Does Tenure Matter? It Depends on Who You Ask

Higher education has reached a point where tenure is no longer an aspiration but a lofty goal and reward given after decades of dedication (and plenty of research success).

But what does tenure mean in today’s world, and more importantly does tenure matter?

The answer is usually yes, but the reason depends on who you ask.

Tenure Protects Academic Freedom

Too often, the benefits of tenure for both universities and staff are considered only in terms of the budget. But the benefits of tenure – and why it matters – lies in academic freedom.

If the bulk of college and university staff in the classroom are ineligible for tenure, then it defeats the purpose of taking risks and teaching. Staff who aren’t protected aren’t free to teach in the most meaningful and beneficial way possible.

There’s no room for error or change or challenge for teaching staff who don’t have the security of tenure or even the security of a multi-year contract.

Instead, staff must balance keeping students happy – whatever that means – with being on the job market and with participating in the research and publication duties expected of them even without hopes of a tenure track.

There’s also the issue of the rise in volatile politics. As local, state, and national policies veer in drastically different directions every election cycle, tenure protects those doing good work from becoming victims of politics.

Few have figured out how to preserve academic freedom when the outlook for tenure is bleak.

Tenure Hurts New Research

Tenure helps young teacher and researchers work hard and stay the course, but the current tenure system also hurts them.

The old guard holding onto positions until death or retirement, whichever comes first, prevent the opening of space for new research.

Additionally, tenure forces faculty to split their time, taking good researchers out of the lab and putting them in the classroom and forcing good teachers out of the classroom and into the lab because of a system focused on research income rather than merit.

Can We Balance Tenure?

Tenure matters in positive and negative ways. But is there a way to balance tenure to protect academic staff without sheltering them?


Some say that finding parity in a world without tenure means ensuring the non-tenure track staff are protected. The use of multi-year contracts could be replaced by fair salaries, particularly because those salaries aren’t promised until retirement.

Additionally, as Bernstein and Kezar point out over at The Conversation, there is the option of re-thinking the tenure system to be based on incentives that focus on more than research revenue includes a teaching tenure track for those who dedicate their time to the classroom.

What is your experience with tenure? Does it matter anymore, or does it matter more than ever?

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