I am now pretty firmly in the pro-tenure camp for liberal arts colleges. Loyal readers have seen me evolve from “not sure” to “probably” to “definitely.” A recent discussion among my faculty convinced me.
Here is my reasoning: I forgot about the business side of colleges. My colleagues pointed out that the financial officers of a college would be tempted to replace more experienced professors with cheap, young faculty if there were no tenure policy. Why pay someone $80,000 per year when you can pay someone $50,000 to do the same job?
I have an answer for that question, of course. Part of my reasoning is certainly self-preservation—I will be an experienced professor at some point, and I would like to keep my job. But a larger reason has to do with what is best for the college. Most liberal arts colleges are more expensive than, say, larger state universities. The liberal arts colleges’ competitive advantage centers around teaching. It would be foolish to get rid of the teaching experience when that is the main selling point.
Moreover, good teaching often comes from experimenting with your classes…and failing. The tenure policy gives a safety net for some amount of failing. Without, one or two semesters of bad student evaluations could lead to a professor being dismissed.
This is a somewhat cynical view of the administration, and I am currently fighting with some of my colleagues to keep the cynicism to a minimum. However, there is a national trend toward using cheaper adjunct professors, so I cannot quite trust the administrators on this issue yet.