Moving Beyond Tenure

Moving Beyond Tenure
February 21, 2006

OK, a thought experiment.

Although tenure is still around, it seems clear to me that it’s on its way out. Higher ed hasn’t really had an open, honest discussion about that yet -- denial is one of our talents -- but it’s hard not to notice. Right now we honor tenure in the breach, by saying all good things about it while simply replacing retiring full-timers with adjuncts. It seems to me that this strategy has a natural limit. We need full-time faculty, but do we need tenured faculty?

In the corporate world, “at will” employment is the normal default mode. Under “at will,” employees can be fired at any time for any reason, or no reason, with a few legally defined exceptions (racial discrimination, say, or absence due to jury duty). “At will” is a pretty good description of the bottom of the occupational ladder, but in the credentialed ranks, there’s usually a brief probationary period followed by a system of graduated warnings. If you do something badly wrong, first you get an informal spoken warning, then a written warning, then some sort of sanction, then termination. (Layoffs are another matter, since they’re about reducing headcount rather than addressing individual performance.)   

“At will” strikes me as inappropriate for professors. The subject matter expertise required of faculty is usually quite specialized, and no rational actor would undertake such narrow specialization without some reasonable expectation of still having a job next week. Given the realities of course scheduling and the nature of semesters, it’s just not realistic to assume that people can be fired on Wednesday for looking slovenly on Tuesday. Nor would it be any way to run a college.

Tenure certainly meets the needs for security and predictability, but it does so by granting impunity and saddling a college with immovable costs for the life of the employee. (It used to expire at 70, which struck me as more than fair, but now it expires at death.) As any academic manager can tell you, once people have tenure, they’re almost completely unaccountable for their actions. Give large numbers of people absolute immunity for decades on end, sheltered from economic reality, stuck with the same peers for 30 years, and some very weird behaviors come to the fore.

(For a while, my family lived in Ann Arbor. One of our favorite games when we went downtown was pointing to badly disheveled men and asking “homeless or faculty?” Sometimes the only way to tell was to see if the shiny aluminum thing they carried was solid or foil. Even then, you couldn’t really be sure.)

Worse, locking a group in for decades on end has the unintended side effect of locking new hires out. In my academic field, for example, my current college’s last hire occurred during the Nixon administration. He’s still here. I’d venture to say that the field has moved forward since then, but you wouldn’t know it here.

When I’ve tried to engage faculty friends in this conversation, they’ve uniformly reacted with horror. “I’ve killed myself for years to get tenure! Don’t take it away now!”

Well, exactly. I don’t think tenure is the solution to abuse. It’s a root cause.

The labor surplus in academe is not new. Why does it persist? Why do smart people keep crowding into a field with relatively few jobs, shockingly low pay relative to its training period, and absolutely no idea where it’s going? Sure, teaching is fun, but lots of things are fun.

I think the siren call of tenure is the culprit.

Tenure creates a do-or-die moment 15 years into a career. What other profession has anything even vaguely like that? At least in law firms, if you don’t make partner, you have the option of putting out a shingle and starting your own practice. Most of us can’t afford to start our own colleges. After years of extended graduate training, some post-grad-school bouncing around, and more years of tenure-track teaching and writing, you are either set for life or summarily fired. No wonder people are edgy!

Colleges have responded to increased cost pressures and a huge and enduring labor surplus by raising the bar for tenure for the lucky few on the tenure track. To my mind, this pretty much guarantees increased burnout. People who’ve lived monastically for 15 years and finally get tenure often effectively retire on the spot. They start paying back the other parts of their lives, which makes individual sense, but no institutional sense.

There’s an obvious alternative out there. Every administrator I know, when pressed,  admits that the alternative is better. A surprising number of tenured faculty, when pressed, admit the same.

Long-term renewable contracts.

Hire full-time faculty to 3-to-5 year renewable contracts, with annual performance reviews. (I could imagine the initial hire being for 3 years, with subsequent renewals for 4 or 5.) It’s far more secure than anything in the corporate setting, and it allows for predictability of scheduling, in-depth course preparation, and the like. But it doesn’t allow for someone to throw in the towel at 40, and self-righteously suckle at the teat of the college for another 35 years. It would give faculty some sort of stake in the success of their programs, since contract renewal times would be natural times to make adjustments reflecting changes in enrollments. It would allow for more turnover than we have now, which means more hiring of new people.

Some might argue that post-tenure review already accomplishes this goal. It doesn’t, and it can’t. At my college, tenured faculty are reviewed on a multi-year cycle. As one of them (correctly) put it to me, I can write that they feast on the entrails of the innocent and it wouldn’t make any difference; they still have tenure, and raises are contractual and across-the-board. Other than hurt feelings, they’re bulletproof.

(Before I get barraged with “easy-for-you-to-say” comments, I’ll disclose that my job is on one-year renewable contracts, with annual performance reviews, and without tenure. I don’t even have a faculty position at my current school, despite having a Ph.D. in an academic field and having reached the associate professor rank elsewhere. So I’m not proposing anything I wouldn’t gladly accept myself.)

Most faculty, I would predict, would get renewed easily. (That’s what happens at Duke University, which uses a system like this for its "professors of the practice.") But those awful 10 percent at the bottom (the ones who use two sick days a week, or who just go AWOL without even calling in, or who last bothered updating their courses sometime around the bicentennial) could be dispatched and replaced by people who really want the job. They couldn’t just hang around and spread bitterness for decades on end.

Good new people would actually have a chance to break in, students would be spared the worst of the worst, and colleges could actually start to focus on performance. With the siren call of tenure muted, the rush to graduate school (and the resultant labor surplus) would gradually subside, bringing us closer to market equilibrium (and forcing better salaries).  

Your thoughts?


Dean Dad is the pseudonym of the author of Confessions of a Community College Dean.



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