Tenure track is a job classification used primarily in American colleges and universities to indicate that a professor is in the running for a permanent position. Most of the time, college professors are hired in one of three classifications: adjunct, one-year, or tenure track. The latter is the most prestigious, and the most coveted. Holding a tenure track position does not guarantee permanency, but usually promises the professor a permanent position should he or she meet certain expectations within the first few years on the job.
Importance in Academia
Tenure is very important to professors and teachers because of the intellectual freedom it carries. When an instructor is tenured, he or she is a permanent member of the faculty, and typically cannot be removed or fired without action by the school’s board of directors. Earning tenure both protects the professor’s job, and his or her ideas.
Particularly at the university level, professors spend a lot of time researching new ideas. This research usually comes alongside teaching, and is often interwoven into classes. A professor who is tenured has institutional support to carry out a unique research agenda, and has the freedom to incorporate new ideas into classes without fear of termination. Many people see tenure as a way of preserving the university as a place where ideas flow freely, and individual scholars have the liberty to pursue their own interests.
The Hiring Process
New professors and teachers are rarely ever awarded full tenure status the moment they are hired. When a school encounters a candidate it thinks would be a good long-term fit, it typically offers that candidate a tenure track job. This means that a tenured position is waiting, so long as the candidate meets certain school expectations. New hires typically start on the tenure track knowing that they will be scrutinized and closely evaluated at every turn.
Requirements for Success
Expectations are different at different schools, but typically include publication, student reviews, and participation in university activities. Most of the time, professors have about five years from the date of their hire before a decision is made about their permanent status.
Publication is usually the most important requirement for professors hoping to make tenure. Instructors who write books, publish studies, or contribute significant commentary to anthologies often have a better chance of earning tenure than those who spend their time solely in the classroom. Of course, different schools have different priorities; even at small teaching schools, though, publication is important. Not only does outside writing help demonstrate the professor’s credentials and knowledge, it also helps boost the school’s name in national and international academic circles.
Once a professor has worked for the requisite tenure track term, he or she is evaluated by a panel of other instructors and university officials. This process is usually called “tenure review,” and will determine whether the professor stays — that is, whether he or she is awarded tenure — or whether he or she is released from the university.
The panel typically looks at tangible contributions first. It will review the professor’s publications, will read student evaluations from classes taught, and will examine the professor’s overall contributions to the university. Whether the instructor served on committees or chaired any departmental functions is often an important way to gauge his or her commitment to the school.
Intangible aspects may also come into play, however. Personality clashes or other conflicts can sometimes prevent tenure from being awarded. How others view the professor's contributions also factors in. Once a professor passes the review, he or she will become a permanent member of the community, which is all the more reason to make the decision carefully.
Under the best circumstances, tenure track jobs allow scholars the chance engage in unbridled research and exploration, and to be innovative in the classroom without fear of repercussion. The idea of tenure has often been criticized as providing too much freedom, however. Skeptics argue that instructors should be forced to prove their worth not just during the limited few years on the tenure track, but periodically throughout their careers. Otherwise, some argue, academic integrity risks being lost.
When instructors cannot be fired, some may be tempted to take a much looser approach to education. Critics point to numerous studies that have shown a decrease in teaching and student learning once professors and teachers receive tenure. Not all professors treat tenure as a reason to stop putting effort into their work, but the fact that some do should be cause for alarm, many say.