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Presidents Message: The Truth and Myths around Tenure

The benefits and myths surrounding tenure

by James (Jim) Klein President, Texas Association of College Teachers

I hope your semester is proceeding smoothly and that you and your family are in good health. I ask for your indulgence as I discuss a topic that is vital to higher education, yet often misunderstood, particularly outside the academy—tenure. Allow me to detail the benefits of tenure and to dispel some of the myths surrounding it.

The most basic benefit provided by tenure is the measure of job security it provides, which has numerous consequential benefits. Tenure allows faculty to focus their full attention on their professional responsibilities in the classroom and in the research lab or archives without the constant drain of time spent looking for employment and/or a change of residence. This allows faculty members to fully realize their scholarly potential for the betterment of the institution, the academic discipline, the students, and the community (locally and beyond). For these reasons, I looked askance at institutions that did not offer tenure-track positions when I was last active on the academic job market.

Once I assumed a tenure-track position, senior faculty informed me of another benefit of tenure, the ability (and responsibility) to speak out against wrong-doing witnessed at an institution. I have seen, firsthand, the flip side of this—faculty not offered tenure unwilling to call out abuses at an institution here in Texas. These abuses included the administration changing of course grades (from failing to passing) contrary to the wishes of the faculty of record, misuse of state funds designated for student scholarships and the flagrant violation of Texas statutes regarding nepotism. Those abuses continued for far too many years (to the detriment of students and the community) until one brave individual sacrificed her position to bring these issues to light. Faculty are in a unique position to call institutions and individuals to account for themselves, to shine a light on otherwise unseen actions. Tenure ensures that faculty will not be ‘non renewed’ for doing so, and it consequently conveys upon them the responsibility to speak against wrong-doing, particularly in defense of those without that same level of security.

The myths about tenure stubbornly persist despite the lack of supporting evidence. For instance, tenure does not convey employment for life. A tenured faculty member can be dismissed for cause, and I have seen this happen on numerous occasions here in Texas and beyond. Cause might include a proven illegality or a violation of an institution’s clearly delineated policies. The key is that tenure forces the institution to demonstrate cause; it must explain why it is dismissing the individual. Without tenure, no explanation is necessary—the faculty member is not renewed for the following course term or academic year.

Another myth about tenure is that it comes with a financial reward—a tenure bonus. I have yet to learn of any faculty member receiving a tenure bonus. Calls for the abolition of such bonuses (by past members of the state legislature, no less) demonstrate a woeful lack of understanding of the concept of tenure and of academia.

The system of academic tenure supports the goal of higher education, to serve the greater good. Tenure has made me a better classroom instructor, a better researcher, a better colleague. It also has encouraged me to get involved in my community (both within and beyond the institution) when I see wrong-doing that needs correcting. Tenure provides a myriad of benefits to our society and is vital to the continued advance of the academy in Texas. I wish you well for the remainder of the academic year; rest when you can and do great work when the opportunity arises. TACT and Texas need you.

James (Jim) Klein President, Texas Association of College Teachers

Professor of History, Del Mar College

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