The Texas Senate passed SB 18, a bill to end tenure at public universities. The University System of Georgia seems determined to avoid a full restoration of tenure’s protections. And, everywhere, Republican governments—not to mention faculty members and faculty hopefuls—are paying attention to the escalating campaign against tenure.
Now is the time for supporters of tenure to fight all fights—even seemingly minor ones regarding terminology. As someone who teaches employment law, I’m often dismayed by the language thrown around by tenure’s critics.
Consider, for example, the phrases “job for life” and “permanent position” that critics of tenure love to use. This language has driven me up the wall and into an entirely new area of research. It’s omnipresent, operates in a quasi-legal register and carries a powerful punch, even when it is wrong.
Even supporters or neutral commentators sometimes use this kind of language.
I suspect that supporters simply mean to convey that tenured employment departs from usual employment practice in the United States—which, to be clear, it does. Most employees can quit or be fired for good reason, bad reason or no reason at all (anything except an illegal reason). You can be fired for supporting a football team your boss doesn’t like, and you can quit because it’s a Wednesday. (Who hasn’t wanted to do that?) This is known as the “at will” model of employment.
Tenure departs from this default rule because it requires employers to articulate reasonable grounds for firing an employee. Because grounds that are reasonable can rarely be identified instantaneously and without some due process, tenure also often effectively imposes a “notice” requirement that allows employees a chance to respond.
But phrases like “job for life” and “permanent position” are big, impactful declarations. They don’t just suggest that tenure is different from standard practice: they scream that tenure is categorically unique. That, legally speaking, is simply untrue.