Thursday, June 17, 2010

Tenure, or Not To Tenure

Tenure is a big deal in academia.

If you've ever experienced the decisions related to tenure, then you realize what an understatement that was.

Tenure is job security.  In the days when faculty and students would go to the university and live there and train there and remain there most or all of their lives, tenure was the guarantee that the university would house you and feed you and let you read in the library until you were dead.  With one university in a given geographical area, and faculty not changing jobs or geographical areas like we do today, tenure was essential for feeding/clothing/housing yourself for the rest of your life.

That was a long time ago.

My personal opinion is that tenure is a throwback to an archaic system of higher education when universities did much more to support the livelihood of their faculty and therefore had much more power over lives.  It has, in more recent history, allowed faculty to feel free to teach topics that might be controversial, or to research topics that conflict with the status quo, and not feel threatened that they may lose their job in their pursuit of the truth.

That all sounds well and good.  These days, I haven't seen any faculty member feel that their job is threatened because they teach about controversial topics (evolution, anyone?).  In fact, I have only seen "tenure" allow incredibly poor, lazy, and sometimes incompetent faculty hang around.

To "get" tenure in most colleges and universities, you work your rear end off incredibly hard for some number of years - usually around six or seven.  At the end of that, a committee of faculty members gets to decide your fate based on a notebook you put together.  To make matters worse,  most colleges and universities (mine included!) have an up-or-out policy.  If those colleagues decide you are not worth of tenure, you will receive a terminal contract - basically you have a year to find another job because you're being fired.

I was hired for my first full-time faculty position in 2003.  The college where I was hired did not hire on tenure-track positions, only on term contracts.  At the time, I thought I would only be there a couple of years to get some experience and then move on to a "real" university for a tenure-track position.  Fortunately, I thrived in the environment and was very successful.  I loved what I was doing, and felt like I was really where I needed to be.  Because I loved what I was doing, I did a great job.  I took on new and varied projects in addition to my teaching.  The college was very small and there was great opportunity to work on committees and teams.  I basically did all the things one does when "going for" tenure.  I had good student evaluations, had excellent feedback on academic advising, chaired committees and worked on projects, impressed my bosses, got things accomplished, and felt great about myself in the process.  I moved up into academic administration and really felt like I was making a difference.

If I was going for tenure, I believe I would have gotten it.  However, that wasn't an option for me at that college.  Even if it was, I didn't care.  I personally don't really believe in tenure.  As I said, I think it just keeps bad faculty in place for way too long.

I changed colleges.  It was the best thing to do for my daugher and I at the time.  The position was also a term contract position - in fact, it was exactly the same as my previous position, only at a different college.  Over the past year I have adjusted to going back to work after the life-changing event of having a daughter.  I am slowly assimilating my "two lives" - one as professor and one as mommie.  I'm starting to get this balance thing as best I can right now.

Then I receive a letter that my position has been identified as tenure-eligible, and I have the one-time opportunity to convert to tenure-track and apply for tenure.

OMG.  So what do I do?

To turn down an opportunity to "go for" tenure is a ridiculous decision to established academics.  Why would I turn down the opportunity to basically never be fired?

However, it will require time and effort that I would rather put toward teaching my students (sometimes) and raising my daughter.

I have gone back and forth in making the decision over the past few days.  I have done the pros and cons list (there is always a "but" that supports the other side!)  I have talked to my family who have always been my biggest supporters.  Here was the deciding factor: my ultimate career goal is to get back into academic leadership and administration.  To lead faculty - or any group - you need credibility.  You need to represent the group, and be able to speak to the experiences of the group you lead.  Having tenure may not help me in leading a group of tenured faculty.  But I can guarantee you that not having tenure may have a huge impact when leading a group of tenured faculty.

It also doesn't hurt that it's guaranteed job security in a job that I really like in the area where I have decided to build my life with my daughter.

So I turned in a piece of paper today that says I have three years to demonstrate that I meet the qualifications of tenure, or I lose my job.

OMG I hope I made the right decision!

(I'll know in three years.)


Laraf123 said...

IMHO, you did the right thing. I am struggling with the decision(s) of how to advance my professional status and give my sons 100% of what they need from me. For me there is the issue of money (on top of the lack of time). I know you will find a way. Ultimately this will benefit your daughter, too.

Billy said...

I'm sure you made the right decision :-). Good luck..

Pam said...

What an odd situation to be given the conversion certainly sounds like you made the right call.

With my girls (2 and 5 now) it has seemed to get easier as they grow (first no more nursing, then mostly sleeping through the night, then potty training), so a 3 year timeframe might give you more time than you think.

My take on the vagueries of what's required for tenure is that most of us do WAY more than the minimum requirement, so having this vague, huge impact decision point helps them milk tons of work out of junior faculty. Presumably those who put in huge effort have trouble turning all of that try off for at least a few years after the tenure decision, and perhaps deserve a little slack in their waning years. I certainly agree that it's an odd system, but I do relish the time when I can stop caring much about jumping though the annual review hoops (of course, that's after promotion to full professor, not just tenure, but we'll get there!)

MommieV said...

The one advantage that I think I have is that my tenure review will come at the same time as my promotion to full professor (I was on contract up to this point so my promotion to associate professor came with a thousand dollars, but no tenure). Since the standards are slightly higher here for full professor than associate, I think if I'm prepared for the full professor then I'll be prepared for tenure.

I hope.