Asheen Phansey was the director of sustainability and an adjunct professor at Babson College until, one day, he was not. In January, President Trump tweeted a list of 52 political and cultural sites in Iran which the U.S. could bomb in response to rising tensions between the two countries. Phansey posted a sarcastic comment on his private Twitter account suggesting that Iran could select similarly important sites in the U.S. to bomb in response. Four days after posting the comment, Babson fired him. Phansey did not make this remark to students or in the classroom; it was simply a comment made on a private social media account on his own time. And yet he lost his job. His dismissal sparked intense debates about the first amendment rights of educators. Many of the people protesting Phansey’s dismissal were quick to point out that tenure was invented to protect educators from just this sort of situation.
Phansey did not have tenure, but he would have benefited from tenure’s original intention: job security. Invented in the late nineteenth century, tenure was one of the few perks of being a public-school teacher. Its benefits expanded over time and extended to include professors. Tenure in higher education now grants higher wages, better working conditions, and academic freedom, which allows professors to experiment with educational methods and include controversial material in courses without losing their jobs. Of course, such a system is subject to abuse; perhaps the most popular concern about tenure is that professors who are uninvested, teach poorly, make offensive comments, or threaten or harass students will face no consequences for their actions. The issue of tenure is often painted as a standoff between unassailable, complacent or malicious educators who want tenure and concerned parents and students who have experienced abuse of the tenure system. But educators harbor concerns about tenure, too, and the two tenured Muhlenberg professors I spoke to had clear criticisms of the system. They want to see the system improved but not dismantled: despite its flaws, tenure grants them very real protections which are essential to their livelihoods. They think clearer communication between professors and students about the processes and nature of tenure would help people form better educated views on the system. Getting tenure is “a grueling, paranoia-inducing process that sucks up a lot of energy,” says Cathy Ouellette, Ph.D., the chair of Muhlenberg’s history department, and while she finds her job “deeply rewarding,” she and other professors wish students knew more about their positions and tenure so they understood more about what happens both inside and outside of the classroom.
It is logical to assume that tenure was invented by teachers’ unions, which now have a vested interest in tenure policies and practices. Though the National Education Association (NEA)—the country’s first and, at the time, only teachers’ union—released a statement supporting teacher tenure in 1885, the NEA had fewer than 2,400 members and no official presence in major urban centers like New York City. The impetus for tenure actually came from nonunionized teachers who were expected to teach classes of 70 or more students on low wages and under the scrutiny of parents and administrators. The school system could do little to address large class sizes and low wages without a state-granted expansion of resources and funding, but guaranteeing job security was a relatively easy change to implement.
Easy to implement did not mean popular: tenure was controversial from its inception. Prior to the introduction of tenure, professors and teachers were commonly ousted from their institutions for religious affiliations, political stances, or choice of curriculum. Take the case of Thomas Cooper who taught English at the University of Thomas Jefferson in the early 1800s. A public institution with no official connections to Christianity, the university strove to uphold Jefferson’s maxim of devotion to the relentless pursuit of truth. Thomas Jefferson was an avid supporter of the separation of church and state and by extension, he sought to limit the role of religion in education. Despite his and the university’s apparent support for academic freedom and nonreligious pursuit of the truth, however, Cooper was dismissed for his alleged association with Unitarianism, demonstrating the instability of teaching positions.
Taking a stance on slavery and war cost some professors their jobs, and teaching Huckleberry Finn in K-12 classrooms became a major point of contention. Female teachers could be fired for getting married, becoming pregnant, or dressing inappropriately. Granting tenure could protect educators from losing their jobs over minor disputes and personal beliefs, a small perk in the face of low wages and poor working conditions. Still, tenure was villainized by parents, politicians, and administrators as an unjust protection for unqualified educators. Tenure debates became so divisive that some politicians refused to take a stance on the issue.
Despite the contention, tenure received enough support to be implemented locally for public school teachers in New York City by the end of the nineteenth century. In 1909, New Jersey became the first state to pass tenure legislation regarding the hiring and firing of college professors. Legislation in other states soon followed. But tenure never stopped being controversial, and tenure practices for K-12 educators versus college educators diverged rapidly. Now, tenure for teachers at public schools is a very different animal than tenure for college professors. Public school teachers are granted tenure automatically after a probationary period of about three years, assuming they have done well on their evaluations. “In the public education system, it’s more like a routine,” says Mark Emerick, Ph.D., a visiting lecturer of education at Muhlenberg. He frames the situation with his hands. “Theoretically, you’re getting observed by an administrator twice a year for the first three years, and then [the administrator says], ‘okay, you’ve been successful during those first three years, you get tenure on the first day of your fourth year.’” Tenure means that public school teachers’ contracts are renewed automatically, and it grants teachers entitlement to due process. They have the right to know if and why their employers seek to dismiss them and the right to have the issue reviewed by an unbiased body. Another issue tenure addresses is finances. “What [tenure] does stop is a financial cutting of positions because, ‘oh, you know, the district doesn’t have as much money this year, so you’ll lose your job.’ So it is a buffer against that kind of thing,” says Emerick. Tenure is also, typically, a vote of confidence: “Administrators will make sure that pre-tenure, a teacher that they don’t think is very effective is not renewed.”
A major misconception is the idea that tenure grants public school teachers total job security. “If a teacher ‘misbehaves’,” Emerick mimes quotes around the word, “their tenure does not do much for them. So if a teacher is caught doing something wrong, tenure is not a reason they can’t be removed.” Failure to remove teachers for inappropriate behavior or incidents is not a sign of tenure’s power but rather the considerations of due process, which requires just cause for dismissal, adequate documentation, and a hearing. The process can be time-consuming and expensive, and people argue that principals may be reluctant to dismiss teachers for that reason. Still, tenure is not an unbreachable stone wall of protection for public school teachers—or higher education faculty, for that matter.
Of all the personal characteristics that can be gleaned from the office of Emanuela Kucik, Ph.D., the most obvious is that she has an eye for color and design. The stark white of her office walls and furniture is rendered friendly by a multitude of colorful, mixed-media artwork, and one wall features a floor to ceiling painting created by a student as part of a final project for Kuick’s course, Global Black Literature. There is a couch in the corner and a rug on the floor. The desk features an ever-present stack of books and cup of coffee, as well as some framed photos: Kucik with her family, smiling in her cap and gown, and her cat, also in a little satin cap. This is the office of a person who goes all in visually as a representation of her investment in her job. It shows a commitment for the long-term—and just how many hours Kucik expects to spend in this room.
Kucik is an assistant professor of English and co-chair of the Africana studies program at Muhlenberg. She landed the tenure-track English position after she received her Ph.D. from Princeton University in 2018 and accepted the position as co-chair after her first year. Her specialties include Black literature, comparative race and ethnic studies, and genocide studies. Her courses are almost always full. When I visit her, late one Wednesday afternoon in February, she welcomes me into her office with a smile. She is nearing the end of her second-year reviews for the tenure process. These reviews consist of senior faculty members from her department observing a class. Because Kucik has a joint appointment in English and Africana studies, she has been reviewed by members from both disciplines. “Everyone’s been really wonderful about it, and really generous, and it’s been really helpful in terms of feedback,” Kucik says. It has been helpful, she explains, to get feedback from people in different specialties and stages of their careers, and her experience with the process has been positive and affirming. Any student who has been in a class under observation knows, however, the way an extra body in the room changes the dynamics of the class. Students are more easily distracted, and they might be less comfortable participating. The professor often has to work harder just to make things feel normal. But the second year evaluation is only one part of the tenure process for faculty members at Muhlenberg and other institutions of higher education.
The first thing that must be understood about tenure for professors are position titles—because the tenure process begins even before colleges officially fly professorships. The college decides, based on funding and departmental need, whether to create positions as tenure-eligible, which determines the position title. If the advertised position is “adjunct”, the position is part-time and based on demand, so it is not tenure-eligible. “Lecturer” is also not tenure-eligible. This position is full time, but it is still a temporary contract. It is a way for the college to test the waters, see if another full-time faculty member is needed and avoid the long-term financial commitment of a tenure-track professor. Tenure-track professorships are typically flown as “assistant professor” positions. Assistant professorships are full-time and offer the possibility of job security and promotion, among other benefits, upon receiving tenure. Assistant professorships are, therefore, very attractive to applicants. Kucik explains that it is a real privilege to land a tenure-track job. “There are so many qualified people without access to the limited number of tenure-track positions,” she says. “Because of this, if people end up in positions they don’t like or where they don’t feel supported, they often don’t feel like they can leave. I feel doubly grateful that I have a tenure-track position that I love in a department, program, and school where I feel genuinely supported.” Also, Muhlenberg—and most other institutions of higher education—hold strict rules about eligibility. Muhlenberg’s faculty handbook specifies that candidates must have a “terminal degree” to be considered for tenure. A terminal degree, or appropriate degree, is defined as the highest degree in one’s field, typically a Ph.D. except in particular disciplines like the arts, business, and physical education where the terminal degree might be a master’s degree. This is non-negotiable. Occasionally, the college will hire someone still working on their Ph.D. into a tenure-track position, but it is only with the understanding that they will finish in time to be able to stand for tenure.
But what exactly is the tenure process? Unlike tenure in public schools, where three years of successful evaluations leads to automatic tenure, tenure in higher education is a six-year process, and its requirements are far more strenuous. Tenure-track professors go through three sets of classroom reviews during their second, third, and sixth years. Emanuela Kucik was finishing her second-year review when I spoke to her. These evaluations are carried out by senior faculty in a candidate’s department or program, and in the case of a joint appointment like Kucik’s, professors from both fields observe. These reviews do not just look at candidates’ teaching, however. Two other fields are considered: professional activity and college service. “Professional activity broadly means anything you’ve done for the profession in the service of research,” Kucik says. This includes a candidate’s publications—books, articles, or chapters, for instance. Kucik points out that professional activity can also include “attending or presenting at a conference, giving a talk at another school, and giving a keynote speech at an event.” At the time we spoke, she had one article published, a chapter in a book in the pipeline, and a book proposal almost ready for review, among other things. She was planning to present at a conference in March and give the keynote address at another conference in April.
The final area evaluated for tenure is college service. Muhlenberg’s professors are expected to actively participate in the “formulation and execution of college policy.” It includes everything from advising students to participating in some of Muhlenberg’s twenty committees. For Kucik, the Africana studies directorship, participation in the Phi Beta Kappa Committee, and acting as the Black Students Association advisor are all major efforts in the college service category, each entailing detailed ideas and plans for expanding the reach of the Africana studies program, strengthening the campus community, and engaging in greater outreach to underserved students in the Allentown and Philadelphia areas.
For Muhlenberg faculty, the tenure evaluations can be as stressful as the process is exhaustive. Though the faculty handbook lays out the general expectations and structure of the tenure process, several of the requirements are determined by the professor’s field—the creative writing program will have different publishing expectations than, say, the physics department. As a result, a good deal of information regarding departments’ requirements is passed informally between professors. It is complicated further when a professor has a joint appointment. This can be difficult, and it is certainly a learning process for new faculty members. Another challenging aspect is juggling the three responsibilities of professorships. “Though we’re a small residential college that prioritizes teaching, [the faculty] have other obligations,” Ouellette explains. “Many of us are involved in service that goes way beyond what is really required. And I think that the professional side of things, that category of professional activity, is for many of us difficult to maintain because those other two areas draw so much upon us.” It is clear from how she speaks about it that professors enjoy the work and are deeply invested in each aspect, but it can be a delicate balancing act of time and energy.
Even though the reviews are stressful, they provide an opportunity for candidates to check in with senior faculty and receive valuable feedback on their performance. “Many years ago, there was no review,” says Grant Scott, Ph.D., chair of the English department. “You just came up for tenure. And then—if it became a case that we wanted to deny you tenure, there could have been warning signs earlier. There could have been things that someone would have told you, like ‘do more publishing’, or ‘your teaching isn’t quite up to snuff’, or ‘you haven’t been in on any committees’, or whatever. So now the [review] is a way to ensure things are going well.”
When a professor comes up for tenure in the fall of their sixth year, the Faculty Evaluation Committee reviews their tenure file. This file is, in essence, the sum of the professor’s past five years of work—and for many candidates may be the sum of their life’s work. It presents information on the professor’s professional activity, college service, and teaching in detail: these files will include sample syllabi, student evaluations, ten recommendation letters from former students, copies of speeches given or published articles, and whatever else the candidate feels is worth putting forward. The file is often quite long. When I spoke with her, Ouellette has just finished a term on the Faculty Evaluation Committee. “We as the committee read everything, or in some cases view everything if it’s a production, then we have an interview with each candidate, which is about an hour long, and we ask pointed questions of the candidates based on the evidence they’ve put into their files. Then we make a recommendation to the Provost.” If all goes well, the Board of Trustees will grant the candidate tenure. Ouellette frowns thoughtfully as she spells out the various moving pieces and players in the tenure process. At one point she pauses, and, clearly recalling her own experience standing for tenure, says, “This is a grueling, paranoia-inducing process that is really very hard to go through. [This job] is really fun, though. It’s deeply, deeply rewarding, especially after you get tenure, and then you can try new things. Knowing that you have job security and flexibility in terms of what you’re pursuing in the classroom and in your professional life is a luxury. It is a real privilege.”
“I just cannot believe that they’re still teaching here,” the student murmurs, careful to keep her voice down. We’re in an academic building on a Sunday, and there are few people around. Still, talking about a professor’s conduct next to a row of offices feels like some sort of breach of etiquette. The student—whom I will call Camila—raises her hands in a what can you do? gesture. Her voice drops almost to a whisper as she describes vaguely racist comments in class, looks that linger too long on certain students, differing grading standards based on gender and extracurricular activities, refusing to respect students’ pronouns. Apparently, this professor is not generally seen as the most competent educator to begin with.
Her complaints about this professor are fairly run-of-the-mill, but that does not make them any less valid—instead, their alignment with the norm highlights students’ current problems with higher education and tenure. Whereas teacher tenure in public K-12 education only provides entitlement to due process, tenure in higher education provides more protection. Even though there are occasional evaluations after professors become tenured and department chairs keep track of student evaluation scores, tenured professors largely go unchecked, Scott says. We are sitting in his office, which is cluttered with rows and stacks of books, some of which belong to his prized collection of first editions. Those are draped in bubble wrap. On the back of his door is a photo of the Muhlenberg English department faculty taken in the early 1960s. “Once you become tenured, you’re doing pretty well. People leave you alone unless you do something terrible. I think in many cases tenure has become a sinecure.” The word sinecure originally described positions in the Catholic Church which were granted for life, making their holders practically untouchable. Now, the term is more commonly used to describe positions where people are paid to do very little. People in these positions are still largely untouchable, and Scott does not hesitate to say that some professors abuse this aspect of tenure.
If a professor is an uncommitted or ineffective educator, students may rate the professor poorly on end of semester evaluations. The professor’s department chair, and perhaps the provost, would respond to these scores by encouraging the professor to step up their game. If a student reports a professor for problematic language in the classroom, the department chair invites the professor for a meeting which serves as a first warning. Similar conversations might take place if a student reported a faculty member for biased grading or mild harassment, but students may find these things harder to report if they are not fully tangible. Professors would typically have to be reported multiple times (and the reports would have to be validated as genuine, not just vindictive backlash for poor grades) before punitive actions would be taken. This could include sensitivity training or other measures, but the professor would most likely not be fired.
When I ask what sort of instance would actually warrant a dismissal, Scott leans back in his chair and folds his hands. “That would have to be really aggressive, and it would have to be probably conscious and willed, malicious.” The faculty handbook states that faculty can be terminated for refusing to carry out their academic duties, participating in actions which the academic community would denounce, or committing criminal offenses. A professor caught engaging in any of these actions, though vague, would be a scandal. Termination would be expected. Scott speaks in hypotheticals, sketching out what would happen if something so serious occurred. “It would probably go before the Social Judicial Board or the Academic Judicial Board; it would come before some tribunal of faculty members who would probably sit in judgement. There would have to be evidence, there would have to be witnesses. That hasn’t happened—as far as I know—in a long time.”
The fact that it could take, say, falsifying research for a tenured professor to be dismissed highlights how easily tenure can act as a sinecure. It also explains why professors deemed problematic by the student body are not dismissed; a professor could be well-liked initially but lose favor after tenure, and very little could be done. Camila expresses frustration in our conversation that there were no clear consequences for this professor’s behavior. “I know that so many people have gone above this professor, so I don’t know where those [reports] are going, I don’t know who’s looking at those, but I guess they’re not being taken very seriously.” The administration has not appeared to do anything about the reports. Her derisive tone indicates that she does not expect that to change. She is not the only student who feels that way. Another student who had two classes with the same professor says that she feels that, as a student, she does not have a voice the administration will acknowledge.
Because there has been no noticeable change in this professor’s conduct in the classroom, students who have had unpleasant experiences with them have begun to spread the word, warning other students to avoid the professor’s classes if possible. “Even people who aren’t in that department know of this professor because people are so upset after having experiences with [them] that they talk to their friends. And it’s like, people say the name, and other people are like ohhhhh,” Camila laughs. Of course, students swapping notes on professors is normal, and Muhlenberg is a small, liberal arts college, where students take courses in several departments. Students would know this professor even if they are not majoring in their field. So it is hard to know exactly how much more talk this one professor generates, but any talk which includes stories of unfair grading and problematic comments is enough to divert students into other classes.
Also, if other students have shared Camila’s experiences with this professor, then her lack of trust in the administration is certainly shared, as well. Students may not understand how much—or little—the administration can do in this situation. If the professor has not done anything warranting dismissal, all the administration can do is impose punitive measures. But it is the lack of transparency in the administration’s approach to the problem which creates distrust among students.
Camila considered becoming a teacher and took a few education courses at Muhlenberg. She has volunteered in local schools, too, so she generally sympathizes with teachers’ perspectives. When I ask her about her opinion of the tenure system, she hesitates for a long moment before admitting that it is complicated. “After coming to college and having these experiences with this professor, I am a lot more skeptical of tenure,” she says. Another student feels similarly conflicted: “The problem is I totally understand the need for job security, and there are so many professors I love here who have tenure, but I don’t think tenure should make you absolutely immune to criticism and firing if it’s necessary.” Both students are troubled by the prospect and reality of tenure acting as a sinecure, feeling that it grants too much security and protection. A third student goes so far as to say that educators should be dismissed even after one problematic comment.
So what would happen if tenure practices were ended in higher education? If all professors suddenly lost the privileges and protections associated with tenure? Professors who make offensive comments and harass students, like the one Camila encountered, could be let go. They would not need to commit a serious offense before students saw change. Professors would also have to be fully committed to their jobs—they would not be able to “slack off” without the sinecure of tenure. They would have to be highly responsive to students’ needs and wishes, tailoring courses and assignments to match the tone of each class. If this were the case, students might like some of their professors more.
The issue is that even as “bad” professors could be penalized more easily, “good” professors would be subject to the same punitive measures, whether deserved or not. A student with an ulterior motive who reports a professor might be taken too seriously. A poorly-worded comment in the classroom might become a much larger issue than it should be. A well-loved professor whose teaching style makes one student uncomfortable might be advised to change their method, even if most students like it. Academic freedom in general—one of tenure’s central privileges—would come under attack; educators would not feel able to experiment in the classroom, trying new teaching methods and incorporating controversial material into discussions and lectures. And it is not just students’ opinions that would come into play. A new administrator could come in, decide they do not approve of a professor’s teaching, and dismiss them. Parents who dislike the content their child is learning in class might seek to change it. It would be a return, essentially, to the time prior to tenure, when teaching Huckleberry Finn was a scandal and a teacher could be fired for not supporting a local politician.
In addition, we would see an upswing in cases like Asheen Phansey’s, where a tweet on a private twitter account resulted in dismissal. His dismissal had nothing to do with his conduct in the classroom or at Babson College in general—it was as removed from his professional life as it could be. Perhaps a sarcastic tweet of locations Iran could bomb was not in the best taste, but Phansey himself was not threatening violent crimes and his tweet would not be classified as hate speech. In a country where free speech is so highly prized, Phansey’s dismissal seems incongruous. But without tenure, many more professors would encounter situations like Phansey’s. The truth is, educators are very much in the public eye. People want to know their children’s teachers are role models—and educators should be role models. But is it fair, or realistic, to expect educators to behave professionally around the clock? Dragging their personal lives under the microscope without the protections of tenure may result in many unwarranted dismissals.
It is important to understand that tenure is not infallible. Although it has benefited many, many educators since its inception, perhaps providing stronger protections than it always should, it is currently being challenged as institutions of higher education face shrinking student bodies and loss of net revenue. In the face of declaring financial exigency—the higher education equivalent of bankruptcy—colleges are cutting costs wherever they can, including cutting tenured faculty members. The American Association of University Professors has routinely condemned such forms of cost-cutting; policy states that universities are not to terminate tenured professors unless they already have declared financial exigency. That universities are terminating tenured professors to avoid declaring exigency erodes tenure’s protections and privileges, even for well-liked and effective professors. Academic freedom is challenged: the ability to experiment in the classroom, research in emerging and unusual fields, and introduce new programs—academic and otherwise—to institutions shrinks. This trend of terminations renders tenure’s seemingly unbreachable protections more fragile.
I was surprised to find that each of the four professors I spoke to had mixed feelings about the tenure system. Ouellette pointed out the difficulties of being reviewed by colleagues from other disciplines. Emerick indicated that some fields and methods of research are considered more valid than others, and that might influence tenure practices. Kucik described the shortage of tenured positions and comparative overabundance of highly qualified candidates who cannot get tenure-track professorships. Scott worried about tenure acting as a sinecure and the conflicts of interest that might arise when a department chair is friends with the faculty of their department. They all thought the system would benefit from more transparency—in other words, more student awareness of tenure. Student evaluations, after all, go into professors’ files. They are particularly valuable for tenure candidates—both Kucik and Emerick said they pay careful attention to their evaluations to get feedback on their methods. Also, all of the professors wanted students to be aware that they wear several hats: they do not just teach. “Unlike in high school, where your teacher is basically there all day and teaches all day—I don’t want to put a fraction on it in particular, but there are three things that faculty are responsible for, and teaching is only one of those things,” Emerick says. The pressure on junior faculty is particularly intense: “You have to demonstrate a high level of professional engagement and research activity, plus—here, especially—have exceptional teaching and perform service to your department and to the college at large and to external constituencies, and that is in order to ensure that you keep your job.” Tenured faculty engage in professional activity and college service outside of teaching, as well, but if they fall behind in one area, tenure acts as their safety net. Some may abuse this privilege, of course, but Ouellette says that many faculty members engage extensively with their service and research. They are dutiful with the many responsibilities that students do not see.
When I spoke with students, it was clear that their main concern was having a voice regarding tenure. They wanted to know that they would be taken seriously if they reported a professor. As frustrated as they were by tenure, they did not want to see it dismantled. In that sense, professors’ and students’ goals aligned: they want to see tenure improved, not discarded, with more accountability and transparency involved.
I heard from students that when Muhlenberg moved to remote learning due to COVID-19, Kucik sent individual emails to every student in her classes to check in and see if there was anything she could do for them. She was not the only one to offer support. Many professors offered moral support, alternative learning plans and increased flexibility with assignments to tackle the unexpected switch to online learning, all while trying to preserve the academic rigor Muhlenberg students are accustomed to. They continue to demonstrate their care as the semester draws to a close. These are the professors for whom tenure makes sense. Whatever changes we see regarding tenure over the next few years, we can hope that they will be transparent, holding those accountable who need it and protecting those that deserve it.