They say that tenure is designed to protect academic freedom. That is mostly true, but it is also used for for other purposes by faculty and other parties. Let’s do a rundown of how tenure gets used.
Scholars can use tenure for the academic freedom to work on topics that may be controversial or high risk, with the security that they won’t lose their jobs because they are going against the traditions in their field, or are working on an obscure topic that they might think will hold some important revelations but also might end up with zero product. Once you have tenure, then you can do research on (almost) anything you want. There is a small minority of people who use this to tremendous effect, by working outside the dominant paradigm and absolutely changing a field. For example, I wonder whether folks like Carl Woese or Lynn Margulis would have chosen to put work into the areas they did without the protection of tenure. Scholars can also use tenure to develop research programs that are highly collaborative and work with members of the community so that their work will result in pragmatic solutions to real problems. But this work takes more time and may generate fewer rewards in traditional academic structures.
All tenured faculty can use tenure to say “no” to a wide variety of requests and expectations so that they can focus their effort on the work that they feel truly matters.
Effective classroom educators can use tenure to experiment with new ways to teach. Teachers can use tenure to stay fresh even when they are working in environments steeped in tradition. Tenure protects those using evidence-based practices even if these approaches are not accepted by their peers.
Ineffective professors use tenure to become driftwood and can do less than the absolute minimum with respect to teaching, research, and service, which increases the workload for their colleagues.
Social justice advocates use tenure to speak truth to power and push to change our institutions to increase equity and access, promote safe and healthy working conditions, and foster collaborative governance.
Sexual predators, harassers, and abusive supervisors can use tenure to shield themselves from accountability while harming others who they have power over.
Senior faculty can use tenure to exploit junior faculty who have yet to be awarded tenure.
Junior faculty can use the need to earn tenure to justify the adoption of unsafe and harmful labor practices.
Reactionary contrarians can use tenure to recycle stale perspectives about academia and appeal to social conservatives who like to fashion themselves as beacons of true academic inquiry shining above the horde of intelligentsia caught up in progressive groupthink. These folks can be adept at leveraging scientific racism, anti-religious fervor, transphobia, xenophobia, and/or misogyny for their own ends. (For example: Jerry Coyne; anybody who reads Quillette unironically)
University administrators can use tenure to create unreasonable expectations of faculty productivity so that institutions can boast of more grant funding, high publication rates, and compete against other university in those stupid rankings.
University leadership can use tenure to justify undercompensating faculty for their work, and weaponize disparities between tenure-line faculty and contingent faculty to exploit those without access to opportunities for tenure.
Scholars can use the protections of tenure to invest time in supporting the academic community in ways that are inadequately valued by the academic rewards system. This includes service to the academic community beyond the university (such as peer review and volunteering in academic societies) and mentoring junior colleagues.
Let’s keep in mind that while tenure is special in that it protects academic freedom, the level of job security that comes with tenure is not unique to the professoriate. It’s common for K-12 teachers to have tenure (and in my local school district, tenure happens after just two years). In many other public sector jobs, especially those governed by collective bargaining agreements, there is an extraordinary level of job security that amounts to something resembling tenure. For example, in my own university system, it’s not just faculty who have a high level of job security. Once staff in state-funded positions have gone through a one-year probationary period, the level of entitlement in that role amounts to something resembling tenure.
What other uses of tenure am I forgetting?
So, is the tenure system worth it? I think so, but then again this needs some grains of salt in the pot kettle black because I’m a tenured professor and clearly come from a position of bias. But if I were to do my best to step out of my role and attempt to look at this situation as a disinterested party, I think that the ability for scholars to choose the direction research pursuits without the fear of losing their job is an valuable contribution to academic progress. Some faculty with tenure are willing to take on riskier projects with the prospect that they won’t work out, and that’s important for discovery. Also, other academics working on issues that are important for social change need the latitude to communicate their findings to the public. Think of academics who have spoken out against influential industries such as tobacco, agrochemicals, fossil fuels, and so on. It’s hard enough to speak up against powerful interests, and knowing that you will (or at least, should) not be fired for speaking out against organizations that may be donating lots of money to your university is a very good thing. Moreover, universities are inherently conservative entities and can you imagine institutional change could be even slower if (some) tenured faculty weren’t constantly pushing the envelope? (That said, I realize that most of the envelope-pushing comes from those who are most disenfranchised by the system, though the way the system works, having those tenured faculty working the inside is also a piece of the change, too, though the size of this piece is arguable.) While some tenured faculty use the system to harm others or fall asleep at the wheel, those kinds of things happen even without tenure, so it’s not like abolishing tenure would magically stop the abuses that are happening around us. Anyhow, it’s valuable for us to understand how all different parties in the system are using tenure to further their own interests, so we at least understand these rules when we opt into the game.