Students at Georgetown — and at most universities — study with a variety of types of professors: tenured profs, tenure-track profs, visiting profs, distinguished profs in the practice of whatever, adjunct profs, administrator-profs and teaching assistants. What does it all mean?

At the core of any university in the United States is the tenured professoriate – those individuals who have been granted lifetime employment with the university. But tenure does not come easily. Scholars have to qualify for it through their research and publications and must be reviewed and approved by their peers. Young scholars are hired in tenure-track positions and usually have seven years to produce a book (not just any book, but one published by a prestigious university press) or articles in prominent academic journals. Historians and many social scientists do mostly books; economists, scientists and some varieties of political scientists write articles.

Teaching is important, of course, in the tenure decision (and student evaluations are considered in an assessment of a prof’s teaching), as is service to the university. But the most important thing is research and the standing of a scholar in his or her particular field. Even the best and most popular teachers are not likely to get tenure if they do not produce high-quality publications – something that I am sure confuses students who see the teaching but not always the research.

This whole process of tenure is a bit like the medieval guild system – years of often low pay, “apprenticeship,” (and the terror associated with not making tenure) and finally the production of a masterpiece and a decision by the members of the guild to accept or reject the applicant.

What happens if someone does not get tenure?

Usually, he or she must leave the university at the end of seven years and find a job at another university or outside of the academy. It’s pretty terrible for a scholar when this happens, so universities – at least this one – try to hire scholars with strong prospects for making tenure and try to help them along through mentoring. (Only about half of junior professors at Stanford get tenure; almost none get it at Harvard or Yale.)

What happens after tenure? With job security, do profs stop working and laze around? Not that I have noticed. Most have chosen to be profs because they are fascinated with ideas, with their discipline, with their particular niche in the discipline – and usually because they like teaching. They haven’t chosen to be a prof because of the salary (low), the prestige in U.S. society (also low) or because they like to take siestas in the afternoon (where?).

But having tenure nonetheless gives a prof a lot of authority over what he or she does and makes for a very peculiar management environment in a university. It’s difficult for even the president of a university to order a tenured professor to do anything, because he or she can just say no. Of course, professors are expected to teach and do committee work, and they do. But what makes a university work is voluntary collaboration, good will and trust, much more so than in government or business.

But why the tenure process in the first place? It is an effort to protect academic freedom for scholars who may take positions that are unpopular with the public, the administration of the university or their peers. And such freedom is essential to healthy debate and unconventional research and writing. Tenure is often attacked as archaic, unnecessary, excessively secretive and, at times, arbitrary. But it shows no signs of going away.

In theory, most of the teaching in a university should be done by tenured or tenure-track profs – what we call the “ordinary” faculty at Georgetown (though we certainly don’t think of ourselves as ordinary).

But that is not the case on the Hilltop or almost anywhere else, for that matter, according to recent studies. Universities are also populated with non-tenured faculty. Some are visiting professors who come for a year or two, often from a university in another country that has a special relationship with Georgetown, or who are young scholars filling in for tenured professors on leave.

There are also a number of adjunct professors, individuals who have often had interesting experiences as practitioners. They are familiar with the scholarly literature in their particular field and are able to communicate it in the classroom. They can bring a perspective to teaching that scholars who have never worked outside the academy cannot.

So why not just hire visiting or adjunct faculty for teaching? They are usually not scholars with an in-depth grasp of the history, ideas, controversies and new discoveries — as well as gaps — in their discipline that comes with years of research and writing. As a result, they are not as well positioned to set curricula, guide students to the frontiers of their discipline or make judgments on hiring and promoting other faculty. And, as visitors, they do not have the investment in Georgetown that is essential for a professoriate with responsibilities for building and delivering a curriculum over a period of time.

Universities are complex and sometimes confusing places because they are living communities rather than organizations that employees visit for part of the day. And universities have very peculiar modes of authority and governance. It’s amazing they work or, at least, that they seem to.

Carol Lancaster is an associate professor of politics and the director of the Mortara Center for International Studies. Behind the Podium runs every other Tuesday.

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