Should Christian College Professors Have Tenure?

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Amidst the growing furor over the costs and value of college education, one of the easiest political targets is professors with tenure. The Wall Street Journal recently noted:

Republican lawmakers have introduced bills for the current legislative sessions to eliminate tenure, cut back its protections or create added hoops that tenured faculty at public colleges must jump through to keep their jobs. University administrators, struggling to shave their costs, are trying to limit the ranks of tenured professors or make it easier to fire them.

The institution of tenure—which provides job security and perks like regular sabbaticals—began in the U.S. early in the 20th century as a bulwark against interference from administrators, corporate interests and politicians who might not like professors’ opinions or agree with their research.

Attacks on tenure have become commonplace in the wake of the recession as reductions in public support for colleges led to steep tuition increases that have driven up student debt and magnified scrutiny on the business practices of universities. Conservative lawmakers also have expressed mounting displeasure with university professors, saying they indoctrinate impressionable students with a liberal point of view.

How should Christian schools view the tenure question? Some Christian colleges and seminaries have never had an iron-clad tenure system, anyway, and I suspect that few will be considering implementing one in the current climate. But should Christian schools consider weakening their tenure system, if they have one? Is there any value to the practice of offering professors tenure, especially in a Christian context?

Fair warning to the reader—I am a tenured professor at a Christian university, so some of you may want to stop reading now! I do believe in granting tenure at all colleges and universities, both secular and religious. But it comes with some obvious downsides, too.

What do I mean by tenure? Usually, faculty hired into “tenure-track” positions are given a probationary period of six years or so to establish a strong record of teaching and publications. If all goes well, they are granted tenure, which gives them substantial protection against being terminated except in cases such as serious ethical violations.

The good aspects of tenure:

  • Tenure protects the freedom of all faculty, whatever their political or religious persuasion. Conservatives and Christians often seem unmoved by this argument, because of the dominance of secular liberal perspectives in the academy. But this actually makes tenure the most valuable to people like conservatives and Christians who are less well represented in academia. People like me don’t have to worry about getting fired just because the theological or political winds might change on campus. Many of the cases where academics think about breaking the protocols of tenure are in the interests of getting rid of socially conservative professors.
  • Tenure makes a statement about a school’s serious commitment to professors and their students, who ought to be the heart and soul of a college or university. In recent years, professors’ numbers have often stayed the same or declined, while the number of staff in innumerable areas such as federal compliance officials and student life has grown enormously. Cutting tenure represents little cost-saving, anyway, unless it is accompanied by mass employment of part-time “adjunct” professors who get no benefits and who often, understandably, have little commitment to the institution in question.
  • When Christian colleges refuse to offer tenure, they are at a major disadvantage in competing for faculty against schools that do grant tenure. This is an especially acute problem if you are trying to recruit a senior scholar who has tenure. Why would they ever leave a tenured position for a non-tenured one? Or if a promising young scholar has a tenure-track job offer, why would he or she take a job that does not offer that kind of security?

I readily conceded that there are downsides to tenure. What if someone gets tenure and “mails it in,” doing little research or making little effort in his or her teaching? Obviously, this does happen—I was subjected to a few awful tenured professors’ teaching as an undergraduate at a public university. But I suspect the bad-tenured-teachers phenomenon is less common than popular stereotypes would hold. When professors do stop trying, there are many ways to handle it internally, from cutting the professor’s annual raises, to increasing their responsibilities and forcing them to do their fair share.

In a Christian context, what if a tenured professor turns out to be a theological or political troublemaker? Well, this is part of my point above—what one administrator may perceive as a problematic faculty member could be the crown jewel of the faculty to another administrator. But obviously it is possible, in a Christian context, to have a faculty member “go rogue” after receiving tenure, developing and airing views that run counter to the college’s mission. (Tenure never means that you can’t be dismissed for unethical behavior, so that’s not an issue here.)

However, I think that Christian schools would do better to exercise due diligence at the hiring stage, and at the point of the tenure decision, rather than jettisoning the whole system and abolishing tenure. Failing to hire people in accord with the spiritual mission of the school is a far more pervasive problem than faculty “going rogue” later. Too many departments at Christian schools hire people who are nominal Christians at best, while claiming that they are trying to foster a robustly Christian educational environment. Lax hiring practices, not granting tenure to your best faculty, are generally the root of this problem.

I am more ambivalent about tenure at seminaries. I can understand why seminaries might prefer some kind of contractual system where long-time faculty are given the benefit of the doubt, but in extreme cases could be dismissed for theological error. There is an immediate connection at seminaries between faculty and the next generation of pastors, so even the slight chance of a person abandoning theological orthodoxy is a more pressing concern.

But I would urge Christian colleges not to weaken tenure. Doing so is a politically satisfying move for some administrators to consider, but it does little to actually solve problems of cost, faculty productivity, or mission fit.

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