Exponent Explains: Tenure

When walking around Wilson or Gaines Hall, you may notice boards outside department offices that show lists of faculty on “tenure track” and “non-tenure track.”

So, what does tenure even mean?

After proving themselves worthy, professors can be granted tenure by the university and can keep their jobs until they die, quit or their program runs out of money — or in the words of the MSU faculty handbook, “until … the faculty member resigns, retires, is discharged for adequate cause or is terminated for reasons of financial exigency.”

Beginning in the 1800s, de facto tenure systems were in place, and over the past 200 years tenure has become legally defined and binding. The goal of tenure is, and has always been, to cultivate academic freedom, or intellectual “‘safe havens’ … [that] give faculty the independence to speak out about troubling matters and to challenge the administration,” explained the National Education Association’s Department of Higher Education.

A tenured professor can therefore potentially dedicate years researching the rich tradition of underwater basket weaving and publish political diatribes against Champ, Obama or Jake Jabs without fearing for their job. Critics of the tenure system feel the threat of a firing an individual motivates professors to provide a higher quality educational experience.

The coveted jobs for scholars aiming for a career in academia are called tenure track, or tenurable positions. At Montana State, tenurable positions include Professor, Associate Professor and Assistant Professor.

The tenure track is an Odyssean struggle — a six year probationary period of stressful “publish or perish,” during which the probationary appointee’s merits as an instructor and researcher are evaluated.

If the appointee runs gauntlet and succeeds in this six-year task, “tenure is awarded by the Board of Regents, following peer review and recommendation by the president … and the commissioner,” the faculty handbook outlines.

Why do we care what tenure means? Academics and administrators have argued over tenure since it’s inception and are currently arguing over the recent trend of universities decreasing tenurable positions and increasing the number of non-tenurable positions, lowering costs and increasing flexibility. MSU is one of those universities

To accommodate increased enrollment, the number of adjunct professors (non-tenurable positions that are often part time and paid per-class) at MSU has increased by nearly 30 percent in the past five years. Meanwhile, the number of tenurable positions has increased by .01 percent.