Spease: It is time to end teacher tenure

Holly Spease

Editor’s Note: The views expressed in the following column are those of the writer only and do not necessarily represent the views of the Collegian or its editorial board.



Teacher tenure has been a hotly contested issue since it was created in the 19th century. As industrial workers and child laborers fought against harmful service conditions, teachers attempted to protect their job from unfair economic and political circumstances. A longstanding misconception about tenure is that professors are guaranteed their jobs for life. Although this policy makes firing educators more difficult, the only thing it guarantees is that colleges and universities will not terminate a professor without due process. Tenure is a complicated process and not easy to obtain. Colorado State University explains their specific procedure in detail on their website. Although the history and intentions behind tenure are positive, there are many potentially harmful side effects of this policy.

The most common argument is that when teachers do not fear for their jobs, they will become lazy, as there is there is no incentive to work hard. While this opinion is extreme and there are many tenured professors who serve on more committees and publish more work than untenured professors; there are still many tenured instructors who do not perform well. A study by New Teacher Project found that 81 percent of school administrators knew of an ineffective tenured educator, and have not taken action to have them terminated. Additionally, there are student websites such as ratemyprofessor.com, where professors are repeatedly ranked poorly and continue to instruct that same courses for years. I understand that there are bias responses and students who rank these educators have strong opinions, but if multiple students continually rank the same professors poorly, why has nothing changed?

It is because removing a tenured professor is extremely time consuming, costly and not worth the work. It can take up to 335 days to remove an ineffective educator. In New York, it costs around $250,000 in legal fees to fire a single ineffective tenured instructor. Universities will pay inefficient professors to quit because it is less costly and a more efficient process. At Texas A&M and the University of Texas, 130 tenured professors accepted buyouts equivalent to 18 months of salary, and the Universities still saved money. Not only is the Tenure system costly, it harms students. In a study entitled “Are Tenure Track Professors Better Teachers?” by David N. Figlio, Morton O. Schapiro, and Kevin B. Soter, researchers found that Northwestern University students learned more when “adjuncts,” or non-tenured instructors, taught the course than when they were taught by tenure-track professors.

In addition, younger educators suffer from not being able to find a job due to the retention of tenured instructors. This policy guards older professors from losing their jobs to new and inexpensive educators. A graduate-level instructor in the liberal arts department mentioned how it will be impossible to find a job after they graduate, because older professors are not leaving. I understand that older instructors should be valued and never be forced out, but if they have become ineffective it is not fair that students are paying thousands of dollars to take their courses.

Many tenured professors get funding to conduct research in their field. Often, students report that they feel instructors prioritize their research over teaching classes. The Figlio study found that professors who do not double up as researchers and instructors were more effective at helping their students. Even professors do not like the system, as 86 percent of instructors want to make firing incompetent tenured teachers easier.

With so many problems surrounding the tenure system, many people are wondering if this level of protection for teachers necessary. Tenure was created before labor laws existed and there are so many laws today that guard against discrimination. If a teacher is fired for an unjust cause, they can take the university to court and argue their case. Tenure is a way to suppress the free market. In a restaurant, if an employee is underperforming they are fired, it does not take years and thousands of dollars to prove they are not good enough to serve food. The tenure system is outdated. The policy protects ineffective teachers, wastes thousands of dollars, prevents younger professors from being hired, disincentives students to earn a Ph.D, harms the education of students, and is ultimately unnecessary with the growth of teacher’s Unions and labor and discrimination laws.

Instead of continuing to use this broken system, colleges and universities should work towards ensuring that no teacher, young or old, is fired for arbitrary reasons. A teacher who earns tenure should not be the only person exempt from discrimination and wrongful employment termination. Instead, every teacher should work to better themselves and provide the best possible education for their students. If they are no longer effective, then students should not have to pay to take their course just because they have worked at the university for a long time.

Merit should be the only determining factor in whether someone keeps their job, and society has to decide if they are okay with the negative side effects of tenure in order to protect senior-level instructors.

Holly can be reached at letters@collegian.com and online @HollySpease