the imaginative conservative logo

The university is ultimately designed to give students what is needed, rather than what is wanted or merely useful. University administrators should remember the fundamental link among tenure, the possibility of great teaching, and the keeping intact the whole that is the university…

teachingUniversity of South Carolina philosopher Dr. Jennifer Frey recently penned an excellent essay on the role tenure should play in America’s institutions of higher education.[1] Anyone who is concerned and distraught about the status of contemporary higher education in this country should read her essay. The core argument in Dr. Frey’s essay concerns the necessary and integral relationship between the protection of tenure and the actualization of academic freedom. As she puts it, this is what makes tenure vital to the life of a university.

Tenure rights for university faculty exist for one purpose: to safeguard academic freedom. Academic freedom is simply freedom to pursue the truth in good faith, unimpeded by fear of dismissal by those who wield power. When faculty members can be fired or summarily punished for expressing their considered opinions on issues of concern to the common life of the university, this hinders their ability to execute their primary task, which is to educate their students and contribute to the collective store of human knowledge. Of course, a university education is much more than the transmission of knowledge; at its best, a university education instills the capacity for deep, rigorous, and creative thought and inquiry. But such an education cannot take place in a climate of fear, and to the extent that a climate of fear is fostered on our campuses, the mission of the university is compromised.

This line of reasoning is, among others, the one that needs to be continually defended, and articulated in such a concise manner. However, I want to propose a complementary argument alongside Dr. Frey’s, but one which is too little defended. The claim being made is not a critique, but a defense of the other side of the same coin. Tenure rights certainly exist for the purpose of safeguarding academic freedom, but we can add one further step to this: The institution of tenure is also meant to help professors become better teachers and foster a deep sense of rootedness that is central to fostering the common good of the university community.

A few prefatory remarks, which echo Dr. Frey’s argument: Some propose that the issue of tenure can be dealt with more effectively by eliminating it all together. The predominance of incompetent, unproductive, and lazy faculty members is considered to be the effect of the institution of tenure. This is one of the central lines of argument in Naomi Schaeffer Riley’s book, The Faculty Lounges: And Other Reasons Why You Won’t Get the College Education You Pay For. Overall, Mrs. Riley’s judgment and assessment of the current status of higher education are illuminating, precisely because the demise of our universities is happening right before our cultural eyes. However, Mrs. Riley does not give enough attention to the fact that the number of tenured professors is already declining, and has been for several decades; yet this fact has not improved the quality of our universities. University faculties are becoming filled with more non-tenured-track faculty, usually with the aim of cutting costs so as to shore up capital to pay for the bloated administrations. The problem with this decline in tenure has been summarized well by Michael Cameron: “If colleges and universities continue to employ non-tenure track faculty, declining admissions requirements and rising grade inflation could result in order to maintain a student body”[2]. In other words, as the institution of tenure declines, so too does student enrollment, thus moving things in the direction of the evaporation of the university itself.

Instead of tenure, some have put forth the idea—already employed by many universities—that professors could be given contracts which could be renewed on an annual basis. And maybe, after a number of years, a professor would be in a situation where his job is quite secure, barring any misbehavior violating the specifics of the contract. While there ought to be a deeper discussion of such a solution, annual contracts do not ensure—as tenure does—that a professor cannot have his position eliminated by arbitrary administrative fiat. It is important to note also that even those liberal arts institutions that do not have tenure per se, nonetheless aim to have something akin to it.

Not only is tenure a form of juridical protection for professors, but it also contains a deeper meaning that is fundamental to the university community as a whole. When a professor is granted tenure, there is a real kind of liberty to pursue teaching in a manner that makes him better as a teacher. In other words, the anxiety and worry of getting tenure is exacerbated by placing too much emphasis on student judgments in their end-of-the-year evaluations, or even the ever-popular Rate-My-Professor. Popularity and likability can become the hope of professors wanting to ensure job security, often leading to a lowering of standards on the part of the professors. As a result, what is meant by “good teaching” becomes equivalent to “what can be measured” (i.e., student evaluations).

Everyone really in the know knows that excellent teaching is nearly impossible to measureor at least that the people doing the measuring don’t know what they’re doing. Not only that, teaching excellence is, in part, contextuala teacher can flourish in one place but not another for a variety of reasons. So when an experienced teacher looks for another job, he or she finds out that all the devoted and effective teaching he or she has done doesn’t count for much.

Once a professor is granted tenure, he is liberated from the temptation to flatter students so as to receive “good marks” on evaluations. Professors can come into their own as teachers by delving deeper into their curriculum and content, thereby enabling their students to be concerned about the truth, and giving them what they need most. This is what the university is ultimately for, to give students what is needed, rather than what is wanted or merely useful. The late and great Peter Augustine Lawler has made a similar observation.

Additionally, in Lawler’s assessment, tenure helps to tie a professor to the broader university community, and thus hopefully enables envisioning their vocation more ardently as one of service to the common good of their local place. And it should also be somewhat obvious that without professors who can stay in some place for an extended period of time, there is no such thing as a common good for a university. As such, universities willing to make tenure something malleable without seeing its institutional importance opens itself to undercutting the fundamental link among well-established professors, excellent teaching, and the common good of the university itself. Trends have indicated that while keeping the title of a university, such places become more like technical schools or centers almost entirely focused on giving students job-training. These remarks echo Wendell Berry’s insights from his essay “The Loss of the University:”

The underlying idea of a university, the bringing together, the combining into one, of all the disciplinesis the idea that good work and good citizenship are the inevitable by-products of the making of a goodthat is, a fully developedhuman being. This, as I understand it, is the definition of the name university.

In the end, university administrators should remember, and attempt to articulate, the fundamental link among tenure, the possibility of great teaching, and the keeping intact the whole that is the university and the whole that is its precise subject-matter. Perhaps Lawler was really on to something in his judgment about where parents should consider sending their kids to college: “I think it’s easy to see that the best teaching is going on at small colleges where most faculty are tenured and almost all are tenure track. Send your kids to one of them!”

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative BookstoreThe Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.


[1] Jennifer Frey, “The War on Tenure,” First Things, May 23, 2017.

[2] Michael Cameron, “Faculty Tenure in Academe: The Evolution, Benefits and Implications of an Important Tradition,” Journal of Student Affairs at New York University

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
"All comments are subject to moderation. We welcome the comments of those who disagree, but not those who are disagreeable."
2 replies to this post
  1. The power of tenure is in its freedom to pursue teaching, to pursue truth. The problem is how we measure the professoriate in ‘measured” by universities – grants brought in, articles published, a number not quality, presentations made and very little for teaching. It is this form of measuring my quality as a professor that caused me to leave a major university and move to a small liberal arts college, which by the way, is not looking at the number of articles and so on as a measure.

  2. Is there not another important dimension of tenure (whatever its historical roots)? The university says, “We have gotten to know you well. You fit with us. Let’s make it permanent. You are an example of the kind of person who is committed to providing the kind of good we want to offer in the ways we find appropriate to our mission and professional modes of operation. You seem to share our larger movtivating vision and our understanding of what is needed. We have directly confirmed this in your time here so far. We therefore promote you to a new level of colleague-status, which we hope will last a very long time. With that status comes a great freedom, but also a greater responsibility for leadership and service.” That is, the stress is not so much on freedom and but on character and on incorporation into a body of professionals in light of a mission and a responsibility. What the university gets is a committed collaborating person of talent who brings stability to the university community, along with some organic coherence. Educators and schools need a certain amount of stability and unity to thrive.

Please leave a thoughtful, civil, and constructive comment: