With unemployment around the 10% mark, and the national economy going through one of the worst recessions in the last 70 years, job security is certainly on the minds of any and all people employed in the United States. It may be surprising to some students to know that a lucky few in the usually modest (by yearly income standards) occupation of college professors has one of the most secure employment positions in the modern job market: tenure.
Tenure is basically a practice that makes it nearly impossible to fire a professor, and is one of the most prized rewards for university service. Tenure is typically rewarded to top professors as restitution for years of service and excellence in research and teaching. Obviously, teaching is immensely important for university professors, but at times gaining research grants is nearly as important because of the money and notoriety it can provide to a university.
The justification offered for tenure is usually that the academic freedom it provides helps uphold the integrity of the institution. Because it is so difficult to fire tenured professors, they feel no pressure to “hold the party line” on controversial issues. Therefore, tenured professors are free to speak about and research issues that may be outside of mainstream opinion. Also, job security is usually a good replacement for increased salary for universities. If universities could not offer tenure to professors, salaries would have to significantly increase for colleges to hold onto their most talented employees.
The arguments against tenure are numerous. First of all, it is hard to imagine most people continuing to work as hard as they have in the past when their employment is basically guaranteed for the rest of their life. Human nature’s tendency towards doing the minimum that is required can result in tenure having some negative results. The idea of a no pressure work environment is always good in theory but not always in application. Generally,  it is good for people to have some performance boundaries to make sure the quality of their work is satisfactory.
Also, in some rare but usually extremely embarrassing cases professors can abuse the privilege of tenure in ways that outright embarrass their universities. Take for example the case of Dr. Leonard Jeffries, who was awarded tenure at City College of New York (CCNY) after a career of studies on Africa and African American history. He would become an embarrassment for the university after he began making bigoted and reprehensible statements about white people, and more specifically Jews. For example, Dr. Jeffries began espousing an ideology that held that blacks are physically and intellectually superior to whites thanks to the amount of melanin in their skin. According to Time Magazine, he was also quoted as saying whites were: “pathological,” “dirty,” “dastardly, devilish folks.”
Dr. Jeffries was eventually removed from his position as chairman of the Black Studies department at CCNY but remained as a professor (and was given a six figure settlement after suing to get his job back after an attempted dismissal) largely thanks to his designation as a tenured professor. His case raises troubling questions about the practice of tenure: should we have tenure if it can be so blatantly abused by a professor who has abandoned legitimate scholarship in favor of insane, baseless, moronic views like Dr. Jeffries?
In spite of the rare exceptions, the positives of tenure typically outweigh the negatives. It is far from easy to get tenure and the tenure selection process is typically rigorous with only a select few being rewarded with the honor of tenure. Besides, the alternatives given are usually implausible or expensive. The presence of job security is basically a replacement for higher salaries, and higher salaries would mean higher tuition and fees for students and that’s not something anyone could afford right now. Usually tenure is a good incentive for teachers and they do not typically go insane once bestowed the honor like Dr. Jeffries did. Tenure is basically good if done properly, and a nightmare if given without due diligence from the academic administration; but that does not make it much different from anything else in education.