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.
If a report issued Thursday gains momentum, the tenure clock -- and many other things about faculty career paths -- could see significant changes.
The American Council on Education released the report, which attacks what David Ward, president of the council, called the "rigidity" of the tenure system. The report warns that unless colleges become more flexible about how professors are recruited and what is expected of them, they will lose much of the best talent -- especially women.