When I began my career as a professor, I worked as an adjunct. There are many downsides to being an adjunct, not the least of which is that employment is entirely contingent. That is, an adjunct can be let go simply by not offering a contract for the next semester. It is also not uncommon for adjuncts to begin work with only the promise of a contract-a promise that sometimes turns out to be empty.
After being an adjunct, I became a visiting professor. This is rather better than being an adjunct, since it comes with better pay, benefits and the contract length is longer (a year or sometimes longer). However, visiting professorships are (by their very nature) limited in duration. Visiting professors also do not, as visiting faculty, earn tenure.
After being a visiting professor, I was able to get into a tenure track line and eventually earned tenure. There are various misconceptions about tenure, such as the notion that tenured faculty cannot be fired. This is not true-tenured faculty can be fired. Unlike contingent faculty, a tenured faculty member can not be simply let go. Rather, a tenured faculty member can only (in general) be fired for cause.
While tenure is presented as its detractors as a means by which inept faculty can avoid being fired as they coast towards an easy retirement, this is not its intended or actual purpose. One purpose of tenure is to serve as an incentive for success. That is, if a faculty member works hard for the better part of a decade and achieves professional success, then she can get the security of tenure. Naturally, this is not as lucrative as the rewards ladled out to comparable levels of success in the financial or business sectors-but people who go into academics tend to have somewhat different values. To steal a line from the folks who argue relentless against depriving the wealthy of even a fraction of their wealth, to remove tenure would punish success and destroy incentive. After all, if the job creators would be broken and demoralized by tax increases, then presumably the faculty would also be broken and demoralized by the loss of tenure. But perhaps significant incentives are only fit for the job creators and no one else.
A second reason for tenure is to protect academic freedom. Once a faculty member has tenure, then she has a degree of protection that can allow her to express intellectual ideas without (much) fear of being simply disposed of in retaliation. To be honest, once a person has spent years grinding away towards tenure, she has obviously learned to work within the system. One rarely sees a faculty member suddenly emerging from the caterpillar state of being tenure earning to become a radical butterfly once getting tenure. However, tenure still serves a valuable purpose by protecting intellectual freedom more than a lack of tenure would.
As might be imagined, some are opposed to tenure. These people tend to favor the business model of academics in which one key goal is to reduce labor costs. By removing tenure, faculty can be let go and replaced with cheaper faculty as needed. Also, faculty perceived as “troublesome” (such as union organizers) could be fired, thus reducing the threat of a powerful faculty union.
Some people also oppose tenure on more philosophical grounds. One common view is that employers should have the right to fire employees at any time, even without cause or reason. Going along with this view, obviously enough, is the idea that employees do not have any right to be employed. Interestingly enough, many of the same folks who hold this view also contend that the risk-takers in business should have the chance for massive rewards because of the risks they take. Interestingly, they seem to fail to see that people working without job security are rather big risk takers. After all, everyday is a day they risk being fired because their employer wants to cut expenses to boost profits.
Folks who support this view often tend to point to live outside of academics where most workers lack job security. A standard refrain is “why should tenured faculty have the job security that other workers lack?” But, a better question might be “why should other workers lack the opportunity to earn the job security that faculty enjoy?”