The Failure of Tenure: Limitations To Student Freedom
Educators, legislators, parents, students, and teachers around the United States have been debating the value of the tenure system. Some argue that the tenure system is beneficial to students as it institutes more experienced and published teachers into professor positions, whereas others believe that the tenure system has profound negative impacts upon students. I believe that the tenure system is a detriment to students, because the tenure system limits their academic freedom.
The tenure system, as described by Lorraine Savage, is “job security and academic freedom for teachers based on several factors: publishing in academic journals, attracting grant money to the college, bringing notoriety to the school, serving on leading committees, and teaching service – all accomplished in a limited number of years.” Furthermore, “once a professor attains tenure, he/she has job security, higher pay and academic freedom to teach or research unconventional or politically unpopular topics.” For purposes of this argument, academic freedom is defined as student liberty to “explore significant and controversial questions” and to “have freedom to form independent judgments despite inevitably encountering ideas, books, and people that challenge their preconceived ideas and beliefs.” If something limits academic freedom, then that something is a detriment to students. This logic is valid for the tenure system, specifically in the higher education system in the United States.
Imagine yourself as a student at a prestigious university in the United States. Think of the situation that you are sitting in a political science college course and are introduced to your professor. As the professor is introducing him or herself, you learn that the professor is very talented and skilled and has just recently acquired tenure after many years of research, teaching, and service. Upon completion of the aforementioned items, your professor now has nearly full job security and complete academic freedom, meaning they have the freedom to discuss any subject in the classroom and present it with minimal regulations. They are simply told to avoid infringing upon students’ academic freedom by presenting multiple perspectives and relevant subject matter. However, with the immense amount of research that the professor has completed, the professor presents a lesson on the different political parties with a biased opinion towards one side. As a result of your professor’s service projects with a specific political party, research, and personal views, you are being given unbalanced and biased information in this class. In higher education where students are often of voting age and at the age to make individual responsible decisions, it is essential for them to receive the most important and unbiased information, especially from a political science professor. However, due to the information you receive in your class, you now have the potential of making an uneducated vote. Furthermore, you do not have a complete understanding of domestic and international relations and political theory due to the restrictions on what is presented by the professor. Now, imagine that you have learned of a different political view outside of class that has opposing viewpoints on a matter. You raise your hand and propose this perspective to your professor and provide a detailed and legitimate explanation. However, your professor refuses to acknowledge your beliefs and claims and continues to only present his or her opinions. In this situation, your professor is rude and disrespectful and moreover, your professor has limited your academic freedom by preventing you from forming your own independent judgments and disallowing you the opportunity to receive information from multiple perspectives and parties. This is clearly harmful to you as a student as it prohibits your learning and weakens the academic environment as it does not allow for healthy academic discussion, an example of why the tenure system is a detriment to students.
The tenure system has negatively impacted my personal education at Purdue University as demonstrated by the instruction of my philosophy teacher, Daniel Kelly. In my Introduction to Philosophy course at Purdue University, I was introduced to Professor Kelly who is a current tenured professor. As a current associate professor who fulfilled the requirements to acquire tenure, my professor has over twenty-four publications in reputed journals and encyclopedias, twelve fellowships and awards, one published book, and many years of teaching experience. In this class, we learn about Western Philosophy. During the first few weeks of school, we began a chapter on Philosophy of Religion. In this chapter, the class discussed the question, “Does God exist?” and the professor sometimes brought in multiple arguments and counterarguments to present this issue. However, during instruction, Professor Kelly brought his research and personal views into discussion and did not always present all sides of the matter. For example, the class was presented the Problem of Evil argument that argues that God cannot exist because if god was truly omniscient and omnipotent and benevolent, then, evil, pain, and suffering would not exist in the status quo. During this class discussion, Professor Kelly referenced his research on philosophy of religion and his published book and seemed to present biased views. More specifically, he picked specific theodicies or counterarguments to present that he believed were more accurate and that he had more experience talking about. When students questioned this and presented other possible arguments, he simply denied their possibility though they were valid arguments. I personally brought up an argument that challenged the Problem of Evil argument, and I presented the idea that evil could possibly exist for the purpose of establishing a clear distinction between “good” and “evil.” This idea was deemed legitimate by my peers; however, it was not considered, answered, or even addressed by my professor. Though philosophy is a class that should usually be open for multiple perspectives and student views, Professor Kelly seems to only care about his views, his research, and doesn’t allow for student opinions. This is a limitation to academic freedom as students like myself were not allowed to express their views. As aforementioned, part of the definition of academic freedom is student liberty to “explore significant and controversial questions” and the “freedom to form independent judgments,” all of which were not possible in such an environment in Professor Kelly’s class. In this scenario, student learning was restricted thus limiting students’ academic freedom, a clear detriment to students.
Not all educators and legislators agree with the detriments of the tenure system; many present counterarguments that present the supposed benefits of the tenure system. Christopher Beam argues, “The most common pro-tenure argument is that it protects academic freedom. Once a professor gains tenure, the thinking goes, he or she can say anything without fear of being fired. Academia thrives on the circulation of dangerous ideas.” However, though tenure may protect academic freedom for teachers, it limits the academic freedom for students. Because professors have the ability to, in essence, write their own curriculum, say what they want, teach what they want, and have a higher level of control over the class, students’ academic freedom is limited. Though tenure may have advantages for these professors who now have a plethora of perks such as job security and increased academic freedom, students in the higher education system are actually being harmed as they are losing academic freedom.
Much like the limitations of the tenure system, an evaluation of the Common Core K-12 State Standards leads to similar findings. The standards have recently been implemented in the United States in an attempt to establish consistent teaching curriculum across the country. These standards have been widely controversial especially due to their specificity as to what should be taught in classrooms. The Common Core standards restrict teachers as they are being forced to teach in accordance to certain curriculum objectives and lack the freedom to teach what may actually be beneficial to students. Teachers have to follow a more rigorous lesson plan that does not allow for much flexibility within the classroom. Students have minimal say in what is being taught in these classes and thus do not have true academic freedom. For example, if students are struggling on a specific topic or need a more detailed explanation of a concept, teachers are often unable to provide this service as the class needs to operate at a certain pace to meet the Common Core standards by the end of the school year. It is evident in this situation that students do not have the freedom to explore “significant and controversial questions” if their classes are based upon a rigorous set of standards that teachers must strive to meet, an opposition to the definition of academic freedom. Due to the predetermined curriculum, the lack of flexibility and time in class is clearly limiting students’ academic freedom, an obvious disservice to students in the education system. The Common Core K-12 standards are analogous to the tenure system in regards to the fact that they both present limitations on students’ academic freedom, and thus are both unfavorable and disadvantageous to students around the nation.
If something limits academic freedom, then that something is a detriment to students. As evident through personal experiences, hypothetical situations, and analogies, the tenure system in higher education in the United States is negatively impacting students’ ability to learn and weakening the academic environment by restricting academic freedom. A restriction on student learning can have negative impacts on a students’ current education as well as on future courses they opt to take. Students will be less likely to formulate their own opinions, refute something they believe is incorrect, or speak out against something that is explicitly false. In the future, the tenure system could be either altered or removed from the higher education system to ensure students are presented with accurate and unbiased information so they can make their own judgments and have true academic freedom. True academic freedom for students would benefit the entirety of the education system as it would allow for healthy discussion and the integration of student opinions. This improvement in the education system would subsequently produce more intelligent students, and these students would go on to become more open-minded and productive individuals in the workforce. I believe that the tenure system is a detriment to students because the tenure system limits academic freedom and immediate action is needed to prevent further harm in the status quo.