JENKINS: In defense of tenure college professors -- Part I

Photo by Howard Reed

Photo by Howard Reed

I've devoted several recent columns to explaining -- mostly to fellow conservatives -- that public school teachers are not the enemy. For the next couple of weeks, I'd like to defend another oft-maligned group: tenured college professors.

Some will no doubt accuse me of being self-serving; I am, after all, a tenured professor in one of Georgia's public colleges. But someone has to articulate our position, and I'm fortunate to have a pulpit.

Also, I believe I've established, through countless columns, a solidly conservative reputation. So I'm hopeful that even the most vehement anti-tenure zealots among my ideological kin will at least hear me out.

Yeah, I know. Probably not. But it's worth a try.

First, I should probably explain what tenure is and what it isn't. Many seem to think it's some sort of lifetime employment guarantee, regardless of what the person does. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Tenured professors can be fired for any number of reasons, including simply not doing their jobs. In the University System of Georgia, we conduct regular post-tenure reviews to make sure faculty members continue to be productive.

Tenure isn't easy to get, either. Virtually all tenured professors hold advanced degrees, meaning they've spent upwards of eight years in school. Then, once they've landed a full-time job at a college or university -- which isn't easy to do either, these days -- earning tenure requires another five to seven years, depending on the institution.

During that time, they typically have to meet very stringent requirements regarding teaching, professional development, and service. And then they have to maintain those standards in order to pass their periodic reviews.

Basically, by the time a professor is tenured, he or she has already reached what might be considered mid-career for someone who entered the work force after earning a bachelor's degree.

Which leads me to one of the most frequent objections to tenure: People in other professions don't have it, so why should college professors? Again, that's not entirely accurate.

As Clayton Christiansen and Henry Eying point out in a recent Chronicle of Higher Education article, other professions that require similar levels of education and preparation offer something remarkably akin to tenure. It's called "partnership."

How does one become a partner in a law or accounting firm? The same way a professor earns tenure: by working hard for years to demonstrate value to the organization. Smart leaders understand that intellectual capital is worth preserving -- a driving principal behind both partnerships and tenure.

Once one becomes a partner, he or she now has a seat at the table, respect from peers, and input into important decisions. He or she is also better compensated and more difficult to fire. That's exactly what happens when a professor earns tenure -- except that the compensation differential isn't quite as dramatic.

Next week I'll demonstrate that most anti-tenure rhetoric comes right out of the leftist playbook.

Rob Jenkins is a local freelance writer and college professor. E-mail him at rjenkinggdp@yahoo.com.