At least this story from The Boston Globe tries to define tenure, and it's a decent effort. But the story's definition goes off track:
Tenure, which requires professors to have the highest degree in their field, is a permanent job appointment designed to protect academic freedom.The problem is in the "which" clause. Not all tenure-track professors (as opposed to lecturers and adjuncts, who are typically hired from semester to semester or year to year) have the highest degree in their field. I know because I am one of them. I have a master's degree, but the highest degree in journalism and mass communication is a doctorate. I am one of several people in the journalism school at UNC-Chapel Hill whose highest degree is a master's. It's possible, but rare, to get a tenure-track job with just a bachelor's degree.
I am part of the "practice track" faculty. I have a higher teaching load than "conceptual track" faculty. That means I am in the classroom about 18 hours a week, compared with about six hours a week for my Ph.D. colleagues. My classes are hands-on skills courses such as editing; their courses tend to be lecture courses. Both formats have their own challenges and rewards.
In another part of the job, faculty members with a Ph.D. have a higher expectation for research than I do: They need to publish frequently in peer-reviewed, academic journals. I can do that too, but for us "practice track" faculty, writing articles for trade publications and the like will satisfy this part of the tenure requirements. There's a difference in what "counts."
Any newspaper article about tenure should probably include a textbox that explains what tenure is and how a professor goes about getting it — that is, doing well in teaching, service and research/creative activity.