For those outside the world of academia, tenure means little more than glorified job security. Those within the system, however, argue it means so much more than that. Tenure is defined as a “status granted to an employee … indicating that the position or employment is permanent.”
Christina Bieber Lake, tenured Clyde S. Kilby professor of English, and Adam Wood, non-tenured assistant professor of philosophy, answered questions regarding tenure and its place in an academic institution.
“Tenure is supposed to represent a commitment on the part of the faculty member and the institution,” explained Bieber Lake. “In effect, each is saying to the other that we value the work you are doing and want to make it possible for the faculty member to stay here for the long term.” However, having tenure does not require a professor to permanently stay at an institution nor does it shelter them completely from disciplinary action.
The process of obtaining tenure varies from one institution to the next, and Wheaton’s process is outlined in the faculty handbook. Unique to the college is that “all tenure-track faculty members must complete a Faith and Learning paper.” This must happen “before they can apply for promotion or tenure or before the end of the fifth year of faculty service at the College, whichever comes first.”
The faculty handbook states that tenure is “the recognition of our faculty as our most valuable continuing resource” and is prompted by “a desire to assure through the faculty an excellence of educational experience for our students.”
Wood described tenure as “important due to the nature of academic work.” As academics, “It’s part of our job to ‘push the envelope’ in both research and teaching, to think in new, creative and challenging ways and to prompt our students to do the same.”
Bieber Lake echoed his statement, saying, “Tenure was originally designed to protect the intellectual freedom of the faculty member. It allows the faculty member to explore and express different opinions on topics without fear of reprisal.”
The question has now become, “What are the limits of tenure?” Debates regarding tenure, freedom of speech and the first amendment are nothing new, and Wheaton is not the only college to brush up against this issue. Recently, two faculty members at Mount St. Mary’s University were fired after disagreeing with remarks made by the president. One was a tenured philosophy professor; the other was a law professor, the campus newspaper adviser and a former trustee of the university.
Wood said that in academia “sometimes … the stuff we talk about can be tough and worrying. It needs to be that way for students to learn. Hence profs can’t be constantly worried about getting fired if they say something upsetting.”
Bieber Lake took it one step further, saying, “When a faculty member is free to think and work without fear, she can be more productive and effective.” So what happens when that freedom is questioned? A professor’s fear for their employment might limit the productivity and effectiveness of their work. Does a limit placed on teachers consequently place a limit on the educational experience of students?