The tenure track blocks innovation

Illustration by Miceal Munroe-Allsup

By Lluvia Meyreles

Publish or perish. So goes the intimidating and incentivizing adage used to describe the looming goal for all aspiring professors: tenure. If you need to put in a lot of work in order to achieve entrance to the hallowed halls of academia, then the results should be great. The competitive nature of tenure track has been both commended and critiqued in academic circles. The fact that professors are persistently publishing is great for universities, but not so much for the students. As a private liberal arts college, we want to have professors who are knowledgeable and respected in their fields, but we also want their first priority to be our education. I do not see how having professors engage in a rigorous 10-year competition that has little to nothing to do with their teaching skills can benefit students. I see even less merit in giving professors what is essentially eternal job security.

The argument for tenure is that academics should be able to disseminate ideas without fear of retribution from the administration. Our professors should not be obligated to conform to the administration’s ideas for the sake of their jobs. That would not be good for our education. But, when you give someone tenure today, how can you be sure that their ideas are going to be relevant in 30 years? I am not talking controversial ideas, I am talking simply concepts that may not be important anymore. As students, we see young academics who have yet to gain tenure afraid to speak or spread their own ideas because their jobs are hanging by a thread. Scholars who have been in academia for upwards of 30 years are able to spread their ideas without fear, but the new, fresh voices are not given the same privilege. Instead, they are meant to put on a show for the administration so they can eventually, maybe, have job security. Where is the academic integrity in that?

There also does not seem to be anything guaranteeing that professors will keep up the tenure-track work post-tenure. If they do not have to prove themselves anymore, why would they keep up with modern ideas or trends? Why not just keep spewing the same ideas that they already know like the back of their hand? Tenure not only keeps young academics, who are working with new ideas, from confidently spreading their ideas, but it gives the already tenured professors the opportunity to be lazy. Not every professor does this; some continue to work really hard on improving their knowledge of their field, but they all have the opportunity to not do so. They can stagnate, refuse to learn anything new and work from the same syllabus every year. When I took my first Major Periods in English Literature class two years ago, we did not read one female author. Could that be avoided by putting a little more pressure on our professors to keep up with the times?

I am not saying that all of our professors’ jobs should be hanging by a thread at all times, especially given that their jobs are in the hands of an administration that may or may not be just as bad as they are. I just think that there must be a different, more efficient way to offer our professors job security without compromising our education. Job security should be based not on what the professor accomplished on their tenure track, but, on how the professor is working to continuously improve during tenure. The complication with that is who decides what improvement means. I think that finding a way to incorporate students and fellow academics in determining whether or not a professor should still be teaching would address some of the problems that arise with tenure. It is a way to keep professors accountable for their own improvement and ensures that they remain an asset to both the students and the university.

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