Tenured professors at the University of Rhode Island and other universities have the opportunity to enjoy job security, but some students are uncertain of how tenure influences teaching styles.
In an online survey conducted at the university that asked whether or not students felt that tenure, the protective status awarded to certain university professors, affected the way that professors taught their classes. There was a general divide with a consistent pattern, which showed that most students are torn on the subject.
Some reacted negatively to the teaching status, including one student who anonymously wrote: “I think the teachers who are tenured may be burnt out and [have] lost a passion for teaching.”
However, there were many positive responses to the poll from students as well. John Hoolahan, a 20-year-old pharmacy student at the university, wrote that “More experience in the classroom can make for a better professor.” A second student who submitted anonymously also wrote in support of tenured professors, and said that, “It shouldn’t matter, if they actually care about our education.”
Professor Louis Kirschenbaum, a tenured professor of chemistry at URI, said he did not believe that tenure causes teachers to “start slacking off.” He is also a former president of the university’s branch of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), the organization that governs tenure on a local and national level. Kirschenbaum added that not everyone who teaches at the university level is even eligible for tenure, with only the most qualified having a chance to obtain the status.
“Anyone who is hired on a tenure track position is expected to do research, be a good teacher, to do service and be part of the university community,” Kirschenbaum said. A tenure track means an assistant professorship with a maximum probation period of seven years, within which an individual must undergo yearly evaluations by their university.
Tenure, in most cases, does not affect the professor’s ability to teach; but conversely, the professor’s ability factors into whether or not they can obtain tenure.
Gary Richman, a tenured art professor at URI, said good teaching style and ability have little to do with actually having tenure and more to do with the individual.
“Tenure… can have an effect on performance because it can foster an enduring commitment to a cause or an institution,” Richman said in an email. “ [But] it can also induce arrogance and laziness. Tenure won’t make a good human being, a sincere mentor, or an effective teacher.”
The misconception of tenure having a noticeable and consistent effect on teaching can be linked to the fact that the precise meaning of the status is not common among the student population. Tenure is not just job security for professors and it is not a get-out-of-jail-free card, but it is supposed to protect a professor’s academic freedom.
The AAUP’s website says “Academic freedom is the indispensable requisite for unfettered teaching and research in institutions of higher education.” In other words, it is the freedom that allows professors to not have their position terminated without just cause.
If a professor is fired under tenure, the AAUP launches an investigation to determine whether or not the cause was reasonable. This is seen as an important cornerstone to the higher education system of the country by many professors including Mr. Kirschenbaum, “It’s the most important thing in the AAUP manual,” he said.
Tenure may not change a professor’s style of teaching, or change the curriculum of a class, but that’s because what tenure is aiming to do. It aims to keep around the professors who can teach and challenge students, and give them a worry-free environment to do so.