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Tenure as the gateway to careless teaching

| Friday, February 17, 2023

I’d like to preface this by saying I am not an expert on anything, least of all tenure. But I have been thinking and looking a lot into it lately. From what I understand: Why is tenure a thing? 

From my perspective, it seems like a way for colleges to push professors to do more research and be at the top of their field to earn a job. This part, I don’t have as much of a problem with. I respect colleges wanting to employ the top people in education. I want to be taught by the best and am a firm believer in continuing education, as most professors must complete to be considered for tenure. 

What I do have a problem with is the power that professors then assume they have once they are tenured. I am sure we have all heard stories about professors who enforce insane rules but go undisciplined because they have tenure at the school.

On TikTok, it is easy to find many college students who struggle because their tenured professors are not willing to teach or help students — they are only there because resources through the school offer them a means to continue their research. In this video on how tenured professors don’t care about actually teaching, one TikTok user commented that her professor told students not to bother leaving bad reviews because he was tenured, so it wouldn’t matter. 

This kind of unchecked power is what bothers me about tenure. While tenured professors can be fired, the process of firing a tenured professor is lengthy and complicated. And because of the difficulty of the process and the elevated place in the academic hierarchy tenured professors hold, they often go unchecked. 

If I, as a student, suddenly started to just do things how I wanted, ignoring classroom and college policies, I would be penalized, if not expelled. If I ignored policies about what resources were available and just did what I wanted, professors would give me zeros on all my assignments and I would flunk out of school. 

We would hope post-tenure reviews would catch these things,  but those are only every five years. An undergraduate student could go through a whole four years of hell in a professor’s class before their behavior was caught in their review. How are we supposed to communicate to the professor what we liked or struggled with in their class? Even if their job is secure, shouldn’t they want to continue improving and learning? 

Like I said, I am not an expert on tenure. The only reason I have recently been digging into it is because of my own experience with a professor who is up for tenure. During a class taught by this professor, I opened up about struggling with balancing my workload with my mental health. I said that I had just been having a hard time lately, so I was sorry my work came in late, but I would be okay after the upcoming break. I will never open up in class again, because this professor made me feel like my mental health didn’t matter over my school work. 

After having talked in class about how work had just been overwhelming lately, so I didn’t spend as much time on my assignment as I admittedly should have, the professor sent out an email after class about how “disrespectful” some students (there were five students in this class, including myself) had admitted to being during class today by not allocating proper time to their work. This was the final straw on an already stressful week, and I had a breakdown so bad, my roommate thought someone had died. 

This was over a year ago, but I still think about it frequently. I especially thought back to this incident when I got an email earlier this year, asking if I would fill out a survey rating this professor, as they were up for tenure. 

Getting this email infuriated me. This professor, who I was supposed to be able to go to when I was struggling but who turned out to seemingly blame me for struggling… Why were they being given the opportunity to have a place secured at this school to potentially dismiss the mental struggles of generations of students to come? I guess they would fit in with tenured professors across the country who only care about having the opportunity to continue research, instead of doing their jobs and teaching students. 

Like I said, I am not an expert. While I have done a bit of research about tenure since my experience, I’m sure there are many complicated ins and outs that I am unaware of. And maybe it was just that one experience that gave me a bad taste. But I pay a lot of money to attend college. I expect to be treated like a human being while trying to get a higher education, not just another student in a class that a professor doesn’t care about because their job is secure.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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