The Conservative Case for Tenure

After my essay defending tenure appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education last month, the reaction was pretty predictable: colleagues -- both people I know and people I don't -- sent heartfelt "attaboys," while self-described conservatives wrote to explain why I was in error (to put it nicely).

The latter response is the one that interests me, not just because it always seems to be conservatives who oppose tenure but because I'm a conservative myself.

Surprised? You're not alone. From their correspondence, my detractors clearly assumed I was just another misguided leftist professor. For that matter, those who wrote to agree probably thought the same thing (omitting the "misguided" part).

The truth is that I've voted for the Republican candidate in every national election since Reagan in 1980. I generally vote Republican in local elections, too, although I sometimes have to hold my nose while pulling the lever.

Moreover, as a local newspaper columnist in the Atlanta metro area -- specifically, in Gwinnett County, a Republican stronghold -- I'm well known for my conservative views. I've even been a guest on a local conservative talk radio show. No one who knows me, or who has ever read my column, would describe me as anything resembling "leftist."

Which makes me, I suppose, a bit of an oddity: a conservative who supports tenure. In the interests of full disclosure, the fact that I'm a tenured professor probably has something to do with that. But the point is not that I believe in tenure despite being a conservative. Rather, I believe in it precisely because I am a conservative.

Before I explain that last statement, though, let's examine some of the common objections to tenure put forward by conservative (or at least Republican) elected officials and businesspeople.

One is that tenure exists to protect bad teachers, providing them with "guaranteed lifetime employment." Of course, anyone who actually works in higher education knows there's no such thing. Tenured professors can be dismissed for any number of good and proper reasons, including plagiarism, sexual harassment of students, and chronic dereliction of duty. Moreover, in my 25-year career, I honestly haven't known many "bad teachers." The vast majority of them are hard-working and dedicated -- even after they receive tenure.

Another, related complaint is that tenured professors "don't have to do anything." This too is manifestly untrue, as almost all institutions have built-in post-tenure review processes to ensure that professors continue doing their jobs and contributing to the profession. Again, I can say in all honesty that most of my colleagues work very hard. From where I sit, it looks like the politicians who, once they have established de facto tenure by getting reelected two or three times, don't have to do anything.

Finally, I've often heard members of the business community -- those I refer to in my Chronicle essay, not altogether charitably, as "chamber of commerce types" -- complain that college professors are too coddled. They don't spend enough hours working, some charge, while others respond to outspoken professors' public comments with (real or feigned) incredulity: "How can he get away with saying that? I'd be fired if I said that."

Such comments have always struck me as petty and ignorant. Few people understand what it takes to get an advanced degree and become a professor, much less the amount of work involved thereafter. But at least these charges bring me back to my main point, which is why, as a conservative, I support the concept of tenure.