So I've been in the midst of interview-torture lately. Tenure track jobs are most of what I applied for, with some visiting professorships and post-doc positions, but my preference is (obviously) tenure track. Well-meaning family and friends have been asking about the status of job applications, and while I appreciate the thought, a part of me hates discussing it all. There's never enough news to report, and it's fairly boring stuff. The talks do, however, give me a chance with friends and family members to explain some of this whole crazy process. Not that I'm the best to do that, having not landed a tenure track job yet, but I can speak to some of the ordeal and answer a few questions about an experience that is utterly foreign to the lucky majority of the world.
The thing is, I have a funny affinity for "shop-talk" about the academy. The university- for all the changes it has gone through, is going through, and will go through- has stood the test of time and served society quite well thus far, and I'd wager that it still has more to offer to the global community. Universities, to be sure, have also benefited from their role in the communities they serve. Being a part of the university community as an individual comes with its own rights and responsibilities, according to the role one plays there.
In the case of tenure track faculty, the responsibility is to teach their students to the best of their ability, conduct research to further the general knowledge of their professional field, and to provide service to the university community. In return, a faculty member that performs to the level expected of tenured faculty may be granted tenure after a period of time and a tenure review. Tenure itself has gotten a bad rap lately, and I'll agree that there are times when it has been abused by some faculty members. This happens in every profession, as humans are far from perfect, so I hardly feel that this requires doing away with tenure as some politicians are attempting.
Rather than protecting teachers who are not doing their job, the purpose of tenure is to protect academic freedom. Without academic freedom we risk introducing politics into research and teaching. I'm not talking about "The professor is making me learn evolution and my family doesn't agree with that" politics, I'm talking about "Let's not talk about the US when discussing sex trafficking" types of politics in education. There's a difference between disagreeing on objective and subjective matters. The protections of tenure, however, are there to ensure that teachers are not punished simply for teaching unpopular theories with significant evidence supporting them. Tenure is also to protect researchers who do controversial but worthwhile research.
This is what's exciting to me- being a part of a community that encourages and fosters critical thinking, analysis, and investigation. It's that role of the university that, in my opinion, is not yet finished. Can it be improved? Of course. But let's not throw out the baby with the bath water.