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The Academic Tenure System

The pinnacle of job security in academia is to work long and hard at an institution long enough to attain a tenured position. Scroll down for more on this...
EduZenith Staff
By Ben Smith

Academic tenure is a type of job security offered to professors in Canada and the United States. Once a professor achieves tenure, he/she cannot be removed from his position without a lot of time and effort on the part of the employer. Tenure is intended to protect academics from undue outside influence, and encourage exploration of politically sensitive topics. Some critics of the tenure system say that it is ineffective and does not accomplish what it sets out to do.

An instructor that has attained tenure cannot be easily removed from his position. He remains on staff as an instructor, usually with a title such as Associate Professor or Professor, for the rest of his life or until he chooses to retire. Universities that grant tenure do so because the cost of keeping a competent professor is much lower than that of constantly attracting new scholars year after year.

Tenure is popular mainly in the United States and Canada. There is a different system called 'Habilitation' that exists in many parts of Asia and Europe. Habilitation is the highest attainable academic rank after PhD, and in several countries, it is required in order to supervise doctoral candidates or to be a professor in certain fields.

Tenure is mainly associated with colleges and universities, though tenured positions do exist in certain elementary and secondary schools. To qualify for tenure at the collegiate level, a professor must be working in a job that is designated as being 'tenure-track,' or leading to tenure. After a number of years in that position, a tenure committee evaluates the professor's performance to date.

Several factors are taken into account by the committee. Teaching effectiveness, research accomplishments, and service to other professors are all areas that are examined. Offering what amounts to lifetime job security can be a costly mistake for a university if the wrong faculty member is chosen, so tenure committees tend to be very thorough.

Proponents of this system say that in addition to the financial benefit that exists from retaining talent, a professor is free to explore whatever topic he deems necessary, without fear of external influence. There are, of course, limits to what a tenured professor can do in the classroom, but generally, he has a free hand. He can take an unpopular view and explore it to its natural conclusion via lecture and research, in order to see if the idea has merit. He is also free to mentor younger instructors without the fear that the information he imparts will allow the junior professor to take his job.

Critics counter that the tenure system is broken. Rather than allowing a professor to explore any idea he wishes, the tendency is to maintain the status quo and avoid rocking the boat. If a professor has to conform to a certain idea in order to gain respect for his work, he will be more likely to cling to that idea after gaining tenure. By the same token, a professor pursuing an unpopular idea may never be granted tenure at all. A tenured professor is also less likely to instruct a younger professor, because there is no longer any incentive to be helpful.

While the system does have problems and is declining in popularity, a tenured spot is still the position to which many professors aspire. Job security and academic freedom are very nice perks, and in spite of the flaws, it does not appear that this system will disappear any time soon.