Academic freedom and job security for MSU faculty

How many names come to mind when deciding what to call your teachers? Professor? Lecturer? Mr. or Mrs.? Some even insist on being called the “instructor,” or simply by their first name. The nomenclature for faculty members is such a complicated topic because of something called tenure. Having tenure, being on a tenure track, as well as the degree level a person has obtained, all affect the title that they are granted. While not always true, a general rule is that tenured faculty are referred to as “professor,” while others have the titles “instructor,” “assistant teaching faculty” or “adjunct professor.” The complicated nomenclature might seem unnecessary, but it symbolizes the various types of faculty at MSU and is important in distinguishing the different roles certain faculty play in academia at the university.


What is tenure?

Tenure is a contract that guarantees a teacher or professor the right to go about their academic work how they see fit without the risk of groundless termination. Faculty that have tenure are long-term members of the academic community who have been reviewed by the university extensively and hired as full professors. Tenured professors are expected to be more involved with campus and MSU academia than nontenured faculty. Hired not only to teach classes, tenure track faculty must also conduct research in their field and give back to their field through service.

The higher involvement of tenured faculty on campus is important to the education experience of students. History professor and outgoing Faculty Senate Chair Michael Reidy said that having faculty who are conducting new research makes them better instructors in the classroom. “You want professors who are teaching material at the forefront of their field.” Reidy said that his own contract, which breaks up responsibilities to 40 percent teaching, 40 percent research and 20 percent service is common amongst other tenured professors, who are assigned their responsibilities in a role and scopes document when first hired. Being equally responsible for teaching as research makes professors gather their own, new material both to be taught to students and shared with their peers in the world of academia.


History of tenure

The idea of tenure came about during the mid-20th century as a measure to protect professors who taught sensitive subjects from university scrutiny. “[Tenure] was first instituted in the cases of racism and sexism and these sorts of things,” he said. Reidy gave a hypothetical example of a case where tenure would be necessary to protect the sanctity of education. “For instance, what happens in the segregated South if a faculty member wants to study racial equality but the university doesn’t want them to do it? If you don’t have tenure, you could get fired. If you do have tenure, they can’t fire you. You have an academic freedom to pursue your own interests without being encumbered by the interests of the university.”


Becoming tenured

As with any high title, becoming a tenured professor requires a large amount of work and time. The “tenure track” is the name given to the process of becoming tenured at MSU and includes many steps before tenure is granted. To start the process, the university gives a letter of hire to the candidate for tenure, which outlines their duties as faculty, including the breakup of research, teaching and service percentages that they will work under. A contract for tenure track professors much be renewed each year, but Reidy said in many cases a renewal is expected during the probationary period.

Before going up for tenure, the faculty member must pass a three year review as well the final review after six years of employment. Once the tenure track faculty member is brought up for tenure after six years, they must be approved by the different levels of administration at MSU. First, they are reviewed by their department and college, then by the university, followed by the Provost, the President, and finally the Board of Regents. Only if all of these reviews are passed may the tenure track professor gain tenure.

In the cases where the person in question isn’t granted tenure, they are generally given an additional year to teach at the university before being released.


Benefits of tenure

Once tenured, a faculty member gains the title of associate professor (in most cases, some abnormalities do exist still in faculty titles). Full, tenured professors are allowed more freedom in deciding what to study or teach than non-tenured faculty, having the ability to set up their classes and conduct research as they see fit. In addition to this freedom, tenured and tenure track faculty are heavily involved with the MSU community, serving on committees, writing grants and advising students, among other responsibilities outside of the lecture hall. With these wider scope responsibilities also come greater security. Unlike non-tenured faculty, who are hired on a semester to semester basis, tenure and tenure track faculty can expect long term employment from MSU.

Higher job security doesn’t mean absolute protection from being released, however. Reidy said that tenured faculty can be fired for a number of reasons. “Once you have tenure you can still be dismissed. First of all if you do things that are illegal and will get you fired,” Reidy said. Outside of conduct-based dismissals, all tenured faculty are brought up for a review of their performance yearly. If a faculty member doesn’t meet expectations for three years in a row, they are brought up for what is called post-tenure review. During a post-tenure review, the professor’s work is looked over to see if they still are upholding their duties outlined in their letter of hire. If it is decided that they aren’t performing well, they can be released.


What about everyone else?

Of course, not only tenured professors teach courses. Often times, courses are led by non-tenured faculty, who are generally referred to as assistant teaching professors. These faculty are hired without being put on the tenure track. Contracts are made on a semesterly or yearly basis and change with the changing demographic of the university. Assistant teaching professors are hired as they are needed to instruct classes without the responsibility to research and service. These positions vary each year with changing demand for certain classes, providing flexibility not possible with tenured professors.

Holly Grether, assistant teaching professor with a Ph. D. in religious studies explained the wide variety of non-tenure faculty: “They might be anywhere from a graduate student to someone who’s got a doctorate.” Grether said that because of the wide variety of non-tenure positions, the nomenclature for those positions also varies. “That’s where they get their names of instructor or lecturer or teaching professors,” she said.

Non-tenure faculty, lacking the long term security of tenured faculty, can struggle to maintain full time employment at MSU, according to Grether. She said that some of her non-tenured colleagues work outside of the university. In addition to not having enough work as a professor to only teach, nontenured faculty sometimes risk losing their benefits of employment when they don’t teach enough classes. Grether said it is vital to offer attractive short term employment for teaching faculty: “I hope that MSU continues to evolve and be innovative in offering attractive short term contracts … we’ll never have the job security of tenure track faculty have but job security is something that can sometimes keeps me up at night.”


Controversy at MSU

There has been some heated debate about the role of tenure and non-tenure track faculty at MSU in recent years. “There were murmurs a couple years ago as we went into the collective bargaining agreement the the Board of Regents were trying to increase what counts as full-time employment to try and push some of the non-tenure track faculty out of benefits,” Grether said, adding that this issue has been cleared up now. “It seems like that’s not their goal anymore.” Protecting benefits for non-tenure faculty has been a major concern for herself and her colleagues, Grether said.

Issues exist also on a more national scale. MSU’s growth has had an affect on all aspects of the university, faculty included. Reidy said the university must also maintain a healthy ratio of students to tenured faculty. Reidy said, “Faculty senate believes that one of the ways to ensure quality education for students is to ensure that ratio or tenure track faculty to students stays constant.”

Research is important to any large university, especially one that has a Carnegie Tier 1 ranking for research like MSU. Because research still plays a large role in the university, having a higher ratio of students to researching professors can take away from some of that research as professors are more overloaded with teaching responsibilities. He spoke of faculty expectations for growth with growing enrollment: “The student body has grown the past five years by about the 25 percent. Tenured faculty would expect to also grow by that number.” According to the Office of Planning and Analysis, student enrolment has grown by 20 percent over the last five years, and tenured and tenure track faculty numbers have grown by seven percent over the same time period.


Looking Forward

The role of tenure and non-tenure faculty at MSU is sure to change in the future. The university is growing, and faculty will also have to grow and adapt to changing conditions. Grether believes that the university may move towards utilizing more non-tenure faculty in the future. She said non-tenure faculty can take on more courses than tenured professors since they don’t have to conduct research. “With growing enrollment [teaching faculty] are really essential support for the tenure faculty … that support role is going to continue to grow,” Grether said.

Reidy believes both tenured and nontenured faculty are important, and highlighted their individual roles. He said that non-tenure faculty can change in numbers with students’ demand for different classes, which allows flexibility in the classes offered. Tenure track faculty are more integrated with the university, and according to Reidy, need to have their numbers stay proportional to student enrollment. Reidy finished, “Both are needed. Both are essential. But they serve different functions.”