Is the institution of tenure supportable? No, but not for the reasons you may think. Routine complaints about iron-clad job security and lack of accountability miss the point. But so do pleas for academic freedom from outside (and largely notional) political forces. The real danger of tenure is that it threatens academic freedom instead of protecting it.
The issue is now more acute than ever because financial stresses have created a situation in which normal academic job competition and jockeying for position have been raised to a fever pitch, a desperate scramble among scores of talented people for a slice of the shrinking academic pie. At the same time, public awareness of the costs of maintaining university professors has underlined a significant social change: Taxpayers no longer believe anyone, however brilliant or productive, should get a lifetime guarantee of job security. And they suspect, rightly, that many of those enjoying that privilege may not be so brilliant or productive.
But, while some professors now privately admit an opposition to tenure, many more continue to view it as their rightful inheritance, equal parts compensation for the uncertainties of graduate school and mark of professional advancement in a system where incremental rises in status are as important as pips on the collar of a subaltern. No tenured professor has any reason to criticize his gravy train. Nor does any tenure-track junior professor, sweating out the first few years of professional review. And no graduate student, criticizing academic privilege, could fend off an automatic sour-grapes reply. In any case, grad students, the academic world’s drudges, are usually too fearful to speak out. Enjoying a status somewhat less than that of the departmental janitor, they live in daily terror that the poobahs in the department will decide they are troublemakers who don’t really merit good letters of reference. Hence the cone of silence: All in all, tenure remains sacrosanct because nobody with any standing has a stake in criticizing it.
There is another major factor in tenure’s culture of belief and that is simple psychology, exacerbated by the rampant professional envy of the academic world. The main reason people want tenure is because other people have it. Many academics do not admit this, maybe not even to themselves, because standard arguments about academic freedom are available to them, arguments that make tenure’s critics look crass. Even young academics, previously the victims of exploitation, quickly become rabidly pro-tenure when they cross the bright line onto the tenure track. Though they may complain about the perfidy of their complacent elders, there is nothing that gets the goat of junior academics more than the thought that tenure might be denied them. But now try offering a few deeper objections. Who needs academic freedom in a constitutional democracy, where freedom of expression is already guaranteed? Or, more slyly, what possible objection could there be to speaking frankly about topics in which most people have utterly no interest? Most academic work, especially in the humanities, is published for an audience smaller than a successful cocktail party, and the rest falls stillborn from the press, ignored by citizen and colleague alike.
So fears of outside persecution and job endangerment are, well, pretty academic. Campus scaremongers like the Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship would have you believe that tenure is the last ditch in a trench war against crusading left-wing ideologues, unfettered postmodernists, radical feminists, committed social constructionists, and similar forces of evil. But every academic knows that far more persecution comes from petty egomaniacs, advancement-seekers, and envious colleagues within departments than from public disapproval. Tenure has no business justifying itself by reference to that kind of internal threat, which is not really about academic freedom but intramural power struggles.
Moreover, tenure hasn’t proved much protection against internal politicking, whether personal or cultural. Just ask the members of the University of British Columbia’s political science department, forced in the mid-1990s to undergo re-education programs by an internal political correctness mafia. And when public disapproval of an academic’s ideas does become an issue, on the other hand, as in the celebrated case of controversial eugenicist Philippe Rushton at the University of Western Ontario, university administrators and department heads are often lily-livered in the face of it. Tenure won’t help you if your university president decides you’re too embarrassing to keep around.
So much for the first-blush case. Are there good arguments for protecting academic freedom anyway?
Despite what bottom-line, tax-cutting ideologues say, there are. Work which appears useless may be extremely important, indeed worthy of public support, even (or especially) if it’s dedicated to questions beyond the ken of political calculation. Useless is not the same as valueless, at least in a world where use is measured largely in financial terms. But some goods, like truth and beauty, are literally priceless.
The times are not ripe for that kind of argument, of course. Nowadays people are growing increasingly impatient with appeals to higher (but invisible) goods and cultural benefits, and sure enough, some critics of tenure go so far as to argue that universities should behave like private businesses and survive in the free market or die, in which case tenure would become an inefficient human resource policy to be abandoned with alacrity. But if you argue against tenure by appealing to market pressures and productivity, you miss tenure’s real shortcomings. Because the problem with tenure isn’t that it lacks cost-effectiveness — defined reductively, universities on the whole lack that. The problem is that it doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do; namely, encourage the free speaking and innovation that scholarship allegedly is in service of.
Academic freedom becomes more important, not less, when the market dominates our calculations of worth, meaning there is more reason, perhaps, that there ought to be some kind of exemption for thinkers and writers from the crush of market imperatives and the crass utilitarianism that marks social spending.
That’s assuming that we as a society want higher learning at all and are willing, at least in principle, to support research universities with our tax dollars. Let us say, for the sake of argument, that we do want these things. We could then argue that tenure was necessary to preserve the existence, and relevance, of the useless. Like a Chinese emperor’s paid critic or Lear’s fool, tenured professors could be viewed as a thorn in the side of the state, a prickle of critical awareness and originality whose sting is in everyone’s interests. The emperor needs to know who his enemies are and what they are thinking; he also needs to know that he is limited in his knowledge and wisdom. Hence the most valuable kind of useless knowledge may be whatever is most antithetical to the desires and assumptions of the state.
Would the status quo’s academic critics, thus domesticated, feel happy? My hunch, looking around at a few of what Roger Kimball called in his rabid, eponymous book “tenured radicals,” is that they’d feel just dandy about it. Of course if academics become too domesticated they lose their relevance, which is precisely the ability to speak out harshly and tell the truth. And that undermines this entire delicate argument. Then academics are both useless and irrelevant, an unhappy but common duality in today’s universities. The paradox of tenure as a means of protecting academic freedom is this: It is only justified by someone who despises it. Tenure cherished is tenure made indefensible. It is only by living up to the challenge of telling the truth, in other words, that artificial exemption from market forces and social utilitarianism can be justified.
So there is in fact an argument for protecting academic freedom, even in a tolerant democracy like ours, but it is one that would apply to precious few of today’s academics. The point sharpens the question of whether tenuring individuals is the best way to secure academic freedom. The two issues are so intertwined now that separating them is almost impossible: attack tenure and you must be attacking academic freedom, by definition the act of a philistine.
But not so fast. There are grave dangers in investing individuals with too much significance here. The valuable principle is academic freedom, freedom for the courageous and honest to tell the truth. It is not that this or that person should be forever immune from challenge about her or his job — a confusion made into policy by various faculty associations in this country, who rationalize defending the unworthy individual by referring to the “principles” behind tenure. This confusion has many deleterious effects, and anyone who has attended a university is familiar with them. The problem, as we all know, isn’t really tenured radicals — would that there were more of them. The problem is tenured mediocrities, of whom there are all too many.
Unfortunately, but to nobody’s surprise, the institution of tenure tends to make academic departments conservative. Since tenure decisions are made by senior faculty, all of them tenured themselves, there is a natural tendency to reproduce the status quo. Academics deny this, but their acts betray them. Arguments about “the standards of the profession” and the “fixed criteria of good scholarship” look increasingly strained as those who narrowly conform are rewarded while those who deviate are punished.
The genuine threat to academic freedom, as every junior professor knows at heart, comes not from the world at large but from the senior faculty who hold the keys to job security and status. This threat is usually ignored because it concerns those clinging to the lowest rung of the academic ladder: graduate students and junior faculty. But there is a debilitating effect on young minds when conformity counts more highly than originality. Junior faculty emerge, shaken, from their three-year review meetings, coping with the assessment of their progress to tenure. Have they published enough journal articles? Are they the right kind of articles? In the right kind of journals? Have they served on enough committees? Have they, most of all, sufficiently impressed the departmental power-brokers with their malleability, deference, and ability to echo the opinions of their seniors?
It would be wrong to suggest that there is no element of objective quality assessment in this process, of course, or indeed that all judgments of success within a discipline are reducible to judgments of conformity. They are not, and originality without rigor is not scholarship but modishness. Yet if departments and disciplines, like all corporate structures, do have an in-built tendency to recreate themselves in their own image, truly original thought will frequently fail to fit the bill. It is a rare tenure committee that is willing to approve “non-standard” career paths.
This is especially so now that competition for academic jobs is at an all-time high. You can sample the fear created by this tight employment market by visiting the annual December meetings of the Modern Language Association, the American Philosophical Association, or any of the other big disciplinary professional groups. Here job candidates haunt the hallways like the academic undead, proffering their unwanted résumés to anyone with a heartbeat. Some tenure-committee members realize that they would not survive a nanosecond in the crucible of today’s job market, and the resulting insecurity sometimes leads them, perversely, to be even harder on their juniors.
The resulting strain on junior academics is considerable. You will frequently hear them speak of their “vulnerability” or offer an impending tenure review as excuse for lacking a social life. You cannot blame them, indeed it is only rational, if they begin to retrench and try to pump out the sort of articles that will look good on their curriculum vitae. Give them credit: they will do their best to be original, to break some new intellectual ground. But it will not be — it cannot be — their chief concern.
The point of the institution of tenure, its only possible point, is intellectual innovation. The justification for removing academics from the hurly-burly of market forces, the nearly insane imperatives of capital, is that it gives them the breathing room to be original without fear of economic reprisal. We as a society need that free speaking, for not all good thought is popular thought. We want our scholars to pursue the true and the interesting without having to calculate the results in terms of economic use-values. Even the fact that many fail to make the most of it should not reflect badly on the institution — as long, that is, as there exist a few who take the opportunity seriously, who use their freedom to challenge and to lead. As it stands, too few are doing that to justify the self-satisfied majority.
Mark Kingwell is professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto and the author of 12 books, including A Civil Tongue (1995), Concrete Reveries (2008), and Glenn Gould (2009). A version of this essay appeared first in Academic Matters, the journal of the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations.
The single most important structural change in higher education over the last two generations has been the massively increased reliance on faculty teaching intensively in contingent positions — 33 percent in 1975, 66 percent 30 years later in 2005, roughly 70 percent now. No other reform means anything unless we can obtain job security and academic freedom for the majority of college teachers. It will require solidarity from tenured faculty.
The only true solidarity among current faculty members requires granting tenure to all long-term contingent faculty members. All. One hundred tenured slots for 9,500 contingent faculty members is not solidarity. It’s a mud-wrestling contest with tenure as a prize. Nor does a tiered division between two classes of faculty — 50 percent tenured and 50 percent expendable, or 75 percent tenured and 25 percent contingent — constitute the principled structural change we need. What do we gain if we set as our ideal the permanent diminishment of most of our colleagues’ lives? What good is a compromised ideal? Why congratulate ourselves for selling out?
The only goal worth fighting for is full justice for all who teach. No solution that throws most existing faculty serving in contingent positions under the bus is acceptable. Solidarity is not a weasel word. It’s not about compromising with power. It’s about reaching out to the disempowered and offering them hope. Every other year some two hundred contingent, sessional, or precarious faculty from North America — the titles vary by country — gather together at a COCAL meeting to share their strategies for reform. Most have spent their working lives being eaten alive by the higher education industry. And yet they have held onto their humor, their charm, and their pedagogical passions. I cannot betray them. Nor will the American Association of University Professors do so. In its new policy paper — "Tenure and Teaching Intensive Appointments" — the AAUP recommends that all long-term contingent faculty members be granted tenure.
Since tenure can be awarded to both part-time and full-time faculty members — a person could have tenure at a less than full-time percentage appointment -- the AAUP’s proposal carries no necessary cost. It does not, in all honesty, guarantee faculty members a living wage. But it does give them the job security they need to advocate for better working conditions without fear of reprisal, and it eliminates the sometimes crippling stress accompanying at-will employment. It gives all faculty access to shared governance, including the ability at most institutions to serve on curriculum committees, so that the folks who do the teaching will actually have a say in course planning and development, something that has always been a fundamental AAUP principle. It goes a tremendous distance toward unifying the faculty and reinvigorating faculty solidarity. And because -- unlike conversion proposals that call for full-time appointments for all -- it does not cost money, tenure-for-all can be promoted on the basis of principle alone.
Some administrators will no doubt respond with calls for flexibility in hiring, but the adjunct army that teaches composition, math, and introductory foreign language courses is not providing services likely to prove unnecessary in any imaginable future. Administrators may come and go, but the adjunct army persists. The AAUP’s new statement, it is important to note, supports a traditional probationary period before tenure is awarded. That probationary period provides sufficient time to decide whether a given set of teaching responsibilities will be fleeting or permanent. Meanwhile, thousands of faculty members serving in contingent positions — some of them for a decade or two or more — have effectively "passed" their tenure review by virtue of being hired back year after year. Future part-time hires would undergo appropriate peer review during their probationary period.
Would administrators simply terminate their adjunct army, rather than tenure them? The very size of the long-term adjunct cohort in many systems makes that impractical. The practical educational and administrative consequences of suddenly jettisoning many of an institution’s experienced faculty members would be considerable. Demands for comprehensive conversion to full-time positions would be another matter, which once again demonstrates why the alternative demand for tenure is more realistic. The AAUP’s proposal, paradoxically, is at once modest and revolutionary. Of course its implementation would still benefit from solidarity with tenured faculty.
"Solidarity" is the original rallying cry of worker-empowered union organizing. Its invocation recalls generations of consciousness-raising, of group identification, of class interest recognition, of bodies risked and bodies broken. There were times when the call for solidarity could not overcome racial divisions, when the discourse of solidarity could not link black and white bodies arm in arm. And there were times when it could. Solidarity encompasses the ideological glue that held groups together. It is the concept that gave courage and meaning to imperiled, solitary souls on those most lonely of union nights. Here is Sterling Brown’s “Sharecroppers,” first published in 1939 in Get Organized: Stories and Poems about Trade Union People:
When they rode up at first dark and called his name,
He came out like a man from his little shack.
He saw his landlord, and he saw the sheriff,
And some well-armed riff-raff in the pack.
When they fired questions about the meeting,
He stood like a man gone deaf and dumb,
But when the leaders left their saddles,
He knew then that his time had come.
In the light of the lanterns the long cuts fell,
And his wife’s weak moans and the children's wails
Mixed with the sobs he could not hold.
But he wouldn’t tell, he would not tell,
The Union was his friend, and he was Union,
And there was nothing a man could say.
So they trussed him up with stout ploughlines,
Hitched up a mule, dragged him far away
Into the dark woods that tell no tales,
Where he kept his secrets as well as they.
He would not give away the place,
Not who they were, neither white nor black,
Nor tell what his brothers were about.
They lashed him, and they clubbed his head;
One time he parted his bloody lips
Out of great pain and greater pride,
One time, to laugh in his landlord’s face;
Then his landlord shot him in the side.
He toppled, and the blood gushed out.
But he didn’t mumble ever a word,
And cursing, they left him there for dead.
He lay waiting quiet, until he heard
The growls and the mutters dwindle away;
“Didn’t tell a single thing,” he said,
Then to the dark woods and the moon
He gave up one secret before he died:
“We gonna clean out dis brushwood round here soon,
Plant de white-oak and de black-oak side by side.”
If we take Brown’s poem as a fable for our own time, we know well who our landlords are and why their will and their power must be resisted. We know what brushwood must be cleared. And we know that on campus it is contingent and tenured teachers who must flourish side by side. These are the values we take on when we dare to speak the name of solidarity. It signifies a history and a tradition we would do well not to betray.
There is nothing, to be sure, that limits solidarity to union organizing. Historically it has been used to describe kinship bonding in preindustrial societies. All of us will recall it as the graphic and verbal emblem of the Polish struggle to free themselves from Soviet domination. The Polish struggle began as a trade union movement in 1980 and then became something more. Solidarity unionism — a concept translated into action in the United States by the Industrial Workers of the World or IWW after its1905 founding — promoted the idea that workers should take direct action against a company without paid union representation. Solidarity may thus very well refer to exactly what faculty serving in contingent positions need — direct action unmediated by union hierarchy.
For the immediate question for those of us in academe is clear: Will the call for solidarity link temporary and tenured bodies? Will it link the academic workforce behind principles of job security, fair wages, and necessary benefits for all? Are there examples of solidarity in action powerful enough to hail all of us?
Contingency has been the most gradual of the changes shaping higher education. Faculty members serving in contingent positions had slowly but inexorably come to dominate higher education's teaching workforce over 40 years. Not that they dominate anything else, for their authority anywhere in the industry -- from the classroom to administration to governing boards -- could hardly be less. For half a century tenure had been the key guarantor of academic freedom. Now tenure is available only to a minority of faculty members.
It was not long ago that I would have said very little evidence exists to show that tenured faculty members gave a damn about anyone else. But then I visited an AFT local in southern Illinois, and the tenured faculty talked proudly about making salary increases for contingent faculty the first priority in their most recent contract negotiations. It wasn’t an altogether popular plan at first. But once it succeeded, everyone became an advocate. No one ever said solidarity was easy.
The challenge of solidarity became still more acute over the last year, as real or imagined budget crises gave administrators the will to cut positions and salaries. Forced with a furlough demand, the AAUP local at the University of Northern Iowa reopened its contract negotiations. The union accepted furloughs, but only on condition no adjunct positions be cut. Faced with similar demands, California Faculty Association activists in the 24-campus California State University system confronted a bloody-minded administration that would not guarantee that furloughs could be traded for job security. Tenured CFA members agonized, then voted for the furloughs in solidarity with their contingent brothers and sisters. In the end, the Cal State administration cut thousands of lecturer positions anyway, thereby assuring that the union will not settle for good faith negotiations again.
In the version of late capitalism that prevails in the United States, do not expect to find such workplace solidarity outside unionized settings. The self-interested careerism that has shaped tenured faculty identity for two generations does not hold much hope for solidarity. Most tenured faculty literally do not understand the culture of contingent faculty -- the interests, priorities, values, work patterns, or social and professional relations that shape their daily lives. Thus "You are not us," the implicit rebuke of the tenured faculty to their contingent colleagues, has evolved into "we are not you," the rallying cry of part-timers themselves. In the world of part-time employment, your transient "colleagues" pass unnoticed, like ships blind to each others' passage beneath the noonday sun. Yet even that blunt metaphor is inadequate, since it entails potential daytime visibility. Some departments concentrate part-timers in evening courses. Since those faculty members only feed on the curriculum at night, they are sometimes nervously referred to as "vampires." Perhaps that is a useful provocation. If it triggers a moment of recognition, tenured faculty may realize they are our vampires. We called them up and assigned them to our darkness. They are us, the faculty.
As I argue in No University is an Island (New York University Press), at institutions relying primarily on faculty serving in contingent positions, the appearance of new faculty or disappearance of continuing faculty is often unmarked. No sense of community obtains. The college is literally not a meeting place, a space of interaction, for its faculty, many of whom may retreat to the parking lot immediately after class to travel to another teaching job. A department in an institution staffed with contingent faculty is often essentially a structure filled with nameless bodies. The campus is recognizable only through its buildings and its students. In institutions without tenure, academic freedom and shared governance are often nonexistent.
Despite all this, the AAUP believes the solution is not to abandon tenure but to grant it to everyone who has taught full-time or part-time for a standard probationary period. We’re not talking about making a few tenured slots available to faculty serving in contingent positions. We are talking about granting full-time or part-time tenure to everyone with more than six years of local teaching experience. We are urging ending contingency as we know it. The solution is to find the solidarity necessary to achieve that goal.
At many institutions, of course, the tenured and contingent faculty already have largely identical responsibilities. Major research universities may, however, respond that they hire adjuncts for one skill set (teaching) and award tenure on a much broader skill set (including research). That said, at COCAL IX in Quebec in 2010 I talked to a long-term University of California lecturer who was told his several books in his field amounted — as far as the university was concerned — to “nothing more than a hobby, like gardening.” Writing books was not part of his UC job description. So the “skill set” argument is sometimes dishonorable. My personal recommendation to serious research universities is this: Give long-term adjuncts tenure and then stop hiring additional faculty not tasked with the full range of faculty responsibilities.
Along with tenure must come all the components of a traditional faculty role — control over the curriculum, control over faculty hiring, authority over due process and peer review, and a structural role in budget decisions. Otherwise the corporate university still wins. It will be no good for higher education long term if contingent faculty have job security and academic freedom in the classroom without full participation in shared governance. Indeed the only reason faculty serving contingently have some classroom rights now is that the instructional workforce is too difficult to police, but forces like the assessment movement may yet change that. We need to seek comprehensive professional status for teaching intensive faculty. Anything less will create a deprofessionalized proletariat higher education workforce once called faculty members. What I once scandalously called “Comp Droids,” dedicated robotic deliverers of prepackaged, sanitized content, will become the norm not only for introductory courses but for higher education as a whole. For the slow march of contingent demographics will prevail unless we find the will to resist.
Can the existing faculty unions — dominated either by tenured faculty or by K-12 teachers who have no academic freedom — fuel the will to resistance? Not without pressure from below. That’s not to say that the AAUP, American Federation of Teachers and National Education Association have not begun to address the problem. Even flawed solutions have helped put the issues on the table, and modest goals like small-scale conversion programs can productively coexist with comprehensive tenure. The AAUP is steadily ramping up its enforcement of our 2006 revision of our Recommended Institutional Regulations No. 13, which grants long-term part-timers expectation of continued employment. But nonrenewal without due process remains the norm throughout much of the industry, and union contracts for part-time faculty have a long way to go before meaningful job security and full participation in shared governance, let alone adequate wages and benefits, are obtained. As for full-time faculty teaching contingently, the AAUP’s 1940 statement, endorsed by over 200 higher education organizations, has yet to secure for them the tenured status it guarantees. Permit me to say that seventy years of non-enforcement does not fill me with confidence. What is missing is the pressure from below that might wake everyone to the need for solidarity. We cannot look to the majority of tenured faculty for solidarity unless faculty serving in contingent positions are willing to make daily life difficult for everyone on campus, to make business as usual impossible.
If administrators are able either to increase the percentage of contingent faculty members in the wake of the recession or to fire long-term contingent faculty members en masse, we will leave the current crisis in much worse shape as a profession than we are now. We were already at the tipping point; the current crisis can easily take us irretrievably beyond it.
The only real solution — tenure for all who teach — would also benefit from serious collaboration, rather than competition, among existing unions representing faculty members. We would do well to see interorganizational solidarity in the form of coordinated national efforts by the AAUP, the AFT, and the NEA to organize contingent faculty.
Cary Nelson is national president of the American Association of University Professors.
The debate over the merits of faculty tenure at universities is perennial, passionate, and polarized. Supporters hold that tenure is essential if universities are to carry out their unique mission of creating, discovering, advancing and disseminating knowledge. It is vital to ensure academic freedom, required if research and teaching are to be protected from political, social, or ideological constraint. Critics charge that tenure protects unproductive faculty, maintains the status quo in academe, and diminishes the intellectual vitality of universities.
Both perspectives are correct. Tenure is crucial, but in its current form, it is also dysfunctional.
The six-year "up or out" tenure process leading to lifetime appointment, which prevails at most colleges and universities, is a product of the early decades of the 20th century. Tenure was created in response to a wave of faculty firings for research, teaching or expression of opinions deemed unacceptable by colleges, donors, business or government. The offenses cited at the time varied widely, from the teaching of evolution to opposition to World War I. One of the most telling incidents occurred at Stanford University, named after the son of railroad magnate and California Gov. Leland Stanford. A professor who championed municipalization of the railroads and an end to the low-wage Asian labor that built them was fired on the order of the Stanford board chair, Mrs. Leland Stanford. Had university boards and presidents retained this power to fire faculty at will, the situation would have rendered the mission of the university impossible. Tenure was a creative and intelligent response.
Nearly a century later, however, the problem is that tenure is both an insufficient remedy and too broad a response. It fails to protect faculty and academic freedom in times of intense political pressure when it is most needed. For example, during the 1950s McCarthy-era witch hunts, tenured faculty were fired at top universities across the country.
Tenure also fails to guard faculty who carry out the most controversial research or make politically incorrect research possible. The study of such subjects as intelligence differences by race, gender or ethnicity, for instance, has produced campus demonstrations, and faculty members who do such work are often shunned by colleagues. In these cases, tenure, at best, sustains a scholar’s employment through a career of marginalization. Indeed, it is not uncommon for departments with particular ideologies regarding a discipline to refuse to hire faculty with contrary views, or to deny them promotion or tenure.
If another stated goal of tenure is to ensure the openness of campuses to unpopular opinion, it is also insufficient to this purpose. During the Vietnam War era, for instance, many campuses, or hostile demonstrators on those campuses, barred government officials prosecuting the war.
The inescapable conclusion from these examples: While tenure has dramatically reduced the bald intrusions on academic freedom of the 19th and early 20th centuries, it has not provided universal protection against external or internal constraint.
On the other hand, of those faculty members who receive tenure, the overwhelming majority do not engage in teaching or research that is in any sense controversial. More often tenure provides a lifetime of job security not to professors whose work requires protection, but to a significant minority of "deadwood" — individuals who are unproductive, out of date, or poor in their research, teaching or institutional commitment. In this sense, tenure can not only lead to academic freedom and intellectual excellence, but can also provide license without accountability and shield low-quality academics.
So why not eliminate tenure, as many suggest? There are three compelling reasons. First, the abuses of the past far outweigh the limitations of the present. For universities to succeed, it is better that the majority who may not need the protections of tenure receive them than that the minority who do need protections be denied them. Second, evidence indicates that colleges that lack tenure develop a de facto system of lifetime appointments, in which individuals receive continuing appointment based on their longevity at the institution or personal circumstances such as a child in school or a family illness, which make separation from the institution a hardship. By contrast, tenure at least necessitates a major scholarly review and a thoughtful decision by academic colleagues regarding a faculty member’s suitability for a lifetime appointment. Third — and this is an entirely pragmatic rationale — any major institution that chose to eliminate tenure would be at a disadvantage in recruiting top faculty in the future.
In spite of all these reasons to retain tenure, it urgently needs reform. When tenure began, mandatory retirement rules at particular ages were possible. Today, these are illegal. As a result, tenured faculty can remain at the university far beyond the time in which they are effective. With no incentive or requirement for them to retire, it can be exceedingly difficult and expensive to secure their departure. In some cases, institutions have had to provide “early” retirement packages — to failing faculty in their mid-70s. Many colleges report that this problem has grown worse in the last few years, as faculty members have responded to losses in their retirement funds by staying on the job longer than they originally planned.
For universities, the cost of this situation is not primarily financial. It is their intellectual vitality, the capacity to continue to create, discover, advance, and disseminate knowledge. With scarce budget lines committed to tenured faculty who no longer produce, or whose areas of scholarly and teaching expertise have been overtaken by other subjects or approaches, it becomes impossible to hire adequate numbers of new faculty who bring an infusion of energy and fresh ideas. In a weak economy with declining university funding, the problem is particularly acute.
For the reasons already discussed, I believe it would be an error to eliminate tenure, yet faculty turnover is essential if universities are to succeed in their mission. It is time for American higher education to attempt some controlled experiments with alternatives.
I would offer one proposal: Since mandatory retirement is not possible, the length of tenure could be limited to a significant but finite number of years. A term of 30 years, for example, would ensure essential academic freedom and at the same time allow for the turnover that universities require to remain intellectually strong.
Beyond that initial term, faculty and universities can together negotiate shorter-term contracts, modified assignments, or retirement. To be sure, some faculty remain vital well into their eighth decade, maybe even beyond. Some who no longer teach or publish or advise students still contribute to their institutions in other ways. In such cases, a contract extension model could work to the benefit of both the faculty member and the institution.
Still, as life spans grow longer and early-tier benefit packages create disincentives to retire, the issue of tenured budget lines absorbed by faculty past their productive years will become all the more acute. Moreover, as American institutions face a society in transition, in which change is the new normal, and compete with increasingly powerful competitors worldwide, the need to recruit top talent will become all the more pressing. Now is the time to develop a model of tenure for the 21st century that protects academic freedom and also maintains institutional vitality.
Suppose you are an ambitious, gifted college student with a passion for your major and the potential to become a world-class college teacher. You are precisely the person parents and taxpayers want to be teaching tomorrow’s students. Furthermore, private and public spending per college student has grown faster than median household incomes for the past three decades, suggesting that people are willing to pay more for your services. You want this career, parents/taxpayers want you to have this career, and they are willing to pay for it; what wonderful prospects!
During your undergraduate studies you were introduced to several luminaries in your field who receive considerable attention from the news media and are often on the lecture circuit. They are well-known for their six-figure salaries and commanding positions in your discipline. So far, it’s all good. Except …
Unfortunately, the luminosity of the luminaries has nothing to do with their teaching prowess; it is entirely due to their scholarship. There is a thriving market for senior scholars in higher education -- a market that brings plenty of release time from teaching, along with high salaries and fame.
There is no corresponding market for world-class teachers. No one in higher education becomes famous or well-compensated for exceptional teaching. How could this happen, since the students, parents, and taxpayers (those who pay the bills) have only a passing interest in research, but an abiding and personal stake in high-quality teaching?
Before we address that question, it is important to note there are many social benefits to be derived from an efficient market for senior scholars; the existence of that market is not the problem. Only spite and envy would ban the market for scholars as some ill-conceived “fix” for the imbalance between teaching and research. The correct response is to learn why we have a market for scholars and no market for teachers.
The critical reason why one market exists and the other does not is the information available to potential employers. Potential employers of professors have sufficient information to judge scholarly productivity, but virtually no information that would allow them to judge teaching productivity.
Institutions seeking to hire exceptional scholars can identify productive scholars at other institutions. The information they need is provided by outside sources that are independent of the scholar’s home institution, the scholar in question, and the potential employer. That information comes from the journals where the scholar publishes, books they’ve written, citations by other scholars, and their reputation among other scholars in the field.
None of this information exists for gifted teachers, and as a consequence, a potential employer seeking gifted teachers cannot identify those candidates. This creates a real problem for the potential employer. The teacher’s home institution may know who is an exceptional teacher and who is not, but too many institutions don’t even bother to find out.
If the potential employer makes an offer to a candidate and that candidate is in fact a gifted teacher, the home institution will make a counter offer. If the candidate is in fact a poor or average teacher, the home institution will not make a counter offer and the potential employer is likely to hire a poor or average teacher. This leads to what economists call “adverse selection” for job offers to potential teachers. Since the prospective employer knows it is likely to hire a poor or average teacher rather than an exceptional teacher, it does not make offers designed to attract exceptional teachers, and the market for exceptional teachers does not exist. Clearly, this problem is made worse by tenure, since tenure greatly increases the cost of making a bad hiring decision. In short, the “market for superior teaching” has unraveled due to insufficient information about teaching quality.
What does this mean for our prospective college teacher? First, he or she will not be able to find a Ph.D. program that specializes in preparing world-class college teachers; all the Ph.D. programs try to produce scholars, even when their own faculty members are not good enough to adequately train a new scholar. Most of these second- and third-tier Ph.D. programs could succeed in training teachers, but they do not because all the rewards in the faculty tenure and promotion process go to scholarship.
Second, the lack of a market for teaching creates a real dilemma for a new Ph.D. starting an academic career. If he starts his career on the teaching track, his future employment opportunities are limited to the teaching track since it is the information attached to research output that enables outside job offers and he will not have time to do research. Further, if he gets tenure through teaching, he will never be able to move to another comparable institution with tenure; the tenured teacher is stuck at his home institution and his employer knows he is stuck. On the other hand, if he starts on the research track, there is a chance he can move up the quality rankings, gaining more salary and fame if he succeeds as a researcher.
Now, suppose we have two fully informed young people: one aspires to be a world-class scholar and the other aspires to be a world-class teacher. They are about to make their career choices. The fully informed potential scholar chooses an academic career and the fully informed potential teacher decides to apply her talents to some other career. The few talented potential teachers who choose college teaching careers are those who derive significant personal satisfaction from teaching (despite the lack of public acclaim or financial rewards) or are very risk-averse (they crave the economic security provided by a tenured position).
What does this mean for college prices and quality? Since there are few rewards for teaching, faculty members focus too much on scholarship. Rather aspiring to be well-balanced teacher/scholars, faculty members become slaves to scholarship. We have a similar result for institutions. “Mission creep” among colleges and universities is partially due to the imbalance in the rewards for teaching and research. Colleges and universities try to become research institutions, rather than world-class undergraduate teaching institutions. As great teachers are discouraged from becoming professors, and as professors are discouraged from focusing on teaching, undergraduate teaching quality declines steadily over time.
Some may argue that an active research agenda improves teaching quality, but the evidence proves otherwise. A meta-analysis of the studies looking at the relationship between research and teaching by John Hattie and H. W. Marsh finds that they are completely unrelated. Nor is it hard to imagine why -- more research means less time for teaching.
Why has this obvious imbalance existed for so long? First, the average faculty member has nothing to gain from correcting the problem. This is obvious if the average faculty member is a scholar, but, it is also true if the average faculty member is a teacher, as the average teacher is by definition not a world-class teacher (out of the entire population of potential teachers, the current system weeds out a disproportionate share of good teachers and encourages the rest to focus on research, meaning that the current crop consists of below-average teachers).
Further, teaching institutions have little incentive to correct the problem. If they compete for students by publicly promoting their exceptional teachers, they run the risk of having those teachers hired by another institution, and they strengthen the teacher’s negotiating position with respect to the institution. In other words, recognizing the exceptional teachers increases their mobility and raises the probability they will be hired by others. Even among teaching institutions, colleges do not invest in the personal reputations of individual teachers; they always tout the high-quality teaching of their faculty as a group (everyone is above average). While there are a plethora of campus teaching awards and recognitions, they count for little outside their home institutions. Prospective employers know that most institutions do not make a serious attempt to measure individual value added and that leads teaching awards to be more political than they should be.
Even if the home institution sincerely wants to compete on the basis of high-value-added teaching, it has no way of changing the environment it operates in. If it is the only institution to identify and promote their exceptional teachers, those teachers can be lured away by other institutions, and the rest of the faculty will resent the recognition given to exceptional teachers (current teaching awards do not lead to this behavior because no one knows what a teaching award at different institution signifies).
What Can Be Done?
The “holy grail” of higher education reform should be the creation of a market for exceptional college teachers. The vigorous market for scholars provides the keys to this project. First, the information required does not have to be perfect in order for the market to be efficient (the information about scholars is not perfect). Second, the source of this information should be independent of the individual teachers, their home institutions, and their potential employers. There is great hope that the Web will be the requisite outside platform. Intercollegiate teaching tournaments are another possibility, as are digital course offerings.
The key requirement is a mechanism for excellent teachers to establish their reputations independently of those who have a vested interest in the outcome. Once that happens, teachers will no longer be filtered out of the pool of professors, as they are now. As a result, great teachers will enter the profession in greater numbers, and existing professors will have incentives to improve their teaching as well.
Robert Martin and Andrew Gillen
Robert Martin is emeritus Boles Professor of Economics at Centre College and author of The College Cost Disease: Higher Cost and Lower Quality (Edward Elgar, Ltd., forthcoming). Andrew Gillen is the research director at the Center for College Affordability and Productivity.
The following individuals have recently been awarded tenure by their colleges and universities:
Greensboro College --Michael A. Dutch, business administration and economics
Northeastern University --Luca Caracoglia, civil and environmental engineering --Rebecca Carrier, chemical engineering --Yung Joon Jung, mechanical and industrial engineering --Yingzi Lin, mechanical and industrial engineering --Hossein Mosallaei, electrical and computer engineering --Shashi Murthy, chemical engineering