A Naive and Sentimental Professor

When my contract for the 2011/2012 school year arrived last week, I signed it immediately and hand delivered it to the appropriate office. Why? With that letter I have tenure. It doesn’t officially start until the new contract goes into effect in the fall, but the deal is done.

For the first time in my life, now, I have job security. For the first time, I can see tenure from the other side.

It’s an interesting experience, and quite sobering.

I still have reservations about the tenure system. It should not be job security—not simply. And it should protect everyone from the threat of job loss from an unpopular position within their field. Everyone whose field relates to scholarship, that is. I can’t see tenure for university accountants, for example, or for high-school teachers—neither of whom is expected to engage in scholarship as part of their job.

We use tenure as a replacement for the year-to-year contracts that have become standard in education—a carrot on a stick for those early in their careers. But the annual-contract system has problems. I’ve seen situations in private schools where administrators use it to punish and to reward—not for jobs well done, but for support given. This probably happens in colleges, too, but it’s a little more difficult, for the process generally has more steps, starting in the department and moving upwards (in a private secondary school, the department rarely has an official voice in contract renewal—or in hiring, for that matter). Tenure takes one out of this process, putting the tenured professor on a more stable footing, knowing that future contracts cannot be withheld easily.

Tenure should not be a remedy for another system’s weakness. However, abolition of tenure will only make a bad system worse—and more easily corrupted. So, getting rid of tenure without changing that system will be a bad idea, even in situations where the older idea of tenure—as protection for professors with unpopular ideas—has no application at all.

Year-by-year contracts needn’t be the standard in education. Other kinds of protection, and other durations, could actually work better. Five-year contracts with built-in standards for renewal might be one possibility. Whatever it would be, it would have to have within it means of assurance that the job would not be summarily lost at the end of the period.

That, however, is not really what I’ve been thinking about since receiving my tenure letter.

What I’ve been thinking about is my responsibility, now, to the institution, and how it has changed since the signing. City Tech has made a commitment to me. Am I ready to make a serious commitment to it?

I had not imagined asking this question before.

Do I, as a tenured professor, now have new responsibilities towards the institution that is providing me something becoming more and more rare, even in higher education?

At the risk of offending those who see tenure as an earned right, I have to say yes. I may have earned tenure, but I have now entered into a symbiotic relationship with the institution. We are intertwined; what one does reflects on the other. Because the institution can no longer reject me, I no longer have the moral option of rejecting it.

I thought gaining tenure would bring on heartfelt sighs of relief. Instead, it is making me realize that, for the first time in my life, I am making a commitment to an institution. My workload won’t ease: if anything, I now have to take my duties even more seriously than before.

This doesn’t mean that I would never leave City Tech. Like all colleges and universities, it is a flawed institution, just as I am a flawed human being… and there may come a time when those flaws conflict to the point where neither of us is doing the other any good. Or I may find that a certain opportunity elsewhere, something that City Tech can’t give me, will be powerful enough to break the bond. But, as long as I stay here, I feel I must work and act as though I am staying until my last working day, giving at least as much as I am taking.

Both City Tech and I are struggling to establish ourselves. Neither, before the last few years, had much of an impressive record. Both of us are rising. I want to be proud of the school, and want it to be proud of me.

I wouldn’t have admitted that, not before the letter came.