St. Thomas professor: Tenured deadwood is rare

It's not just a job for life

In Sept. 2008, University of St. Thomas professor Susan Alexander wrote a short defense of tenure in the university’s blog The Scroll, saying it did not mean employment for life:

There are very specific conditions under which faculty may lose employment. These range from financial exigency to moral turpitude, aka depravity. Admittedly, fairly serious grounds. Why should the requirement for loss of tenure be so high? Because tenure is protection for one of the highest values of academic life – academic freedom. To fulfill our mission – in fact, the mission of any serious university – St. Thomas faculty must be able to address controversial, uncomfortable and unwieldy issues without fear for their jobs. Curricular activities and scholarly work are protected by the requirements of tenure. Threats are real. In the not too distant past, there was the Great Margarine Massacre. Economists at a well-respected state university with strong agricultural ties were fired for failing to support the nutritional superiority of butter over margarine. Horrors, they even suggested that laws requiring yellow dye for the pasty white margarine to be sold separately were in restraint of trade.

Another, oft-overlooked value of tenure is the mentorship that comes with it. Senior faculty are able to offer advice on teaching, scholarship and service without fear for their own positions. …

The same security in one’s position also allows departments to hire better than themselves.

She wrote that she’d leave the downside of tenure for another day.

Here’s her follow-up three years later:

There is a downside to tenure. I alluded to this in that blog but never revisited it, probably because the downside is a rare occurrence. It is the possibility that a faculty member may sit down on the job once tenure is attained. We should all be willing to admit that this happens occasionally. Among ourselves, not only do we admit it but we have a name for it – deadwood. If shirking reaches the stage of failure to perform the duties of a faculty member, tenure may be revoked.

But from my long experience in higher education, shirking is indeed rare. Mostly, faculty push themselves and each other to improve in all facets of the work. That may best be understood by looking at teaching as a calling, not just a job.

Does any other job have tenure attached? Ron Jenkins, in the Sept. 16, 2011, Chronicle of Higher Education, cites Clayton Christensen and Henry Eyring, who argue that there are other knowledge workers who have tenure for all intents and purposes. They point out that professions such as law and accounting offer partnerships to those who prove themselves in the field. Like tenure, a partnership may be revoked under extreme circumstances, but such instances are rare.

Economists would consider these partnerships (and tenure in academe) to be ties committing not only the employer to the worker but the worker to the employer. Partnership and tenure are rewards for acquiring the years of education and proving one’s worth to the organization. Partnership and tenure give a voice in decisions and a guarantee of longevity with the firm or the university.

And that is good for the faculty member and good for the university.

I’m not sure how appropriate the partnership analogy is, because I don’t know how prevalent non-equity partners are in the various professions. (Most I’ve heard of are the equivalent of joint ownership.) But it’s an interesting idea.

Read her original post here and her follow-up here.