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I received an e-mail from a teacher at an independent school in New York today who is preparing to give a presentation at the National Association of Independent School’s People of Color Conference later this year. Her topic: tenure, due process, and the solidarity of faculty. I was asked to complete a survey about my current position and about my current school. For those of you who do not know me, I have not disguised the fact that I favor a system of tenure or at least granting an extended contract period for faculty and staff.
In 2004 while living in Little Rock, I was asked to give a presentation in Houston at a Teachers of Color Conference. I had already been doing similar research on race and curriculum as part of a grant with the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. Moreover, it was my UALR work that got me interested in faculty members of color and independent schools. As I told the participants in Houston, the average time spent at one independent school by elite teachers of color was only four years. According to an earlier survey the reason for this was desirability. People of color often cited the number of offers presented to them by other schools. Furthermore, according to a survey I conducted four years ago, many teachers of color described themselves as being liberal to very liberal. This ideological description was true for those working in what they described as a threatening working environment. In a recent article published in Education Next, blacks — who tend to be very liberal, gays, Jews, and women stated that tenure is a major concern. University faculty members fear the difficulty of earning tenure because those who make tenure decisions are either white males, or white Protestant males. Thus such a group looks to protect its old boy network. Minority groups teaching in independent schools outside of the New England states also expressed the same concerns. Blacks and Jews tend to be among the most liberal faculty members, which means that the tenure/due process survey I received today comes as no surprise to me.
Tenure is one of the most complex processes in the dynamic relationship between management and labor. For the most part, here is how it works: If one teaches at a college or university, he or she is expected to have positive teaching evaluations and to have made a significant contribution in publishing (book, journals, etc.), and to have presented various ideas, concepts, and papers at conferences. Once an individual has done this for a period of 5 – 7 years, he or she comes up for tenure review. If rejected tenure, it is expected that the tenure candidate will leave the university before the start of the new academic year. However, to be granted tenure is the ultimate prize at any level. It means that one is free to be creative intellectually without fear of being punished for not espousing the same ideological views as his/her employer. Colleges and universities without a tenure process have been viewed as a second tier institution by many academics.
As for tenure at independent (private) schools, the process is not as clear nor is it as universal. Some national elite schools follow a similar system to that of universities. Faculty members are expected to have received positive teaching evaluations, made a contribution in terms of athletics and/or other types of extracurricular activities, as well as demonstrate a record of academic contributions, be it taking additional graduate school courses, attend various conferences as a participant or presenter, draft a few papers for a conference, and/or serve on various committees. My current school operates on a year-by-year contract system, thus my job security and the security of my colleagues will not be known until early March. I know of another teacher (not at HCHS) who was dismissed because the school needed to hire a teacher who could also coach football; I wonder where this school’s priorities are. Tenure would have protected this person, seeing that he was at school X for 7 or 8 years.
The greatest benefit of having tenure is that it protects one’s political and intellectual freedom. The process is designed to encourage teachers to challenge students’ intellectual prowess via tough issues and questions without fear of being terminated. This model is very different from that of most jobs. But, with that in mind, jobs outside of academic circles are designed to generate profits; and, although schools are designed to encourage discourse, they too can be motivated by economic factors. It is not unusual for lesser-established private schools to be driven by economic forces. For example, it is more important to put bodies in empty chairs than it is to promote discourse of intellectual matters that might not meet the approval of a few of the school’s clientele. At this point, an institution must have confidence in itself as an academic center.