I arrived at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government in the fall of 1972 knowing nothing about how American universities worked. As a Kennedy Scholar from Britain, I selected classes for my master’s degree based on the issues I wanted to study, paying scant attention to which professors taught the course. This was Harvard, after all, and I assumed all the teachers were competent.
I decided to take an economics course. The topic was highly germane to what I imagined at the time was my future career in the British government. Unfortunately, the course was taught by a professor who I quickly realized was past his prime.
The professor, whom I shall, out of respect, call by the pseudonym Professor Smith, was doddery, unproductive, and uninterested in student learning. Yet, because he had tenure, he was guaranteed his job for the rest of his life, despite his shortcomings. He continued to receive a substantial salary and occupy a position that should have been held by someone with much higher pedagogical standards and with much more to offer students.
Forty years have passed since I arrived at Harvard, but in the world of tenured professors, little has changed. Today, as a non-tenured member of the full-time faculty at the School of Communication at American University (with a renewable five-year contract), I better understand the complexities of this longstanding system. While tenure still has some benefits, it also has flaws that are hurting the quality of education that students receive. I believe it is time for a frank discussion about whether universities can afford to maintain the status quo. In my opinion, we cannot. It is time to rethink tenure.
The problems of tenure
The main problem with the tenure system is that lifelong job security removes the incentive for high performance. As University of Illinois professor and economist Jeffrey Brown explained in Forbes, tenure is essentially a form of job insurance. Insurance, while providing some benefits, also leads to moral hazard: the "well-established phenomenon that people behave differently when they have insurance than when they do not." My colleague Professor David Johnson wrote in a 2010 blog post, "Tenure is not an effective incentive system to breed high performance."
Because of moral hazard, professors are unlikely to work as diligently with tenure as they would without it. Teaching effectiveness and research productivity will inevitably decline, although evidence (beyond anecdotes) to prove this point is elusive, as is evidence to refute it.
Of course, many tenured professors continue to undertake groundbreaking research motivated by genuine interest in the field and by a desire to be recognized among their colleagues. Many tenured professors are also excellent teachers who take the time to nurture and develop their students, again motivated by forces outside the tenure system. However, tenure removes an essential feature of the competitive labor market: firing. Tenured professors are only required to meet basic expectations (showing up, teaching their assigned courses) to maintain their salary and status. The natural result is that some professors will work just a little bit less, and some (like Professor Smith) will stay at their jobs even after inadequacy, and even incompetence, sets in.
The tenured professor in the academic world has job security unlike any employee in the corporate or public sectors. Columbia University professor and chair of the religion department Mark Taylor asked, "If you were the CEO of a company … would you offer anybody a contract with these terms: lifetime employment, no possibility of dismissal, regardless of performance? If you did, your company would fail and you would be looking for a new job. Why should academia be any different from every other profession?"
The tenure system has its benefits
To be fair, some argue that the tenure system provides important benefits. The original intent of tenure was to create an environment of intellectual freedom where professors could pursue their research and studies without fear of censure or of losing their job if they butted heads with entrenched powerful forces (or faced persecution from hostile faculty colleagues). With complete job security, the thought was, professors would be immune to pressure from school administrators and would be better able to focus their efforts on teaching and scholarship. Students would benefit from teachers who felt free and empowered.
Many professors, including Cary Nelson, an English professor at the University of Illinois and past president of the American Association of University Professors, still argue that the tenure system serves this important purpose. Nelson argues that long-term job security is the only system that encourages professors "to stay intellectually curious and take chances with unconventional work."
Moreover, supporters of tenure argue that there is no widespread problem with incompetent or even inadequate professors. Nelson suggests that because of the large supply of qualified Ph.D.s relative to the number of teaching jobs available, bad professors do not receive tenure in the first place. Moreover, because the tenure committees know that paying the salary of a tenured professor is a long-term commitment, only "excellent," not just good, candidates receive tenure. In this way, the argument goes, the tenure system keeps professor quality high.
Other persuasive arguments for tenure include attracting talented young people into academic life (in some cases over more lucrative career possibilities) and freeing professors from the obsession of making a living (so they can focus on some esoteric field and make erudite contributions).
Where do we go from here?
There are powerful arguments on both sides of the debate. Unfortunately, it is difficult to have an honest and balanced conversation about tenure in the university setting because tenured professors — those who tend to have the most influence — have every incentive to maintain the system from which they benefit. No rational person would want to change a system that guarantees them job security for life, even though it creates incentives that tend to undermine the pursuit of excellence and encourage laxity.
I call on my fellow professors to set aside their self-interest and have an honest discussion about the merits of tenure going forward. From my perspective, it is clear that universities must reform the current system of tenure if they are serious about improving the standards of teaching and ensuring that students receive the education they paid for. But reforming the tenure system does not mean removing all job security for high-quality professors. There are middle-ground solutions that are worth discussing.
For example, professors could receive 5- to 10-year contracts and then come under review for renewal. This would allow professors a greater degree of security than many professions, while still giving incentive to keep up performance. By giving professors multiyear contracts instead of tenure for life, universities could still hold on to valuable faculty and encourage their involvement in the school while maintaining the ability to fire underperforming or unproductive faculty. Mark Taylor has suggested a variation in which after a period of three to five years, deserving faculty members should be given seven-year renewable contracts. To ease the transition to this type of new system, existing tenured faculty could be grandfathered in. As noted earlier, I have a renewable five-year contract, have been happily teaching for eight years, and have never had tenure.
Our country’s future depends on effective teaching and learning. By de-incentivizing professors to perform at the highest levels, tenure undermines the fulfillment of our core mission — student learning. We have institutionalized a system that is intrinsically inimical to excellence, and students suffer for it. At a time when America’s total student loan debt has reached one trillion dollars and an increasingly louder chorus of voices questions the cost of higher education, we cannot afford inaction.
My colleague Professor Bill Gentile puts it bluntly: "As competition for students and their dollars becomes increasingly fierce, institutions still mired in a system that impedes excellence may lag behind universities with better incentives in place. Failure to modernize the system may threaten all of our jobs."
There are countless tenured professors who are outstanding people and I have many beloved friends who are tenured professors. These professors work as hard as ever, and I am impressed by their innate commitment to excellence. At the same time, I now ask them to take a step back and ask themselves if the current system is truly the best we can do. I believe that we can do better. For the sake of our students, we must.
Chris Palmer is distinguished film producer in residence and director of the Center for Environmental Filmmaking at American University.