Early career researchers (ECRs), including graduate students, post-docs, and assistant professors, dream of tenure as though it were the end-all, be-all of an academic career. As they toil away in the field, in the lab, or in the classroom, they fantasize about that elusive “a job for life.” They idolize tenured professors and seek to emulate their career choices in the hopes of someday securing that permanent, ongoing position. Just say it out loud. “Tenure!” The word sounds almost angelic, as though the heavens will suddenly open up so that you can use your tenured wings to fly away, leaving behind your old life of precarity, uncertainty, and instability.
Alas, I don’t mean to be the bearer of bad tidings, but you should know that, contrary to popular perceptions, tenure will not protect you. The heavens will not open up. In fact, you probably won’t feel much different the day after receiving tenure as you did the day before, in much the same way that you didn’t feel any different the day after receiving your PhD as you did the day before. Tenure is like a false summit. As you struggle to reach the peak, you realize, on arrival, that the pinnacle is at a much higher elevation than you could see from the bottom.
“Tenure is like a false summit. As you struggle to reach the peak, you realize, on arrival, that the pinnacle is at a much higher elevation than you could see from the bottom.”
Let me tell you why tenure is a false hope. First of all, it does not mean a job for life. This has become all too clear for the masses of tenured professors currently losing their jobs in the wake of the COVID19 pandemic. Whilst it is true that it is easier for universities to shed casual (adjunct) faculty, the truth is that universities would ideally like to retain flexible academic staff and dump tenured academic staff in times like these. When revenues fall, tenured professors become a financial liability, whereas adjunct professors become a financial asset.
Furthermore, the fact that it is more difficult to shed tenured academic staff does not make it impossible. Far from it. Tenure means absolutely nothing in the face of “financial exigency.” Thus, a tenured professor can easily be made redundant if his or her role is made redundant. For example, if you’re a tenured professor of medieval history and your university suddenly decides to no longer offer a degree in medieval history, then your job is as good as gone and you will have no recourse to employment law. Similarly, if your university’s revenue falls below the required cost of maintaining its tenured professoriate, then “financial exigency” can justify the loss of tenured positions. Trade unions are impotent to stem such losses.
But here’s the real crux of the tenure problem. Let’s assume that your university’s financials are in tip-top shape, and that there is no “financial exigency” case to be made. Tenured professors still regularly lose their jobs. If they express the wrong opinion or present unwelcome challenges to powerful players, they can fairly easily be forced out of their jobs, also referred to as constructively dismissed. Thus, a toxic environment is artificially manufactured around the tenured professor, such that he or she has no other option but to jump ship to escape to safety. If they want you out, they will find a way to get you out, regardless of whether you have tenure.
In light of the above, it is best that ECRs enter academia without any illusions. Yes, tenure may provide you with some additional career padding, but it does not mean a job for life or employment security. You will be expected to deliver high performance both pre- and post-tenure, and you must constantly prove your value to your university without stepping on the wrong toes.
Professor Andrew R. Timming
This article is published under a Creative Commons 4.0 License.