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What tenure does for Mason professors and students

By Huong Cao, Staff Writer

On April 20, The Washington Post published an article about a tenured professor at California State University at Fresno, who ignited criticism on social media after posting a string of tweets mocking the death of Barbara Bush, the wife of former president George H.W. Bush. Should the professor be fired? The article went on to address an important topic: professor tenure at American universities – which has always been an issue for debate. Mason professors take a glimpse into the benefits and limitations of tenure, the challenging process to achieve tenure, as well as the impact of tenure on student learning.

What tenure does for Mason professors

According to Alison Landsberg, professor of History and Cultural Studies, tenure protects professors’ academic freedom and provides them with job security even if they “research, write about, and teach, ideas that might not be popular, ideas that might challenge conventional wisdom, or the status quo,” Landsberg said.

“It’s important for professors to be able to do work that raises questions about the way society does things, to be able to speak truth to power.

In addition, Desmond Dinan, a professor of Public Policy at Schar School of Policy and Government considers tenure as a career milestone as well as a sign of accomplishment and achievement.

“Without gaining tenure, it is almost impossible for someone to have a full-time, permanent academic career,” said Dinan.

Tenure also serves as an encouragement that helps professors devote time and efforts in working on interdisciplinary problems that society is facing such as security, health-care and sustainability, according to Stephen Nash, who is the chairperson of the school’s promotion and tenure committee at the Volgenau School of Engineering.

Limitations and disadvantages

While having tenure offers professors multiple benefits, tenure does not make faculty “untouchable”.  Landsberg shared that tenure does not protect professors from misbehavior. “If a professor commits a crime, or fails to carry out his or her responsibilities, tenure won’t protect him or her,” said Landsberg. Matthew Karush, a history professor and the editor-in-chief of Journal of Social History agreed. “Having tenure does not “protect” you from being punished for professional misconduct (whether in research or teaching),” said Karush.

The usual charge leveled against tenure is that it encourages faculty to be lazy, according to Karush. This is one of the main reasons why tenure becomes a topic for debate. In 2013, Harvard Business Review also published an article addressing how tenure should be abolished. Sot Gittleman wrote an article in The Washington Post in 2015 about how tenure is disappearing. Gittleman said that critics of tenure considered it as something to protect faculty from critical standards and make them work as little as they could.

However, Karush said that was certainly not his experience. Similarly, Landsberg said it was a false characterization. “In every occupation, there are a handful of people who are less diligent, or less committed to their work, than their peers,” Landsberg said. “This is true in every profession and has nothing to do with tenure.”

In addition, it is difficult to pursue tenure without a passion for teaching because if faculty just want to conduct research, then there are other career paths that make that possible. According to Nash, if a faculty member neglects teaching then the faculty member will not meet the university’s requirements for tenure. “Even after tenure, a professor who neglects their teaching duties is subject to post-tenure review,” said Nash.

Even though the process of getting tenure is rigorous, Lebovic, who is on his way to achieve it, said that it is worth the effort. “[Tenure] is essential for academic freedom and for creating a research climate likely to produce truly novel and groundbreaking discoveries,” said Lebovic.

Tenure has many benefits for faculty, but what about students?

Tenure protects academic freedom in both researching and teaching, according to Landsberg. Students will not explore new knowledge and critically analyze controversial issues without the guidance and permission of their professors, who receive the permission to do so through tenure.

Additionally, while research occupies much time from a professor’s schedule, it does not mean to be a disadvantage to students. According to Nash, students benefit if they learn from professors who engage in research activities enabling them to point to the latest developments in a particular field or acquire deep knowledge to answer questions from students.

Karush agreed students benefit from faculty conducting research. Students would be able to study with those who are at the forefront of knowledge production in their fields. “That is, in fact, the main benefit of attending such a university,” Karush said. “It is difficult to see how tenure causes professors to neglect teaching.”

Graphic by Billy Ferguson