PROF JENKINS: Tenure– It’s complicated

Tenure also protects conservative professors like me

Rob Jenkins is a Higher Education Fellow with Campus Reform and a tenured associate professor of English at Georgia State University - Perimeter College. In a career spanning more than three decades at five different institutions, he has served as a head men’s basketball coach, an athletic director, a department chair, and an academic dean, as well as a faculty member.Jenkins’ opinions are his own and do not represent those of his employer.

As Campus Reform reported earlier this month, the Indiana State Senate has passed a bill potentially making it easier to fire tenured professors at the state’s public universities.

This development follows a trend in recent years, with several (mostly) Red States—including Georgia, Texas, South Carolina, and North Carolina—either enacting or proposing similar “anti-tenure” legislation.

Such measures, usually supported by Republican majorities in those state legislatures, tend to be cheered by conservatives, who view tenure as a system that protects bad professors to the detriment of higher education as a whole.

I understand that sentiment.

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Years ago, while serving as a department chair, I was asked by the president to join a committee tasked with reviewing a faculty member’s disciplinary file. We were to determine whether the college should begin the process of revoking his tenure.

What I saw in the file shocked me. For over a year, the faculty member in question—a tenured associate professor—had allegedly been coming to campus drunk, leaving threatening voicemails for his colleagues, and accosting them in the hallways.  

And there we were, twelve months later, just starting to think about firing him. I went home after that first meeting and told my wife, “Tenure is a beautiful thing.”

I was joking, of course—but not entirely. As a tenured professor myself—one who has occasionally run afoul of the administration, though not for any of the same reasons as my soon-to-be former colleague—I found it somewhat comforting to learn just how difficult it is (or was) to fire one of us. 

And there lies the rub. Yes, tenure does sometimes protect professors who behave badly—not just by getting drunk or threatening people, but by overtly politicizing the classroom, pushing toxic ideologies like Critical Race Theory and “transgenderism,” and even supporting terrorism.

Yet tenure also protects conservative professors like me. On two separate occasions, administrators have tried to get rid of me because of something I wrote. They failed only because I have tenure. Without it, I would have been toast.

I certainly wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing now, penning op/eds for Campus Reform and other conservative outlets. And although I can’t speak for them, I imagine most of my conservative colleagues on this site and elsewhere would probably say the same.

So tenure clearly serves a good purpose, at least some of the time. If we want more conservative voices on campus, and want them to be more outspoken, then we must protect their right to speak freely. Tenure does that, if imperfectly.

There is also, I believe, a general misunderstanding on the right regarding what tenure is and how it works. Conservatives tend to think it’s something unique, a “perk” that only college professors enjoy. They also believe it essentially constitutes a lifetime appointment, such that tenured faculty cannot be fired for any reason. 

Neither assumption is true. Tenure in the academy works much the same as a partnership at a law or accounting firm. It gives someone a seat at the table, a voice in the lower-level (at least) decision-making process.

Tenure does make it harder to fire faculty members, but not impossible. Just like partners in a law firm, tenured professors can be dismissed for any number of good and proper reasons, including dishonesty, malfeasance, and sexual harassment. Note that the faculty member in the above story was eventually fired.

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Most universities also have a regular post-tenure review process—every five years, in my case—designed to ensure that faculty members remain competent, engaged, and productive.

So where tenure is concerned, let’s not throw the baby out with the bath. I’m all for policies that hold professors to a high standard of professional conduct and make it easier to fire them if they fail to meet that standard.

But if we weaken tenure too much, we open the door for leftist administrators to judge conservative faculty members based on vague concepts like “collegiality” and “politicization.” Any behavior they dislike could be considered “uncollegial,” while a failure to promote the approved narrative might constitute “politicization.” 

And in that event, by gutting or eliminating tenure, we might just be doing more harm than good.  

Editorials and op-eds reflect the opinion of the authors and not necessarily that of Campus Reform or the Leadership Institute.