The tenure game

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April 6, 2007

12:10 AM

After reading in Tuesday’s issue about Professor Jeffrey Gerlach’s failure to receive tenure, I experienced a fit of what can only be called righteous indignation. “How could they?!” I gave my newspaper a savage glare as if it were responsible — it just wasn’t right to ax the man solely responsible for my interest in economics.

p. My thoughts soured. Images of a ring of professors deep within the bowels of Morton Hall, cackling maniacally and cracking jokes about his marginal utility floated in my head. But after some less cynical reflection on the whole affair, it began to make more sense. Despite the misgivings some might have about its application, tenure plays a vital role in ensuring the free exchange of ideas in the classroom, and the evaluation period is as important to the school as it is to the professor himself.

p. Every year, the tenure game is played out all across the nation in thousands of colleges and universities. Professors are allowed a certain period of time to prove themselves — generally about seven years — after which they come up for tenure review that determines whether they will receive the golden ticket of academic autonomy or instructions not to let the door hit them on the way out.

p. Time and again, the complaint about tenure is that the protection it offers can breed complacency and dispassion for students. Detractors point out that professors stand to gain more materially from research in the lab than from interaction in the classroom, and that concern for students is lost in the “publish or perish” mentality of competitive college world. Also, because of his newfound job security, old Professor Smith would be free to live out his days ignoring students and eating Jujubes if he likes. (I have a hard time, however, believing a professor would start canceling his office hours in favor of writing his book.)

p. The problem with these arguments against tenure is that they assume the Professor Smiths of the world are all too common. I happen to have insider information, however, in the form of an entire family of educators: my mother a third grade teacher, my father an English professor, my brother a chemistry professor, my uncle … ad infinitum (more or less).

p. When I asked my dad about the possibility of a bunch of freeloaders hijacking the tenure process, he was skeptical. “I know of two folks who had no business receiving tenure, but by and large, the decisions have been worthwhile,” he said. Perhaps it’s wishful thinking, then, but one figures there aren’t a lot of folks who complete nearly 10 years of college in addition to an extended evaluation period simply to give up once they receive tenure.

p. “There are people out there who’ll abuse it,” my dad told me, “but overall, tenure protects the freedom of ideas in the classroom. A change in the department chair shouldn’t result in an ideological weed-out.” The main reason for having this kind of job security in the first place: professors need to tackle challenging and sometimes controversial issues in the classroom, and tenure ensures they won’t get kicked out over a single decision or change of heart by the administration.

p. When a popular professor gets the boot, it leaves a lot of students scratching their heads, but in the long run, it might be better for both him and the school. My brother, who, if Ratemyprofessors.com has any credibility, was a hit among students at the University of Memphis, was denied tenure just a couple of years ago.

p. Sure, it was disappointing, but it made him realize his true passion was for teaching more so than for conducting research. His new position at another college gives him a lot more classroom time with fewer publishing demands — a balance, he says, which is much more to his liking. At least now, we’ll never have to go back to Memphis — the Newark of Tennessee, I’m convinced — ever again. Who knew not getting tenure could be fun for the entire family?

p. __Andrew Peters, a sophomore at the College, is a staff columnist. His columns appear on Fridays.__

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