tenure process involves at least the following:

  • Recommendations from one’s peers
  • Recommendations from one’s students
  • Recommendations from one’s colleagues outside one’s own institution
  • Examples of one’s original research from prestigious, peer-reviewed presses (in my field, usually a book and at least a couple of articles)
  • Examples of one’s teaching pedagogy, through syllabi, assignments, examples of written feedback, written explanations of one’s “teaching philosophy,” etc.
  • Evidence of one’s ability to compete successfully for outside funding
  • Evidence of a substantial research plan for the future
  • Observations of one’s teaching provided by peers in the profession
  • Evidence of one’s service to the institution where one works
  • Evidence of one’s service to one’s discipline, or the profession as a whole

Do you have to do all this to keep your job after 5-7 years? Does anyone have to do this outside of education? It is unique. I’d argue that educators are more closely vetted than any other profession on earth. (Okay, except maybe spies.) We’re also uniquely underpaid, among professions that require comparable levels of education, and especially among those that do require fairly extensive ongoing training and adherence to ethical standards, like law and medicine—an interesting fact in itself, but one for another post.

But we can still be fired, after all this, in cases of demonstrable professional misconduct where academic freedom is not a complicating issue. So tenure is not job security.

What we can’t be fired for is for saying something that our bosses disagree with.

Now, that is also different from most professions.

In many corporations, or hospitals, or law firms, you can be fired if you step up and say to clients, or to patients, that they are being cheated by the institution to whom they are paying money for services, for example. (This is to the vast disadvantage of clients, and patients, if you really are being cheated, by the way.)

But universities are different. Because our job is to teach young people, we have to be able to be completely honest with them.

The students, on their part, have the right (and for heaven’s sake the DUTY!!!!) to think for themselves about what they hear from their professors. Any prof worth their salt actively encourages this. Some of us jump up and down and wave our arms, literally begging students to question what we say. Teaching students to question what we say is our whole reason for existing in this profession, and most of us feel pretty strongly about it, or we wouldn’t sacrifice so much to go into such a benighted and underpaid profession in the first place.

Tenure protects our right to say what we see and understand (and remember “we” are selected according to a uniquely rigorous process that takes five to seven years, after five to ten years of post-graduate training) is necessary, in order to expose students to all possible points of view, so that students can choose for themselves what to think.

Tenure does not protect our jobs. It protects students’ right to think for themselves.

Tenure was created to protect the right to think such “seditious” ideas as the United States was founded on.

There is nothing in the world more patriotic than the institution of tenure. Everyday, tenure protects our republic from people who want to bring back Metternich.

Anyone who tells you different is either lying to you, or too ignorant to be worth listening to on this matter.

If the person saying these things is lying, it is a good idea to imitate the best kind of college student and ask why.

Food for thought on this topic from the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Food for thought from the always great podcast of the Colonial Williamsburg museum: Thomas Jefferson’s ideas about education

Update: more food for thought: How the American University was Killed in 5 Easy Steps

A final word: I know you can name someone who has tenure and should be fired, but isn’t being fired. In those cases, the solution is to look into (a) the tenure review process — if people are getting through who shouldn’t, then the process at a given place may need to be revised and (b) what the real reason is that the person in question isn’t being fired. What may look to you like a clear case of incompetence may actually be a more grey area of differing views on effective teaching. If it IS a clear case of incompetence, there are other factors that come into play besides tenure: those whose responsibility it is to fire someone in this situation may not see it as worth their while. Just one of many reasons they may not fire someone is fear of a discrimination lawsuit, or union blowback. However you may feel about the validity of discrimination lawsuits or unions, you should separate those issues from tenure. Not. The. Same.

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