Define the standard, then say tenured profs aren’t meeting it

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The system that grants tenure, while getting the most out of professors seeking to earn tenure, is worth a critical look.

In an editorial published by University Affairs, writer and Lakehead University professor Gerald Walton claims tenure may be preserving underperforming professors. With a system in place that protects tenured professors even when they’re not doing their job, Walton believes the standard of accountability should be heightened.

In some areas, Walton’s argument seems oversimplified — it’s unclear what he means by “underperforming” and how exactly tenured professors should be held accountable.

But maybe the ambiguity is a result of something else. Maybe “underperforming” isn’t defined because it’s difficult to define in the first place — while surveys like the USATs make an effort, you can’t exactly quantify where a professor isn’t doing a good job and where they’re performing well.

Although it’s hard to come up with examples of how tenured professors can be held accountable when they do underperform, the central issue holds true — the system of tenure could use a critical look.

But it’s less about punishing underperforming tenured professors than making sure they’re continuing to hold themselves to the same standard they were when working towards tenure. 

A critical look at the system may also uncover external factors that push professors to underperform after getting tenure — maybe increasing enrolment is a growing pressure or the burden of original research is rising.

Holding professors to a higher standard of accountability after they gain tenure may be easier said than done while the line that divides what qualifies as underperforming and what doesn’t is still too blurry and too different across fields.

It’s a line that needs to be drawn clearly before we hold tenured professors to higher accountability.

Journal Editorial Board

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