Tenure: Use It or Lose It

08/17/2011 02:16 pm ET | Updated Oct 17, 2011
  • Thomas Fisher Professor & Director of the Metropolitan Design Center at the University of Minnesota

Recent efforts in statehouses around the United States, most notably in Madison, Wisconsin, to abolish public employees' and K-12 teachers' collective bargaining rights suggest that attacks on the tenure system in public higher education will not be far behind. To those who see everything in terms of the marketplace, tenure can seem anti-competitive and inefficient: if companies don't offer tenure, why should universities? Lost on most critics of tenure is the fact that universities are much more like municipalities than they are like companies, and tenured faculty are more like the property owners in a community than employees in a business.

It's not surprising that such arguments fall on deaf ears among governors and legislators trying to cut budgets and reduce the size of government. The public pressure to keep tuition increases down, the widespread misunderstanding of faculty workloads (faculty work on average over 60 hours/week), and the growing anti-intellectualism in our public discourse, may further embolden those who see tenure as a costly and cushy deal, or who simply do not like or trust academics for whatever reason. So far, public universities have largely remained below the radar among those who have shown a startling animosity toward public-sector employees. Given what we have witnessed in Madison, however, hoping that tenure will remain unchallenged and that universities can successfully fend off attacks on tenure as they largely have in the past do not seem like effective strategies.

Instead, when it comes to tenure, faculty need to "use it or lose it." In other words, the best defense of tenure is a good offense, remembering why we have tenure in the first place and putting it to use in ways that the public and even skeptical politicians will recognize as valuable and worth protecting. One of the primary purposes of tenure is to protect faculty who speak out about potentially controversial subjects from retribution. As such, tenure largely serves the public interest by giving people access to pertinent facts and to the "truth" as currently understood by those with expertise in a specific area. Drawing attention to the public benefit that tenure provides seems essential at a time when some will want to portray it as an undeserved privilege.

With the receipt of tenure comes a responsibility to serve not just as educators and researchers, but also as public commentators, addressing a broad audience about issues of general interest from the perspective of a particular discipline. In addition to publishing in journals, tenured faculty need to write or speak to the public about their work in ways and through venues accessible to everyone. To demonstrate the value of tenure, faculty have to demonstrate the reason we have it to begin with by taking stands on important topics that may require the protection it provides.

That may seem like a risky approach. It might seem safer for tenured faculty to keep a low profile and wait out the current wave of cost cutting, while avoiding possibly controversial issues that might draw the attention of and even antagonize the very politicians who may look for reasons to go after tenure. I understand that sentiment, and while addressing controversial issues may anger a few, not doing so could disaffect a far greater number of people if speaking out would have made a difference in the public understanding of an issue or led to an improved outcome as a result.

It's time for tenured faculty to recognize their role and use the variety of tools at their disposal to reach out to a broad public before they lose that capability altogether.

Thomas Fisher is the Dean of the College of Design at the University of Minnesota.