Tenure can be thought of as a permanent job contract for a professor, and it’s usually granted after a probationary period of six or seven years. Tenure is typically based on the professor’s teaching ability, their publication record, and their reputation among their peers.
During a routine biology department faculty meeting at the University of Alabama in Huntsville on February 12, 2010, biology professor Amy Bishop killed three of her colleagues and critically wounded three others. Bishop, who began teaching at the school in 2003, had recently been denied tenure at the university and opened fire at the faculty meeting with a 9-millimeter handgun.
Sammie Lee Davis, the husband of one of Bishop’s victims, told the Associated Press that his wife had mentioned Bishop before and described her as “not being able to deal with reality” and “not as good as she thought she was.”
Andrea Bennett, a sophomore who had been in one of Amy Bishop’s classes, told the New York Daily News, “She’s well known on campus, but I wouldn’t say she’s a good teacher. I’ve heard a lot of complaints. She’s a genius, but she really just can’t explain things.”
At traditional universities, tenure can play a large role in the quality of professors. The tenure system is supposedly in place so that good professors have job security and academic freedom, but the downfall to this is that professors who have not yet received tenure are often so afraid of being fired, they’re unwilling to share their opinions for fear of offending college officials. Competition for tenured positions is fierce.
If a professor is not granted tenure after their probationary period, their teaching contract will probably not be renewed, and it’s typically extremely difficult to get a job elsewhere once tenure has been denied. Amy Bishop was aware of this, and snapped, killing three innocent people in the process and wounding three others.
On July 3, 2010 the National Examiner reported that the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools awarded the University of Alabama in Huntsville a Project School Emergency Response to Violence grant totaling more than $256,000 to assist with ongoing recovery efforts following the shooting rampage.
Advocates of the tenure system claim that it has its benefits, such as job security for good professors, but the topic has been up for debate for some time now. Critics claim that tenure promotes mediocrity because tenured professors know they can’t get fired.
The U.S. Department of Education report titled “Employees in Postsecondary Institutions, Fall 2009” will be released later this year and according to the Chronicle of Higher Education, the document will innocuously be about the demise of tenure.
The New York Times explained that in 1975, fifty-seven percent of all college professors had tenure or were on a tenure track. In 2007, that number had fallen to 31 percent and the upcoming U.S. Department of Education report is expected to show yet another decline.
Stanley N. Katz, director of Princeton University’s Center for Arts and Cultural Policy Studies told the Chronicle of Higher Education, “We may be approaching a situation in which there will not be good, tenure-track jobs for the great majority of good people.”
Tenure was once a defining feature of the U.S. higher education system, but it has shrunk drastically as more and more colleges and universities fill teaching positions with part-time adjunct professors that earn as little as $1500 per course.
Some professionals feel that the disappearance of tenure is not the worst thing that could happen to the academic world. The competition for tenure-track jobs and actually earning tenure has become so fierce in some disciplines — think of Amy Bishop — that some institutions may actually be turning away highly qualified people who don’t want to deal with the hassle. A system without tenure, but one that still gave professors reasonable pay and job security, might help draw that talent back.
During my college years, I sat through classes with several different tenured professors who had been teaching for twenty to thirty years. Some were excellent— I can recall one instructor who was willing to sit down one-on-one before or after class in order to offer extra assistance to anyone who wanted help. Others were consistently late and always seemed bored, as if the classroom was the last place on Earth they wanted to be. On the other side of the coin, I had similar experiences with adjunct professors. Some were exceptional teachers and others acted as if they wanted nothing to do with their students.
Only time will tell if tenure will disappear from higher education in the U.S., but different types of professors may be better suited to different types of students anyway. Depending on their field of study, some students may prefer to learn from traditional, tenured professors while others would do better with an adjunct that also has work experience out in “the real world.”
Melissa Rhone earned her Bachelor of Music in Education from the University of Tampa. She resides in the Tampa Bay area and enjoys writing about college, pop culture, and epilepsy awareness.
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