Earlier this month, the board of trustees at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary brought the national debate over tenure home to Texas. By a unanimous vote, they decided to end the tenure program at Southwestern, and set in motion the process to make that happen.
Southwestern is hardly the first school to make this move. In Trust has followed schools that have made this decision in the past. Sometimes it’s part of a larger, radical change -- such as when Lexington Theological Seminary “declared financial exigency, terminated tenure, and announced plans for a new model of theological education.” Other times, it’s a response to board members questioning tenure’s necessity -- a foreign concept for most businesspeople.
I don’t know the reasoning behind the decision at Southwestern, but it’s safe to assume that at least some faculty members are none too happy about it. In higher education, tenure is not just a hot-button topic; it’s the hot-button topic. Academics work very hard to land tenure-track positions, with job security the big pay-off for long nights studying and writing, all those student loans, and the financial sacrifice of starting a career later in life. Taking that away feels like a betrayal.
But higher ed is changing, and as seminary leaders dare to imagine the future of theological education, I expect more and more schools will pull tenure down from its pedestal for closer inspection. The next generation of scholars is certainly expecting it. For example, see Intervarsity’s Emerging Scholars blog for the post titled “Is a Tenure-Track Job a Futile Dream?”
For business-minded board members, ending tenure can seem like a no-brainer. Job stability is a thing of the past in most industries, and most people change careers several times in a lifetime. What’s so wrong about replacing tenure with renewable contracts? Those who have done so say “nothing,” but eliminating tenure is sure to affect a school’s academic culture -- and I suspect it will require some careful management to maintain the academic culture that has presumably proved valuable in the past.