Tenure turns out to be a multifaceted process
February 22, 2010 —
The word tenure has a long history in the realm of higher education.
The concept, conceived in the Feudal Ages, first applied to a person who held land in exchange for a service they provided. Its application in schools began at Harvard University as early as the 1700s. The word itself comes from Latin root tenere, meaning, “to hold.”
Today, tenure is a form of job protection that guarantees a faculty member cannot be fired without just cause. Its original purpose was to preserve academic freedoms, to protect professors whose beliefs may differ from those in power or in the majority. But critics often deem it a roadblock that prevents incompetent teachers from being fired.
The topic made national news this month when a professor at the University of Alabama at Huntsville shot three colleagues after she was denied tenure. The instance is extreme, but it prompts questions about how tenure can cause controversy and misunderstanding.
Fifteen faculty members at SVSU were recently granted tenure, according to announcements from the Board of Control meeting last Monday.
SVSU has 297 full-time faculty members, and 185 — or 62 percent — are tenured.
Mary Hedberg, dean of the College of Arts and Behavioral Sciences, serves on the nine-member Professional Practices Committee. The committee comprises elected faculty members and administrators and is chaired by university Provost Don Bachand.
Faculty members applying for tenure at SVSU are judged on three criteria: teaching, scholarship and service.
“Often people look at faculty and see only them teaching without realizing the other aspects of their job,” Hedberg said. “To achieve tenure status, a faculty member must reach acceptable standards in all three areas.”
Teaching is a primary factor at SVSU compared with other universities, Hedberg said; faculty members are evaluated by students as well as other faculty in their department. The second area, scholarship, includes active involvement in research and contributing new information to their field. The last area, service, involves giving back to both the university and the community.
Achieving tenure at SVSU, according to Hedberg, is a long and rigorous process.
It begins with a five-year evaluation, she said. The first two years are probationary. A faculty member is evaluated by a team of three other members, as well as their department and the department’s dean. Each year, faculty members are encouraged to improve. During the fifth year, the member applies to the committee and is reviewed again before the final decision.
“[It] is about protecting the pursuit of knowledge,” Hedberg said. “The advantage to the university is that you have a committed and tested professoriate who is actively engaged in the pursuit of knowledge. They are able to pursue research without being influenced by other pressures.”
And tenure doesn’t guarantee a permanent position.
“If a tenured faculty member has committed seriously unprofessional behavior, they would be put on tenure review and could potentially still be fired,” said Jill Wetmore, dean of the College of Business and Management. She added that tenured faculty could also be dismissed because of extreme budget cuts or if a lack of student interest causes an entire department to shut down.
According to Hedburg, tenure is a way to build and sustain a core group of faculty at a university.
“The bulk of the curriculum at SVSU is taught by tenure- track faculty members,” Hedberg said. “What amazes me more than the occasional person who abuses the system are the people who are actively engaged in their jobs, not because they have tenure, but because they love what they do.”
Brian Thomas, assistant professor and chair of the sociology department, was one of the 15 faculty members recently granted tenure.
“I believe tenure helps give faculty additional reason to invest their time and energy in the university,” Thomas said.
Thomas also hopes to use his tenure status as a way to pursue additional projects. He is interested in sustainable food systems and hopes to motivate student leaders in projects such as the Green Cardinal Initiative.
“Having [it] makes it easier for me to think not just one year down the road, but five and ten years down the road,” Thomas said. “I look forward to continuing this work and creating new opportunities for students to get their hands dirty.”