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People (like me) who make their living outside the academy often joke about tenure. We wonder just what it is that professors do to deserve the ultimate job security provided by tenure. But there are, it turns out, a certain number of professors who decide that job security is not actually the highest good. In a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, author Anne Trubek describes how she began to wonder whether it was time to give up the job security she had spent so many years earning.

Tenured but unable to support myself financially, I began to do freelance writing to supplement my income. I enjoyed it—so much that it became increasingly hard to juggle my professorial and freelance duties. The language of traditional scholarship was sounding increasingly foreign to me, and it became a tongue I no longer wanted to speak. I revised my writing courses to reflect the work I was doing in narrative nonfiction, cultural criticism, and book history. But then, when departmental and service duties ramped up, and especially when it was my turn to become chair, I found myself pulled in too many directions.

Trubek took an extended leave of absence from Oberlin and began to wonder whether she shouldn't pursue the career that she enjoyed more. But then she asked herself, "Who does that? Who gives up tenure? I kept tripping myself up on the oddity of the move, the seeming illogic." But then she started asking around. And she found a lot of smart, motivated, passionate, entrepreneurial academics who had done just that. As another author wrote for Times Higher Education "erosions of resources, autonomy, flexibility, vision, and respect for learning . . . [were] beginning to force a generation of scholars out of the field."

Whether these scholars are going to start their own businesses or pursue a cause like "Open Access" or go work for some national organization, these folks were happy to give up the golden handcuffs of tenure. It allowed them to move around and pursue the things they were most passionate about. As one Pomona professor who left to work for the Modern Language Association explained, "It allowed me to do work at a much larger scale and a national level where it might have some impact beyond my specialized field. I could actually do the things I had been writing should be done. That seemed way more important than lifetime job security." Another professor who left Cornell and now works on historic preservation noted the obvious: "Out in the world it's normal to change jobs several times."

In the end, Trubek is convinced that leaving is the right decision. And she makes some observations about the people who think this decision is odd. 

To frame the question as "Why leave? Who does that?" as I did—and as the articles I mentioned do—reveals a certain exceptionalism and a tinge of arrogance. It is a job, being a tenured professor. Just a job. Why not leave?

And so I will. I may still teach at my old college, but I will resign my position as a tenured professor. It would have been an unthinkable move for me when I received tenure; now it seems not only imaginable but obvious. My interests have evolved, and I am simply moving along with them. 

What these professors have in common is a sense that though they won't have the same job for many years, they are confident enough in their own work ethic and talent that they will get another job. They seem okay with the idea of not knowing how they are going to spend the next 30 or 40 or 50 years of their lives. Of course, the sad part is that it's probably the most talented professors who feel like it's a good idea to get out. But what would happen if we got rid of tenure? Wouldn't we encourage more of these entrepreneurial types, the risk-takers, to go into academia in the first place?

2 thoughts on “The tenure trap”

  1. Lenore Ealy says:


    Your challenge not to neglect the role of the collegium is welcome, but I think it calls us to re-think the meaning of collegium as well. More in terms of an association entailing rights and responsibilities, both on the part of the member and the group. Job security has very little place in considerations of academic tenure in my opinion and distances the professoriate from real world economic reality. Surely in the politicized university of today, however, we have to consider also in what academic freedom consists and what is its purpose? I see no reason why tenure is needed for academic freedom as long as the collegium maintains due process and there is some consideration given in governance structures to rigorously strengthening these processes for review and dismissal when there are lay administrators and trustees involved in personnel decisions.

    More interestingly, though, what would it look like for faculty to be once again outright owners or trustees of the educational enterprise of colleges?!
    Not asking for more “professionalism” but offering more serious decision rights linked to the mission, delivery, and economics of education?

  2. John Willson says:

    I gave up tenure in 1975, but it was in order to move to a college that had a better understanding of what I hoped to do as a teacher. This article hopeful, and it asks many of the right questions, but it ignores the collegium. I doubt if there is much of a place for an entrepreneurial liberal arts, and I would not like to be part of an academia that is even more “professionally” oriented than it is now.

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