Field Notes- On the tenure track: Critics stoke national debate

by Judy Muyskens, provost

You may have noticed in newspapers and blogs that the debate about tenure in higher education has returned. Whenever economic times are difficult, critics on the political right, and more recently on the left, question whether the tenure system is economically feasible and whether it is too rigid to draw the best young people to academia.

Tenure began in 1914 to protect professors’ academic freedom. Of paramount value in higher education is the right to teach controversial topics and freely express opinions without fear of being fired. Failure to support free inquiry and expression silences voices that need to be heard – not just in the classroom, but in society.

Yet, today, the proportion of professors who are tenured has decreased substantially as many institutions replace tenure track lines with adjunct or part-time faculty who earn very little. Critics assert that tenuring faculty members ties up large sums of money. Motivating tenured faculty members to keep up to date in their fields, critics claim, is nearly impossible.

Furthermore, they say that tenure rewards research over teaching. The result, they say, is pages and pages of specialized scholarship and research that few people read. The critics point out that professors teach few courses and spend their days writing and reflecting, rather than working with students.

Nebraska Wesleyan University has a different persona from what critics imagine. We have a small cadre of part-time and fixed-term faculty. Tenured and tenure track faculty are in classrooms and their offices for most of the week and spend hours with students in the office or on e-mail. Nebraska Wesleyan’s student-centered culture negates the criticism about research driving the reward system. At Nebraska Wesleyan, members of the faculty are tenured based on teaching excellence and service to the university. Professors are asked to keep current in their fields, and the university provides funds for continuous faculty development.

All faculty members, including those who are tenured, conduct course evaluations at least once a year. Department chairs, and in some cases, the deans discuss the results with the faculty member when the evaluations are not strong.

Nebraska Wesleyan’s student-centered culture negates the criticism about research driving the reward system. At Nebraska Wesleyan, members of the faculty are tenured based on teaching excellence and service to the university.

Since Nebraska Wesleyan professors teach three to four courses a semester, they spend their time preparing and teaching classes; working with students individually; and correcting homework, lab reports, essays, and tests. In addition, our faculty members spend a good deal of time participating in the university’s shared governance. Those who desire to publish do that work during summers, on weekends and evenings after the teaching work is complete. In addition, Nebraska Wesleyan is fortunate to maintain a strong system of sabbaticals that allows the faculty time to publish, prepare new courses, or research internationally every seven years.

Our faculty works very hard and its members deserve stability and job security. Those of us who support tenure note that the job security that comes with tenure serves as an important balance to the lower salaries that most small liberal arts and many small public institutions can provide. Tenure enables Nebraska Wesleyan to maintain a large cadre of wonderful professors who stay for many years and touch the lives of numerous students.

Our faculty is Nebraska Wesleyan’s backbone. Professors attract students here; they guide them as they learn and grow; and they support them through the various stages of their lives by writing letters of recommendation and answering reference phone calls. The tenure system strengthens professors’ longevity with Nebraska Wesleyan. Quality is never cheap. We are honored to maintain our ranks of fine tenured and tenure track faculty members.

The national debate over the tenure system is spirited and complex. The links below provide some background.

  • Christopher Beam’s essay outlines the illogic of what he calls “the holy grail of higher education.”
  • The New York Times reviews Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus’s Higher Education? How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids—and What We Can Do About It.
  • And Examiner.com reviews Mark C. Taylor’s Crisis on Campus: A Bold Plan for Reforming Our Colleges and Universities.