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The Trouble with Tenure

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Yesterday’s shocking-yet-unsurprising shooting at the University of Alabama’s Huntsville campus is certain to fuel the gun control crowd. But what of the anti-tenure agitators? Tenure has long been a hot topic in education. Should someone who has been employed for three years be entitled to the golden ticket? If yes, why doesn’t every job offer tenure as a reward for sticking it out?

Tenure, we have heard, is the hobgoblin of American education. Unmotivated and burned-out teachers are guaranteed a job for life, once they’ve achieved tenure. There is no inducement for a teacher to improve if tenured teachers can’t be fired. The arguments against tenure go on and on. So do the arguments for tenure. And, as in so many issues, the truth lies somewhere in the midst of the battle.

In education, tenure is not limited to teachers; there are many educational support personnel who also qualify for tenure. The truth about tenure is that it is not a guarantee.

Ten years ago, I was a union representative in a public school system in New Jersey. In other settings that position would be “shop steward.” As a member of the school district’s association, the NJEA (New Jersey Education Association), and the NEA (National Education Association), I witnessed uses and abuses of tenure from both sides of the table. The worlds of public education and university education are not the same; however, both venues are extremely political. A bad teacher who can play politics well is apt to keep a position forever, whether there is tenure or not.

Any teacher can be fired. There is no law or contract provision that protects the employee unconditionally. Tenure makes the process a little more difficult. Just as life insurance doesn’t guarantee you will live forever, tenure is not a guarantee that you will always have a job. Tenure protects from being fired at whim. It provides a structure for termination, if termination is deemed justified. If there are a lot of rotten teachers, it’s because there are a lot of lazy administrators who know it’s easier to write satisfactory evaluations than to fire someone. This is not limited to education, in every field there are people who skate by because writing them up and disciplinary actions are just too time consuming. When the employee is protected by a union, the process becomes even more involved.

What happened in Alabama? At this juncture we know only the basic facts. Three are dead, three are wounded. A faculty member, who had just been denied tenure, is being held. How could this happen in a university setting? I used to call the “association” to which I belonged a “teacup union,” because we were too genteel. Often during negotiations, when the Board of Education got tough, we were conciliatory. I wasn’t promoting breaking board members kneecaps (no matter how I felt), flattening tires, or burning down schools, but I felt that when negotiations start getting down and dirty it’s time to put on our war paint. I was in the minority. The hierarchy reminded us that we were not a union, but an association. Answer this, do you say “teachers’ union” or “teachers’ association”?

What may have happened in Alabama is the trouble with tenure. Imagine yourself in a competitive, political environment, devoting your time and energies to proving yourself. After a number of years focusing on one goal, you are informed in a brief meeting that you are not good enough; every effort you have made is unappreciated. You may be the best at what you do; you may have contributed more than anyone else to the education of your students. If you’re not going to be tenured, it’s pack-your-bags time, no matter how good or devoted you are, no matter how much you care. When you apply to other institutions, they do the math, know you were denied tenure, and wonder why.

An administrator who doesn’t like a teacher, a vindictive bureaucrat, an envious or threatened supervisor, and parents who don’t like the teacher’s views are all given the opportunity to cut that person free “before it’s too late.” Months before a tenure date, the employee may learn of machinations to eliminate him or her from the system, and if the decision to deny tenure is fought, the stress is tremendous. In many cases the staff member will know why tenure was denied, but it isn’t the “official” reason. No matter why, it’s a stain on the resume. The individual will work again, but the choice of assignments won’t be as prestigious or promising. Combine that with a terrible economy and you have a very disappointed employee who is unsure of both career and financial prospects.

We don’t know what caused the staffer at Huntsville to attempt to kill all her coworkers, and being denied tenure is no excuse. We do not condone her actions, but we can imagine what it’s like to see everything for which you’ve worked go up in smoke while standing before the one who lit the match. What must it be like, then, to be in that position and be armed?

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About Miss Bob Etier

  • Having been in education for 26 years, I have known many good people who did not get tenure and deserved to get it. That said, none of them came back and shot up the department.

    I think we’re seeing a growing sense of frustration in academia, particularly with the overloading of adjuncts with courses that could be taught by full-time professors on the tenure track. There are not enough full-time positions because colleges are saving money by hiring lots of part-timers with no benefits.

    Many people outside of education do not understand tenure, and maybe rightly so. As Bob states, no job is permanent and teachers can be fired, but the “whim” part is the problem. Tenure is meant to be a protection, but it can also lock in place (and I know from experience as an administrator) woefully inadequate people who somehow got through the system.

    What happened in Alabama probably could have been stopped if people realized that she killed her brother 20 years ago and was unstable. That’s a whole other story, but worth thinking about.

  • I find all murder shocking. The surprise for you, Joel, is that it happened in a familiar place which you might even view as safe. Unsurprising to me is that anyone on this planet would kill anyone else, no matter what the reason. I am sensitive enough to be shocked, but experienced enough to expect anything. Thank you for sharing what you know about this case; I suspect it will be a while before we read these details.

  • As I attend UAH and this affects me personally, I do have some comments.

    The teacher did a little more than “sticking it out”, as she developed a cell incubator that brought millions to UAH. The rights to the incubator reverted to UAH, as such happens with research at a university. She did quite a bit and DID deserve tenure. I’m not condoning what she did by any means. It was wrong no matter how you look at it. It is sad to see such, however, and I think there is more going on with her than we realize.

    I am curious as to what you mean by the “shocking yet unsurprising” remark. This has been both shocking AND surprising for us. We are unaccustom to anything like this and it’s unnerving to see it happening here in our own backyards.

  • citizen

    For a person to go in and murder three people because they did not get tenure is a pretty good indication to me that there were probably some very good reasons for that person to get let go. Would you really want someone capable of murdering coworkers because of a job teaching your son or daughter?