Monday, March 28, 2011

Tenure – a Major Cornerstone of Education

As you know, I tend to avoid highly contentious topics on this blog. Today, however, I feel compelled to talk about something near and dear to my heart: tenure.

There is a national movement to change and/or eliminate tenure – in public schools and universities. In fact, here in Florida, the state Legislature passed and the Governor signed a bill promulgating that “as of July 1, 2011, all newly hired teachers will be offered 1-3 year contracts and tenure will no longer exist for new hires.” In many universities, similar policies also are being considered and/or implemented. The most important aspect of tenure is that it is primarily intended to guarantee the right to academic freedom: it protects teachers and researchers when they dissent from prevailing opinion, openly disagree with authorities of any sort, or spend time on unfashionable topics.

As a former high school teacher and for 40 years a professor at four different universities (including being a Department Chair three times and once an Associate Dean), I indeed have seen the misuse and abuse of tenure; yet I certainly have seen the benefits of tenure as well. Tenure is one of the major cornerstones of any educational system, and to suggest that it be eliminated because of a few troublesome and undesirable tenured teachers is akin to suggesting that democracy be eliminated because we elected a few troublesome and undesirable legislators. Interestingly, in my novel, Fear of Feeling Loved, the heroine, Marcia, is a newly hired university Assistant Professor and is focused on doing what she needs to do to eventually qualify for tenure. Her friend and mentor, an older Professor, explains to Marcia the importance and virtues of tenure (as well as the unofficial politics involved).

With tenure, a professional school teacher will feel fee to develop his or her courses and individual classes based on what their students need (which on occasion may not be what the students want), and give students, their parents, school administrators and others in society their best professional opinions (which on occasion may not be what they want to hear). With tenure, university professors will openly and honestly honor their commitments to teaching, research and community service.

Without tenure and thus a fear of losing ones job, for example, a pubic school biology school teacher may understandably be less committed what science may say about evolution, and a political science professor may be reluctant to be honest when asked about an upcoming election or an elected official. In addition to generating knowledge, disseminating knowledge and facilitating critical and creative thinking, in many ways our society’s educators play a very important gad-fly role for the ultimate betterment of everyone.

Question: What are your thoughts regarding tenure?



Jackie Minniti said...

As a former teacher, I echo your sentiments. Tenure is even more important today, when school boards are driven to make hiring decisions based on fiscal concerns. How many excellent, veteran teachers would fall under the axe in order to clear the way for inexperienced, less expensive hires? And how comfortable would a non-tenured teacher feel making an unpopular choice that (s)he knows would be in the best interest of the student? In my book, "Project June Bug," the main character is faced with just such a choice. Fortunately, it works out for her in the end, but in real life, she probably wuld not have been so lucky. I just wish our legislators could spend some time in front of a classroom before they make decisions that effect education!

Dr. Bill Emener said...

Hello Jackie,
Thank you for the visit and sharing your experience and extensional considerations. The pressure that current teachers are under is enormous, and when they have an opinion or new idea that may not be a popular one (locally or state-wide) the pressure ratchets up. Very sad – as a teacher said to me in the gym the other evening, “All I do is stay under the radar, do my job and go home.” And when I asked why, she said, “I tried to go the extra mile a few times and offer my thoughts… I was either ignored or politely told to focus on what I’m supposed to be doing.” Then with a smirk she added, “The implication was: Get the kids FCAT Scores up!”
I continually find it interesting how our education system(s) seem to be the “fall guy” for so many of society’s ills, not to mention that our elected officials know the answers and remedies to everything. To wit, I think you have a great idea: let some of our elected officials spend a few days in a classroom and really see what it’s like and what goes on.
Before closing, I want to suggest “Project June Bug” as a must-read for all school teachers. Standing up for what’s right and in the best interest of one’s students – that courage!
‘til next time,

Maconole said...

I think it goes beyond the legislators but to society in general. We are mostly made up of "show me how you'll evaluate me and I'll show you how I'll act" people. Everyone wants results easily quantified so they can make snap decisions on how things are going. As a result, we grade schools on standardized test scores and graduation rates. This usually causes the administrations to make the tests easier and lower the graduation standards to boost test scores and grad rates. Teachers focus only on the items that will be covered on the tests and that are required to graduate. Everyone gets reelected and tenure and everyone is happy... except for the child who went through 13 years of school and learned nothing that will help in the real world.
I honsetly see both sides of tenure. I have seen the benefits first-hand from a dedicated professor and his colleagues. I have also seens many teachers kick back and coast because nothing can be done to them. Perhaps some type of compromise is needed where teachers/professors can earn tenure but are reviewed every five years (or something similar) by a tenure review board made up of peers and administrators to see if they are still upholding their end of the bargain. If they are not, they do not lose their job but they lose tenure and have to earn it back. This way it is not up to a single principal or administrator and is less frequent which should allow them to not get caught up in the mood of the day so to speak. This would also allow for a way to get rid of the bad apples that give these professions black eyes. The good ones would have little (if anything) to fear and they could keep the rotten ones out.

Dr. Bill Emener said...

Hello again Maconole – glad to see you,
As usual, you offer spot-on observations and an excellent recommendation.
Indeed, too many people in our society want to implement simple solutions to complex issues (e.g., “Tenure isn’t working so let’s just get rid of it.”) And I also have seen the impact on administrators who are trying to do the right thing. I vividly recall when I was an Associate Dean; for a number of years I tried to weed out the deadwood and slackers in our college who had tenure (although it wasn’t just the tenure policies… the union regulations also were very inhibiting in such situations). And you’re so right – it’s the children/students who ultimately suffer. I also like your tacit observation – (in my words), “education” is preparation for life… not just the compilation of information and specific skill sets to pass a test. (There’s a big difference between “education” and “training.”)
Instead of eliminating tenure, as it seems many narrow-minded legislators and micromanaging administrators are trying to do and in many cases are doing, asking selected administrators, students and educators themselves to revisit current tenure policies and come up with a better form of it would be a great idea! And, as you poignantly say, if a tenured teacher or tenured professor were “good,” he or she wouldn’t have anything to worry about being evaluated every five years.
You need to run for a political office thereby you could do something about this. Seriously, we need people in elected positions who can think outside the box and remain open-minded to alternative thinking.
Thank you for the visit, sharing your experience and excellent recommendation!
Ciao for now,

Barb said...

I, too, have mixed thoughts. My perspective is mostly that of "consumer", but I am about to enter the field. Throughout my life as a student, I have suffered at times from lazy teachers, which puts me on the side of wanting to get rid of tenure. However, as a fledgling instructor (can't call myself "professor" just yet!) I am beginning to see where it may be necessary to have that extra protection. Back on the other hand, I am still suffering from those incompetent instructors, so I guess I'm back on the side of no tenure. I don't know if tenure, per se, is the issue, or just the difficulty in getting rid of "dead wood", as you put it, Bill. I like your one reader's suggestion of some sort of review board. Of course, that has it's own issues, too- like favoritism. A very complex topic, for sure. From my own perspective, I'm glad these changes are occurring BEFORE I start my position. Sorry about all the rambling, it's 5am and I'm a bit fuzzy, but I wanted to participate.

Dr. Bill Emener said...

Hi Barb,
Thanks for sharing your experience and concerns. I too have suffered the ills of “deadwood” professors. And I believe that instead of eliminating tenure, tweaking and improving it, operationally, as Maconole suggested, is a much better way to go.
I know you and you’ll do exceptionally well as a professor – you’re not only bright, competent and industrious… you think outside the box. And someday if you are in a tenure-earning position, work hard to get it because when you do you’ll feel the freedom to disagree with colleagues and administrators and openly voice your opinions and thoughts regarding things such as philosophical positions, pedagogical issues, etc. Too many of today’s academic administrators (dare I say “leader”) are so fragile that they interpret anything different form their own ideas as a “lack of loyalty” (and they’ll punish you – and not rehire you if you’re not tenured). Interestingly, people on campuses talk about the importance of having “diversity” – I always have asked: “Does that include diversity of thought?”
Hang in there and keep moving forward (I just hope tenure is still around when you start applying for a faculty position).

Anonymous said...

For quite some time now I've had a big concern about a decrease in quality of education programs... both at the University and Professional School level as well as the public schools at all levels. I'll take the unpopular stance based on what I think has happened in the last 50 years.
Just as our corporate leadership has lost their focus on anything but their own profit and comfort... so have way too many faculty. Using the same old same materials, testing and thinking.. in a changing world has not kept the US education at the cutting edge. (Note this is a over generalization... there are some that have, but not nearly enough.)

I'm watching very closely a programs that has removed Tenure and is using intensive evaluation not just of the professor but the program materials in today's world.
My daughter is an Assoc Professor there so I do get the insiders view. She is extremely happy with her job and doesn't feel any more, in fact less I think, pressure than faculty in tenure granting schools. And "the golden oldie guy" are very much focused on staying up dates... and don't seem to be doing as much "outside of school" work that most Full Professors take on to build their golden goose.

That said, I anticipate a rap on the head!

One last comment about something Jackie said... "she wanted legislators to spend time in the classroom." I've BEGGED professors in education training programs to use their sabbatical to go back into the classroom and see what today's schools, communities and kids are like. MOST as so out of date and their lectures do not prepare the teachers for what is a reality. I also think all other schools that prepare folks for jobs in the real world need to spend time on the job! It's time all educators WALKED THE WALK and just didn't TALK OUTDATED TALK.

Dr. Bill Emener said...

Hello Anonymous II,
Please know that I truly appreciate your stopping by and offering your experience (as well as your daughter’s), wisdom and recommendations. Also please know that I don’t “rap people on the head” – it’s not my MO or style. And, interestingly, I agree with much of what you say.
First, regarding your walk-the-walk” comment, during my 40 years as a university professor (at four different universities) I also was a Department Chair four times and an Associate Dean for three years. And during each administrative assignment, I also taught at least one course every semester. Moreover, over those 40 years I also maintained a small private practice as a licensed psychologist (which to me made sense – I taught graduate courses in counseling and psychotherapy). Staying in touch with what’s going on in the trenches “in the real world,” always was important and valuable to me. My students’ student-teacher evaluations reflected this – they repeatedly appreciated my cutting edge awareness of the real world. To wit, one of my favorite mantras is and always has been: “Anyone who folds parachutes for a living should be required to jump once and awhile.” And on the flip side, I have taken courses with and seen professors behind their lecterns reading on and on from yellowed lecture notes – indeed a travesty!
Second, I still beg the somewhat Socratic question: “Do we have to abandon tenure – and thus academic freedom – in order to improve the educational process?” For example, if we don’t like the process by which we are electing elected officials, do we have to abandon democracy or any of the Constitution’s principles in the process? Maybe as Maconole suggested, we can study alternatives of tenure and arrive at a hybrid model that would allow us to get rid of the “deadwood” yet in the process preserve academic freedom. (For example, I would hate to hear that your daughter had to sanction herself from expressing her honest professional opinion regarding something for fear of being fired by (as I said to Barbara) “academic administrators (dare I say ‘leader’) who are so fragile that they interpret anything different from their own ideas as a ‘lack of loyalty’ [and they’ll punish you – and not rehire you if you’re not tenured]).”
Thank you again for the visit!
With a down-the-road, open invitation to you,

Franzend said...

Dear Bill,

You and I have talked about this many times and I too have a great concern with the direction our legislators are moving. I think they are taking a broad sweep at a problem that needs extreme focus.

I am not a teacher, professor and anything close to that. As you know, I come from the corporate environment. My focus tends to be on performance and not on tenure, time in the job, seniority or whatever you want to call it.

However, I do have a concern with a system that is measuring a teacher on what some politicians think are the best way for our teachers to teach or some local government official who does not like what is being taught.

Tenure is a good thing for our teachers and professors, this being said there should be other factors that could in conjunction with Tenure have an impact on those few teachers and/or professors who feel once they get Tenure, it is a free ride.

If government wants to improve the performance of our teachers and professors rather than pulling Tenure away, why don't they make it mandatory that government involve our teachers and professors in the issues that are effecting our community and allow the teaching body to regulate and monitor the effectiveness of each teacher and professor.

This would seem to me to be more acceptable than the government to implement something they obviously know nothing about.

Good luck with your crusade, it is an important one and maybe your blog will get some traction for your profession.

Dr. Bill Emener said...

Hi Doug… I’m delighted to see you chiming in on this!
I vividly recall our numerous discussions regarding this over the years, and benefitted from it – your insights and considerations were and still are enlightening.
You obviously understand and appreciate the importance and value of having tenure for educators; likewise, I understand and appreciate the importance and value of having a system that provides realistic opportunities to get rid of the incompetent and ineffective teachers and professors. And somewhat akin to Maconoles suggestion, I really like your ideas – specifically that: (1) we involve our teachers and professors in the issues that are effecting our community; and (2) we allow the teaching body to regulate and monitor the effectiveness of each teacher and professor. And regarding the latter, I many times have said to my colleagues over the years, “If we don’t effectively monitor ourselves, others less qualified will.”
Thanks again for your insightfulness and best wishes. I don’t know if I’d call it a crusade, yet it certainly is something about which I truly am passionate about! I can’t think of many things more important that investing in our future generations! (And if any of this gets some traction and lands on open ears, I’ll be extremely pleased.)
Ciao for now my friend,