I was never able to wrap my mind around academic tenure. Though I certainly understand the desire for "academic freedom," a system that provides an "unfireable" designation, regardless of job performance, seems like it might have a bit of an impact on, say, job performance. Perhaps I’m just biased from my first experience with tenure: Yes Alex, we realize that 80% of students drop his course, and that he often misses lecture, and that he occasionally shows up smelling of bourbon, but please understand: he’s a tenured professor. And by the way, that did not make me feel any better about spending $1,400 on a completely worthless class.

I’m sure that Kerin A. doesn’t have a high opinion of academic tenure, either. His first experience with it was in Web Development 101, a course instructed by a certain tenured faculty member whom I’ll call Professor Lawrence. He was "on loan" from, as he put it, one of the best and most prestigious universities in the world: a small liberal arts college that no one in the class had ever heard of.

Professor Lawrence’s first three-hour lecture focused on how great he was, how lucky everyone was to have him as the instructor, and how he was better than just about every other professor. You see, not only was Professor Lawrence an esteemed academic, but he had an extensive network of contacts in the business world that he might be willing to share with students that "made it to his good side." And getting there, he promised, would be quite a challenge: his course was practically impossible to pass.

Throughout the following weeks, Kerin realized what Professor Lawrence meant by "impossible to pass." It wasn’t that the assignments or exams were difficult; it was being able to make it through his three-hour lectures. When Professor Lawrence managed to stay on topic and not rant about his extreme political views, he’d merely read from the textbook. Verbatim. And sloooooowly.

Now I’m sure that the past few paragraphs could very well describe at least one of the professors we’ve all taken a class from at one time or another. It’s unfortunate, but with an "unfirable" policy, such abuses are all too typical. But what sets Professor Lawrence apart from most of his tenure-abusing colleagues is the Final Assignment.

For what was taught in Web Development 101, the Final Assignment was far beyond most students’ abilities. It involved working with an existing website (for some dummy company, apparently), creating a database for it, setting up database tables, adding/deleting rows from the database using forms, sending emails, and so on. Up until that point, the course had only covered HTML, CSS, and submitting HTML forms to a CGI application. Even Kerin, who had some web programming experience outside of the class, struggled with figuring out how to set up a database.

"Professor Lawrence," Kerin’s email started, "I was finally able to get a database set up, but I’m not sure if any of the other students will be able to do this. We never covered anything close to this in class."

"OK," read the professor’s reply, "please demonstrate tomorrow. Will give extra credit."

There was no sign of Professor Lawrence at the start of the following day’s class. Ten minutes passed and still no Professor Lawrence. Kerin wasn’t sure what to do, so he got up and began explaining how he was able to setup a MySQL database. And how to interact with it using PHP. And the basics of PHP programming. An hour and a half later, Professor Lawrence strolled in, waited for Kerin to finish up, and then reminded everyone of the importance of this Final Assignment. Their grades depended on its successful completion.

The next few weeks were filled with a lot of complaining, a lot of regret for not dropping the course, and a whole lot of Kerin desperately struggling to help everyone get set up. It took a lot of work, but Kerin and a handful of lucky classmates were able to mostly complete the Final Assignment. Professor Lawrence requested that they each present their approach on the last day of class.

Kerin’s project was by far the most complete: the web forms mostly worked, the email kinda worked, and the searching, well, that didn’t work at all. But still, everyone, including Professor Lawrence, was impressed. As the class ended, Professor Lawrence told Kerin that he’d need the source code. Kerin said that he’d email it once he got home, and then completely forgot to do so.

A few days later, Kerin received an email from Professor Lawrence asking again for the source code. And with all the other end-of-semester activities, Kerin completely forgot to send it again.

Over the next few weeks, Kerin received increasingly desperate emails from Professor Lawrence. In one of them, the professor said that he went back and adjusted Kerin’s course grade to an A+. And indeed, he did. It didn’t make a whole lot of sense: why would the professor so desperately want the source code so many weeks after the course had ended? Kerin shrugged it off and finally emailed back the project.

Then it dawned on Kerin. He typed in the name of the "dummy company" and, lo and behold, it was right there on the ‘net. And it looked exactly like the "existing website" that Professor Lawrence had given the class to start with. Kerin waited a few days and then checked it again. And it looked exactly like what he turned in for the Final Assignment, broken search and all.

In the years since, the website that Kerin unwittingly built has gone down. As has the company that commissioned the redesign. It turned out that they made some pretty bad choices in addition to their horrible choice of a web developer. As for Professor Lawrence, he’s still around, gracing his home university and others with his tenured presence.

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