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The Meaning of Tenure

 

First, tenure must be carefully defined. Several very good reviews address the concept of tenure and the reasons for its existence. My own favorite is The Development of Academic Freedom in the United States published in 1952 by Richard Hofstadter and Walter P. Metzger. Although there are more recent contributions, I especially like the writing, tone, and approach of this one. Basically, Hofstadter and Metzger review the history of the development of tenure and academic freedom up to its general acceptance in this country around 1940; they emphasize the role of the AAUP statements in that development. Although our university constitution and other documents clearly define tenure, considerable confusion remains among the general public and many of our colleagues as to its meaning and the evaluation of performance for its achievement.

Tenure is not a guarantee of lifetime employment, and nowhere is there any statement to that effect anywhere in academe including at The Florida State University. The process of earning tenure generally lasts six years, during which the candidate's teaching, research, and service are evaluated by faculty peers. Annual evaluations are required and should be taken very seriously. There is also the expectation at The Florida State University that a careful and detailed evaluation will occur at the end of the third year, specifically to serve as the basis for advice to the candidate on the progress being made toward a positive tenure evaluation. At any time during the six-year probationary period, the individual can be notified, with specific advance notice, without cause, that her/his contract will not be renewed.

In normal circumstances, the final tenure evaluation is conducted by scholars from across the university community and includes assessment by individuals from other universities. The awarding of tenure means that the community of scholars has judged the candidate to have excelled in teaching, research, and service; that it has confidence in the individual's judgement; and that it welcomes the candidate into full community membership. On a practical level, the major difference between the untenured individual and the tenured one is that the latter can be removed only for "adequate cause."

This distinction is very important because each community of scholars forms its own definition of "adequate cause," specifically misconduct or incompetence. No single person can exercise that authority, a fact that underscores the meaning of a community of scholars. All faculty members have the responsibility to participate fully in setting the standards and expectations for themselves and each of their colleagues, a responsibility that is, I believe, assumed far too infrequently. Although we all recognize that "incompetence" and "misconduct" can cover a range of behaviors, we seem unwilling to accept our responsibility to define those terms and to address problems with our colleagues. If we address minor issues of incompetence and/or misconduct early, we will rarely be in the difficult position of terminating a colleague. The failure of faculty to shoulder and to exercise this responsibility is the main source of much of the public's frustration with universities.

On a deeper and much more important level, when we award tenure, we state to the world community that our confidence in the professional abilities and judgement of the candidate is so meritorious that we are conferring a very special privilege -- academic freedom and membership in our intellectual community.

Even a casual consideration of the world we live in will reveal that it is a far better place as a direct result of the activities that are possible because faculty have exercised "academic freedom." A partial list of such activities includes advocacy of civil rights, support for equal opportunity for women, and challenges to the power of government. A passage from the Hofstadter and Metzger volume captures the essence of this important concept:

…[T]he university should be an intellectual experiment station, where new ideas may germinate and where their fruit, though still distasteful to the community as a whole, may be allowed to ripen until finally, perchance, it may become accepted intellectual food of the nation or of the world.