What is the Connection Between Promotion and Tenure?

Gregory Hanson

Promotion and tenure are often, but not always, related. Tenure, which normally amounts to lifetime job security, is typically awarded as part of a promotion to a senior position in academia or education. In both fields, tenure is intended to both reward and protect educators who have already demonstrated competence and dedication. Tenure may also be offered, under some circumstances, as a recruiting lure to attract particularly desirable candidates to a given department. Tenure is becoming less and less common in schools and universities.

Tenured professors might be able to focus more on teaching subjects they enjoy.
Tenured professors might be able to focus more on teaching subjects they enjoy.

The primary purpose of tenure is to protect academic freedom for professors. Tenure guarantees that an educator can be dismissed from their position only for very serious infractions and not simply because a given chairperson or dean strongly disagrees with their academic viewpoints. Newly hired professors are not automatically awarded tenure. Instead, promotion and tenure are linked, and tenure is generally conferred only after the publication of a scholarly monograph, typically based on dissertation research, or a series of articles in peer-reviewed journals.

Tenure allows professors the security of having a permanent job.
Tenure allows professors the security of having a permanent job.

Some teachers below the college level are also eligible for tenure. The rationale behind this is very similar to that behind academic tenure. Teachers, after having served for a certain period of time, and having demonstrated a requisite level of skill and dedication, receive tenure as protection against the whims of elected school boards and new administrators. Promotion and tenure, in this situation, work in much the same way that a standard seniority-based system might, by ensuring that more senior employees have greater job security.

Opinion is divided on whether the relationship between promotion and tenure is a good thing for either educators or students. Many outside critics contend that the structure of the academic profession encourages scholars to slave away for several years, until they achieve tenure, at which point academic productivity tends to drop off sharply. Scholars seeking tenure are also forced to be tremendously conformist in their work, as their work is reviewed by a committee of peers that tends to exclude heterodox academic views. These novel views, which were meant to be protected by tenure, might be lost entirely by the time that an academic actually achieves tenure.

In both academia and education, there is also concern that the linkage between promotion tenure can make it very difficult to provide performance incentives for senior faculty and teachers. The protections afforded by tenure ensure that principals and administrators have very little real control over the actions of their employees.

The relationship between promotion and tenure is evolving. Most university systems in the world have begun to abolish or weaken tenure protections for their faculty. In Europe, this has involved changes in the administrative rules and practices. In the United States, this change has come about more subtly, as tenure track positions have begun to disappear, and few new ones have been created. Adjunct faculty, who now teach a majority of classes in the United States, receive financial incentives for job performance but are never eligible for tenure.

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