In my previous post I discussed what a professor at a research university does with his or her time.   I did not go into detail about a lot of the really time consuming obligations, which I may at some point devote a post to.   For now I want to deal with one other thing that I mentioned in yesterday’s post:  the question of tenure.   Most people in the rest of the working world have trouble getting their mind around what university tenure is all about.   You mean they guarantee you a job for life?  They can’t fire you?  Really???

Yes, pretty much really.   With some provisos.

The tenure system has come under fire in recent years by those outside the system who think that it is a disaster and a bit of a joke.   It is sometimes thought or said that that once a professor has tenure, there is no incentive for him or her to do much of anything: they have a job — permantently!  And that, it is said, is a recipe for laziness, inactivity, non-productiveness.  Basically, it opens itself up to abuse by people who really want to work only ten hours a week and get paid serious money to do so.

So let me say some things about tenure, since I think in fact it is *absolutely essential* to academic life, and possibly for reasons that haven’t occurred to some people (especially its critics.)

First, what is tenure?   Tenure is a system where by an academic institution awards a faculty member with a virtual guarantee of his or her position for life.   Two key terms to begin with: “virtual” and “awards.”   When I say it is a virtual guarantee I mean it is not an absolute guarantee.   A tenured professor cannot be fired in normal circumstances.   But s/he can be in abnormal circumstances.   These include situations of moral turpitude (if a professor is sleeping with members of his class, for example, tenure gets thrown out the window) (not like the old days!) (thank God).  And they include situations of financial exigency (when an institution is going broke, it can fire its tenured faculty; this may, of course, lead to lawsuits).   And they can, in very rare cases, involve instances in which a tenured professor is judged not to be fulfilling the obligations of the position (for example, not teaching his/her classes, or teaching them dreadfully; not coming to meetings; basically not doing anything.  It’s very hard to fire a tenured professor for inactivity or ineptitude, but it can in theory happen.)

So tenure is