Critics argue that while funds for tenured professors come from tuition fees, very few tenured professors actually teach.
Teaching has long been considered a ’noble‘ profession. Teachers shape the future of our progeny. But the path towards becoming a professor is hard and time consuming. In the US, they chase the mirage of becoming a ‘tenured’ professor—a process that lasts up to a decade if one is lucky. ‘Publish or perish’ keeps them doing research and writing papers that no one may read or use. They have to keep publishing papers in journals just to keep their foot in the door.
Tenure grants them freedom. According to Quora, “In IITs, an assistant professor applicant is expected to have three years of post-doctoral experience (a PhD is a must). Although an assistant professor is eligible for becoming a ‘tenured’ professor after three years of experience, the common practice for granting the tenure is after five years.” Besides job security, it lets professors take sabbaticals. That is what is now at risk. For cash- strapped colleges, tenure is granted on the basis of the professor’s ability to get research grants from corporates.
It was meant to provide a professor the intellectual freedom to pursue research even in areas without interference from corporate interests and politicians, who might not like an outspoken professor. Critics argue that while funds for tenured professors come from tuition fees, very few tenured professors actually teach.
Freedom from the treadmill
Several young professors dream of getting tenure. Then they can pass on the tedium of teaching to adjunct faculty, while they focus on research. When professors have to seek funds from corporates, they have to indulge in the kind of research, which has takers with a budget to spare.
Unable to raise tuition fees further, colleges are snipping away and dropping the idea of tenured professors. Many colleges are doing away with the practice. Without the security of tenure, who will be left to pursue an idea which is counter-intuitive? We need academics to stop us in our tracks and rethink our assumptions. That is what a tenured professor is supposed to have the freedom to do.
Growth is fueled by ideas
When the world economy is slowing down, it is important to find ideas that will propel us onto a faster growth path. There is an impressive list of professors who have won the Nobel Prize. While in any system, there are a handful of professors who neither teach nor pursue research, we need to pause before we kill this practice.
Forward-looking corporations create their own version of the tenured professor, when they invest in creating Fellows. To recognise the best of its employees, Apple created the Apple Fellows programme, which awards individuals who make extraordinary technical or leadership contributions to personal computing during their tenure with the company. Steve Wozniak and Guy Kawasaki are two examples of Apple Fellows.
Google has had its share of Fellows, such as Amit Singhal, who updated the original algorithm that the founders had written. Sebastian Thrun is a Google fellow who started working on the driverless car in 2007. Surely this would have sounded like a pipe dream then. Thrun is also a professor at Stanford. You could argue that they were pursuing their ideas much before they became Fellows.
Every profession has its perks
We do not grudge every other corporate rat who gets stock options and a shot at the corner office. So many companies have free cafeterias, free transport, free snacks in the office and not to mention legions of HR people who will find creative ways to keep the employees engaged. The professors have none of these. We expect them to shape the minds of our children, but hate the fact that a handful of them have it good.
Journalists are sent all sorts of complimentary tickets for previews, trade fairs, exhibitions and conferences. Book reviewers get free books. Cinema critics will get invited to watch movies (which they will often trash). We have no problems with that.
If the professors get motivated to give their best by getting tenure, should we really grudge them?
(The author is former chief learning officer, Wipro. Follow him on twitter @abhijitbhaduri)