A few years ago, my family was watching the newest episode of Big Bang Theory. In the episode, an elderly professor passed away, opening up a tenured position, and the four main characters started competing for it. First of all, let me say, it is no fun watching TV with me when the shows portray life in a university. My immediate response was derision: if these guys don’t have tenure-track jobs, how can they even afford an apartment in California? Non-tenured faculty barely make above minimum wage. And if a spot opened up, the university would have to have a national job search, there’d be at least 100 applicants, and the whole process would take a year or more. But I was willing to let all that go for suspension of disbelief. Instead of focusing on those inaccuracies, I said, “Just watch. Nowhere in this episode will anyone explain what tenure actually is, how it works, or why it’s important.” I was right. The reason the characters gave for tenure were that they wanted a nicer office and “a job you can’t be fired from which is a total misunderstanding of tenure in higher education –yet it is one which most Americans share, which is why most Americans are not particularly in favor of tenure and are not disturbed to hear that some politicians are trying to get rid of it.
“Tenure” doesn’t mean you can’t be fired. It means you can’t be fired without due process and without a compelling reason (such as violation of your contract, proven misconduct, or your department being cut). “Gee,” some say, “I don’t have that kind of job security, why should you?” That is a very good question –and it has a very good answer. Tenure was not intended as an end unto itself; it was intended as a way to protect academic freedom. Faculty academic freedom means that a professor, as a recognized expert in their field, gets to choose how to teach their area of expertise –without being coerced by politics or public opinion. If I have tenure, and I say something in the classroom or out in public about history that politicians or the public (usually not experts in the field, though they often think they are) don’t like, I can’t be fired for it. Therefore, I am not afraid to speak up and tell the truth, as I (the recognized expert) see it, about my field of study. This benefits students, who are thus guaranteed a free and open exchange of ideas, not censored by politicians.
It also helps in “shared governance.” In a university, faculty are required to serve on multiple committees which play a large role in whether and how things get done. On some of the higher-level committees, such as faculty senate, administrative council, faculty affairs, etc., faculty members are in a very exposed position. They are sometimes called upon to disagree with administration, or to passionately present alternate views. They might not be willing to do that, or at least not do so with full candor and honesty, if they were afraid the administration might fire them for disagreeing with them.
Perhaps you’re someone who believes those dadgum liberal professors ought to be censored, and it wouldn’t bother you if they lost those protections. You must be aware that, in other states, that would lead to liberal politicians controlling what conservative professors are allowed to say in the classroom. In reality, at my university, just about any department is going to have some people with a liberal bent, some with a conservative, and some in-between. It is good for students to be exposed to all of them and to their views –which may not be articulated often, but which sometimes, in the context of their subject matter, will be.
And that is what makes tenure in higher education so very important. Critically important, in fact.
--Troy D. Smith, a White County native, is a novelist and a history professor at Tennessee Tech. His words do not necessarily represent TTU.
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