Tenure Can be Toxic for Students


Incompetent teachers who cannot be removed pose a real threat to students. (Courtesy of Flickr)

By Faustino Galante

Incompetent teachers who cannot be removed pose a real threat to students. (Courtesy of Flickr)

On April 17, 2018, former first lady Barbara Bush died at the age of 92. In the wake of her passing, individuals from across the United States paid their respects. One professor from Fresno State, California, had some choice words for the first lady following her death. Just an hour after Barbara Bush’s death on Tuesday, English professor Randa Jarrar tweeted out, “Barbara Bush was a generous and smart and amazing racist who, along with her husband, raised a war criminal. F*** outta here with your nice words.” She went on to explain that she was “happy the witch is dead” and that she could not wait for “the rest of her family to fall.” Following her comments, many condemned Jarrar and called on California State University, Fresno to fire her. However, the professor was quick to respond to her critics. In another tweet, she explained that she could not be fired due to the fact that she was tenured by the University.

In the context of academics, tenure is essential to promoting job security for teachers across the United States. When a teacher receives academic tenure, they are given an indefinite academic appointment at the institution of which they work. A tenured educator can only be dismissed from their position under “extraordinary circumstances” such as a program discontinuation or a pressing financial crisis. Essentially, as Jarrar explained, when a professor is tenured, they are there to stay. It is extremely difficult to fire a professor who is tenured.

The case of Randa Jarrar demonstrates the flaws of tenure. Though one might argue that tenure is a “necessary evil” because of the fact that it promotes job security and academic freedom, one should also recognize its imperfections. The fact that tenured high school teachers and college professors maintain the belief that they “cannot” be fired is ludicrous. Furthermore, tenure presents a hefty financial burden to the institutions that issue it. Finally, tenured professors could possibly demonstrate a lack of motivation due to the fact that they are “untouchable.”

Following the Randa Jarrar situation, Fresno State University published an official announcement making clear that “there are certainly, situations where a tenured faculty person can be fired.” While tenured faculty members can indeed be fired, the process is by no means easy, nor is it cheap.

Firing a tenured teacher is an extensive process that requires a great deal of legal fees. As a result, many educators such as Randa Jarrar maintain the notion that they cannot be fired. In 2008, Fox News published a story which demonstrated how difficult it could be to terminate a tenured educator. In May of that year, a tenured English teacher who belonged to the Long Island district pleaded guilty for her fifth DWI arrest in seven years. Despite being in prison, she nonetheless remained on the school district’s payroll for a great deal of time and earned a staggering annual salary of $113,559. The school district was required to place the teacher on paid leave despite the fact that she had committed a serious crime.

The article goes on to explain that to fire one tenured teacher in New York City, taxpayers spend, on average, around $250,000. As a result of this egregious expense, tenured teachers are typically not fired. The fact that tenured teachers can commit crimes and still be paid is preposterous. It is unjust that educators receive such a high degree of job security. It would be wrong to make the claim that job security is not imperative in academia. Tenure, however, gives professors too much liberty and inhibits institutions from holding them accountable for their actions.

Firing tenured educators is clearly a huge financial burden for academic intuitions across the United States. However, keeping them employed is also a financial burden. Being that tenure can seem like a lifelong contract, universities must allocate enough funds to ensure that it can provide compensation for its tenured professors accordingly.

Academic institutions subsequently lose the ability to downsize if they encounter financial misfortune. In article for The Atlantic entitled “How much does Tenure Cost?” staff writer Meghan Mcardle presents an intriguing analogy. “Imagine I offered you one cell phone contract for two years at $100 a year, and another for 50 years at $90 + inflation,” she writes. “Would you really consider the second contract ‘cheaper’?”

Choosing the second choice would obviously place customers at a disadvantage. What if, for example, after ten years an individual desired a new feature which their cellphone carrier could not provide. They would be forced to sign with a new carrier on top of their old one. When a university chooses “the second choice” and decides to tenure a professor, they place themselves at a financial disadvantage.

Adjunct professors are known to be some of the hardest-working faculty members on college campuses. Because they lack tenure, and therefore lack job security, adjunct faculty members are unfortunately forced to work various jobs and competitively work to make an impression in the hopes of receiving tenure.

Tenure, in the context of adjunct professors, motivates them to work harder. When one receives tenure, they can breathe a sigh of relief. Sometimes though, this sigh of relief can diminish an educator’s overall job performance and motivation.

In a study for University of California, Berkley entitled “Job Security and Productivity,” William Lueng conducts an economic analysis to find out whether tenure negatively influences a teacher’s overall performance. After sampling 934 academic researchers, Lueng concluded that “evidence indicates productivity drops in the year immediately after tenure.”

He explains that in the year after receiving tenure, professors saw a 9.3 percent drop in productivity. Their number of days of absence per week also tripled after their probabilities of being fired decreased. To maximize the productivity of its educators, academic institutions in the United States must revitalize tenure. As mentioned above, tenure obviously makes it harder for high schools and colleges to hold their faculty members accountable for their actions. As a result, teachers become less motivated.

Tenure is a staple of American academic institutions. While the practice does indeed ensure academic freedom and job security for educators, it maintains flaws.
Instead of issuing lifelong contracts through tenure, institutions should consider establishing 5-10 year contracts. Being that tenure provides life long job security, it has the potential to provide professors with too much freedom, serve as a colossal financial burden and diminish faculty productivity. People must take note of the fact that tenure sustains various imperfections.