What is Tenure?

Teacher tenure is something that every professor and many elementary or high school teachers strive for as it allows them to be guaranteed that they will never their job. However, that promised job security is not true in every case. In fact, there are many misunderstandings about how tenure works, the process of attaining it and what it protects and what it does not. Many also errantly assume that once somebody attains tenure, he will no longer have the passion for his students or for his research. Although there are exceptions, this is generally not true as tenured professors publish, serve and teach more than the untenured professors they work with.

Definition of Tenure

Tenure simply ensures that the person with it receives due process and is not let go without cause. An unprofessional or incompetent teacher could be fired, even if she has tenure. Also, sometimes departments need to be closed for financial or other reasons, resulting in one or more tenured teachers losing their positions as well. Roughly one of every 50 tenured professors is dismissed on an annual basis for one of these reasons.

What tenure does do – the purpose behind why it was created – is allow those with it to engage in research or challenge assumptions that may not be popular ones and not fear for his job because of it. What it does not do is directly affect things like promotions or salary increases.

How to Get Tenure

At the college level, the process is a long and difficult one with no guaranteed light at the end of the tunnel as those who fail to be offered tenure at the end of this process are usually let go. At a community college, the process tends to take roughly three years while this period lasts about seven years at a school that awards bachelor’s degrees. During that time, professors can be let go for any reason.

Those determining who receives teacher tenure analyze the professor’s research, service and teaching. About 80 percent of those who go through this entire process will receive tenure at the end of it.

History Behind Tenure

In the United States, the history of tenure for university professors dates to the 1800s. During this time period, a professor could be let go for any reason, such as if an influential donor did not like what he was saying or writing. However, in a famous 1894 case, Richard T. Ely, a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor, was threatened with losing his position due to his socialistic teachings. The state’s Board of Regents sided with him and for academic freedom.

Another major moment occurred in 1900; at that time, Columbia University, Harvard University and the University of Chicago said that donors could no longer have any influence over whether a professor was retained or let go. In 1940, the American Association of University Professors stated that the probationary period for university professors should be seven years. This has remained the norm for those types of positions ever since.

The history behind tenure of pre-college teachers is similar to that for college professors.  In 1886, Massachusetts became the first state to pass a tenure law that applied to K-12 public school teachers. As of 2008, 80% of the nation’s public school teachers were tenured.

Unfortunately, the percentage of professors who are tenured has been decreasing over the years; today, about one out of every three faculty members has it. This is generally due to schools’ desires to save money as untenured professors tend to cost less and are more expendable. This results in more instructors, those without teacher tenure, becoming increasingly focused on the vulnerability of their positions and less focused on their students or research.

See also: Is Teaching the Right Career For Me… How Will I Know?