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Opinion: It’s time to solve the tenure problem

The long sought-after job title should consider new requirements
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TROY LAWRENCE/THE VARSITY
TROY LAWRENCE/THE VARSITY

It’s rather ironic, some might say: the call for the death of the tenure, a practice that provides job security, is coming right at a time when job insecurity has never been more prevalent. But there exists no better time to discuss tenure. The future is shaky due to COVID-19, and with that comes the perfect opportunity to finally settle the score over one of the longest running controversies of the academic world.

Truthfully, it would be unfair to call tenures wholly useless and do away with them entirely; they are a valuable reward for teaching and provide stability above all else. However, that is not to say that the way universities currently manage tenures is perfect and requires no revisions. 

As the world of education changes and grows, many concerns have risen over the years, including issues with a fear of complacency among professors, conflicts between professors and their universities, and more — all of which should not be disregarded. Thus, while tenure should be kept in institutions of higher education, changes must be made to its provisions and how it is employed to address the public’s worries.

First introduced in the 1700s, the original purpose of tenure was to protect the academic freedom of teachers under religious schools. Since then, the concept has grown and expanded to include different requirements, limits, and capacities, becoming what it is today: a spot on an institution’s faculty for an indefinite period of time. Today, a large number of American and Canadian universities offer tenure to professors who have proven their academic and professional capabilities, show redeemable merit, and have been reviewed as someone who can contribute greatly to the university.

The concept of tenure itself is not a harmful practice. Tenure protects professors’ academic freedom, speech, and more. 

Apart from that, tenure serves as a reward. Achieving the position of a college professor is difficult and comes with many risks and sacrifices. According to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the average age at which most candidates complete doctorates is 31.6 years old, based on the latest data from 2014. Hence, becoming a professor can mean throwing away many of one’s early adult years. The opportunity cost for potential professors — letting go of their ability to do something else, such as start a family or go travelling — is high, and the workload is immense. 

Moreover, the demands that come with teaching can be extremely stressful, which can mean an increased risk of depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues. Tenure serves as a form of recognition to these professors for the work they’ve accomplished and challenges they’ve faced, and it’s something to look forward to and work toward in such a stressful environment with such high demands.

Yet, at the same time, tenure is not that simple. Over the last few years, it’s become increasingly controversial due to the rising concern expressed by some writers that it does more harm than good to the quality of education in the Americas overall. 

One of the most prominent arguments against tenure is that it promotes complacency, leading to unproductivity and issues with teaching methods. Essentially, when tenure provides the reassurance that a professor will not lose their position in most circumstances, the fear is that they will get ‘too comfortable.’ With their new safety net, professors may make minimal effort in their position and achieve worse results. Their productivity falls as a result, and the quality of the education they provide may fall too.

In 2014, a Californian judge brought up these concerns when they deemed the state’s tenure policies harmful and in violation of a student’s right to quality education, leaving them with “ineffective teachers.” While this ruling was mostly directed at tenured teachers in elementary through high school, the concern for quality education permeates across all levels of education. 

Other criticisms of tenure include its expensive costs — a single tenured professor costs around $100,000 annually, on average — and clashes between the professor and university over scheduling, curriculum details, and student complaints. Furthermore, when a professor refuses to adhere to certain administrative decisions, such as employing new forms of technology or teaching methods, they risk hindering the school’s progress to higher quality education. From the lack of actual teaching that tenured positions require, to the fear that they block out ‘new talent’ from being scouted, the core worry over tenure boils down to the theory that tenure makes professors too “comfortable”; that tenured professors are supposedly entitled to too much.

The topic is controversial because the arguments on both sides are strong. It’d be wrong to claim that tenure does nothing, but it’d also be unwise to rule out the possibility of any of the concerns people have expressed about it coming to fruition. Thus, a compromise is the best solution — and in this case, that can be done through long-term rolling contracts.

It’s clear that a major vice of tenure is its lack of accountability: there are no standards to be met or criteria for professors to complete each year to ensure that they are providing their worth. That’s where the idea of rolling tenure contracts comes in. They provide the exact same benefits as standard tenure does at any school, from a higher salary to an indefinitely guaranteed position that they can retire from at any time, yet they also solve many of its issues. 

Similar to an annual review, rolling contracts would be reviewed every academic period or so, requiring the professor to stay on top in order to meet the standards for their contract renewal. Moreover, should any professor violate the terms of the contract or begin to show clear signs of unproductivity, it becomes easier to terminate them from their positions. Contracts help establish a baseline amount of contribution that the professor must make toward the school — ideally, no less than what they commit to pre-tenure — but promise the safety of their position otherwise.

At the end of the day, tenure has positive contributions: it protects the academic freedom of educators, provides stability for a tough occupation, and more. However, it’s possible to fix the tenure system’s underlying flaws by revamping and tightening it while still keeping said system intact.

Isabella Liu is a first-year social sciences student at Victoria College.