Tenure offers freedom, requires scholarship from professors
Published: Tuesday, February 26, 2013
Updated: Tuesday, February 26, 2013 02:02
Professorship and job security do not always go hand in hand. Without tenure, professors have no guarantee of a permanent position at their universities. With tenure, however, professors have the freedom to explore their own interests and research without the constant possibility of unemployment.
According to the 2010-2011 Tufts University Fact Book, of the entire faculty at the Schools of Arts and Sciences and Engineering, 280 faculty members — 60 percent of all faculty — are in tenured positions, and 83 additional faculty members are in tenure-track positions.
“Before I was hired at Tufts, I was what people sometimes call a ‘butterfly scholar,’ which [meant] if there was a job open, I would take it, no matter where,” Associate Professor of History Jeanne Marie Penvenne said. “I taught at Tufts once as a replacement faculty. I’d come from Harvard to Tufts and I really loved it. I thought, ‘Harvard students are so unwilling to take risks,’ and Tufts students, they thought, ‘Wow, this is going to be fun, we’ll try it.’”After spending several years at universities in the area, Penvenne was finally offered a position at Tufts in 1993 and received tenure in 1997.
“I got a call from [Professor] Steven Marrone in the history department who said, ‘We’re in the position to offer you this job,’” she said. “I literally just wept.”
When determining who is offered tenure, a variety of factors are taken into account.
“Finances are but one factor in the consideration of how many hires to authorize, at what level and in which areas,” University Provost David Harris told the Daily in an email.
Some faculty, however, are not eligible for tenure-track positions — in particular those teaching in interdisciplinary fields such as the Peace and Justice studies or American studies programs, according to Harris.
“Departments have been designated as units that represent established academic disciplines and are therefore the appropriate first level in the tenure review process,” he said.
“The increase in interdisciplinary scholarship challenges the traditional department-centered perspective on tenure.”
Harris added that Tufts is considering revisions to the university’s tenure and promotion policies so as to encourage faculty-wide interdisciplinary work and research.
Although an appointment at the university can eventually mean a tenure-track position, new professors must work hard to receive tenure and may not always succeed.
“The really dreadful thing about the tenure process is that if you don’t get tenure, you have to leave,” Penvenne said. “For some people, it can mean the end of a career.”
According to Penvenne, faculty members must submit a portfolio of their work to their department at the end of their fifth year at the university. Over the course of a year, their department and senior scholars in the field from around the country assess their scholarship.
“In some ways, it is a kind of baptism by fire,” Penvenne said. “The process is incredibly rigorous. We send these dossiers out to as many as 15 or 20 people.”
Getting through the tenure process, however, shows that a faculty member has cultivated and is cultivating a reputation as an established scholar who can move ahead in a positive way, Penvenne said.
Tenure was originally offered to guarantee job security to teachers in case of ideological differences with the university or even students, according to Harris.
“It is important that scholars be allowed to do their work without fear of termination if their areas of interest or conclusions deviate from positions held by the university or those who have influence over it,” he said.
The academic freedom that comes with tenure is vital, according to Associate Professor of Political Science Elizabeth Remick.
“[That freedom] allows faculty members to do research on politically sensitive subjects, and they just can’t be fired for having unpopular views,” she said, adding that it offers freedom to pursue personal interests as well.
“From the perspective of a scholar, it means I can do research on what I want to do. I don’t have to follow anybody’s directions on what I should be pursuing for my scholarship,” Remick said. “Once you get tenure, you can do whatever you want. That can be freeing, after many years of having to follow other people’s directions.”
While the benefits for faculty are immense, receiving tenure is also proof of a faculty member’s ability to conduct high quality scholarship.
“The fact that we all have to go through this process tends to weed out people who are not really self-motivated and self-directed because you are not going to survive this process unless you’re really pretty motivated,” Remick said. “That means that most of us continue to be productive and continue to do research after we get tenure because that’s the kind of people that we have become through this process or that we already were before we started.”
A common critique of tenure is that it prevents faculty from exploring new intellectual areas, according to Harris.
“My own belief [however] is that we must be sure that our tenure, promotion and faculty review policies demand excellence across our core mission and that they are enforced rigorously,” he said. “When they are, it is almost always the case that the faculty we tenure are faculty we would be ecstatic to have as long-term members of the Tufts family, even if tenure did not require it.”