Keep Tenure. Our Civilization Depends Upon It

 

Megan thinks we should end the barbaric practice:

The arguments for academic tenure have always struck me as pretty weak, and more to the point, transparently self-serving. The best you can say of the system is that it preserves a sort of continuity in schools that is desireable for the purposes of cultivating alumni donations. But the cost of such a system is simply staggering.

Consider what the academic job market now looks like. You have a small elite on top who have lifetime employment regardless of how little work they do. This lifetime employment commences somewhere between 35 and 40. For the ten-to-fifteen years before that, they spend their lives in pursuit of the brass ring. They live in poverty suck up to professors, and publish, for one must publish to be tenured. It’s very unfortunate if you don’t have anything much worth saying; you need to publish anyway, in order to improve your chances. Fortunately, for the needy tenure seeker, a bevy of journals have sprung up that will print your trivial contributions.

The grim indictment continues for several more dispiriting paragraphs. It’s true — all of it. But we should still keep tenure. Because we still need tenure. Killing off tenure is like killing off the Electoral College out of anger and frustration with everything rancid and deranged about American politics. Ending tenure is like reforming the federal courts by abolishing the Supreme Court. Nihilistic and cruel as the graduate farm can be, effete and banal as our tenured professors can become, tenure remains one of our culture’s last few outposts of real authority — a place where people are listened to and taken seriously despite being powerless. And you cannot have a civilization worthy of the name without that.

Megan decries the cost. But the formation of character that is supposed to be the purpose of a university education can never be judged rightly by the standard of efficiency or the bottom line, and neither can tenure, which removes formers of character from the profane and worldly business of performance reviews, the distraction of job insecurity, and the allure of ladder-climbing.

Megan dismisses the tenured as a small elite that rewards nonproductivity. But an economist can never capture the goods and services produced by even a merely adequate tenured professor, because his or her services usually escape quantification when they are not outright denying it, and his or her goods often do not show forth in the world for decades, if not generations.

And Megan heaps scorn on the decadent disgrace known as academic publishing. But many good articles do manage to appear here and there in those many journals that nobody reads. And many of those who write them do not write them because they are desperate for tenure. They are given tenure because they are good enough to write them.

Of course the graduate education industry is a bizarre, punishing madhouse. Is it this way because of tenure? Or is it this way because professorial jobs of any kind are being pieced out and annihilated by administrators and budgeteers who see no point in putting a coherent, collegial faculty at the head of their campus — and the serious, edifying, humane, well-integrated, and authoritative education that has the thinnest hope of issuing forth from any but such a faculty. By the numbers, higher education as a vocation is always a losing proposition. Judged from the standpoint of civilization, putting an end to tenure will only hasten its demise.

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  1. Profile Photo Contributor
    @JohnYoo

    I benefit from tenure, so I am biased. But I think it serves the valuable purpose of allowing ideas to be generated without the fear of social or political pressure. Hopefully, researchers use this freedom to explore questions wherever they go, even if (or especially if) they are unpopular. Some of the greatest contributions to thought were paradigm-shifters that went against the grain of the conventional wisdom of the day.

    That is a wholly separate question than pay. A lockstep salary system, where a professor gets tenure and then his/her salary goes up every year, no matter what they do, doesn’t make sense. Schools can, and have, based salaries on productivity (number of books and articles published, and so on) — that’s what the University of California does. A university should keep salary low during the untenured years (after all, there is far more demand from unemployed graduate students than there is supply of professor jobs) and when tenure is granted. Only after a professor publishes significant contributions to the scholarly literature should his salary go up.

    • #1
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    @JohnYoo

    Tenure might be rethought at colleges where faculty are not expected to publish but only teach.

    And whether tenure has contributed to liberal control of academia is worth thinking about. I am not sure if it would — conservatives could just as well populate a university too and favor their point of view in hiring (in fact, that might be a market response to excessive liberalism among their competitors).

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    @JimmyCarter

    There’s nothing conservative about “tenure.” It is the elimination of competition… the competition of ideas. It’s the cornerstone of why there are so few conservatives in “education.”

    “But I think it serves the valuable purpose of allowing ideas to be generated without the fear of social or political pressure.”

    So, is this an admission that colleges reward or punish someone based on their thoughts? Then what good are these schools?

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    @Cindy

    I am not a teacher or professor, but I have 25 years of experience with my children in public elementary and secondary schools, public and private colleges, and private graduate schools. In my opinion, teachers unions and tenure are two of the most negative influences on education today. At the very least they foster mediocrity, and in many cases insulate really harmful teachers from dismissal. I thought many of Megan’s points were valid, as are the positions articulated by Thomas Sowell in Inside Education (I read it years ago, an oldie but a goodie). I am wondering how many of you with positive comments about tenure actually have children in the schools?

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    @PatrickShanahan

    Seems to me that we are trying to serve two purposes with one “role”. On the one hand we want knowledgeable teachers of undergraduates. On the other, we want people to do scholarly research and publication. Tenure seems irrelevant to the first, but very relevant to the second. I suspect we are dealing with an outmoded scheme of academic job classification. Let’s solve for that, and the tenure question will probably solve itself,

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    @

    It’s a fine paean, sure, but I’m not convinced. Ideas need to be subjected to the refiner’s fire, and such a fire does not burn particularly hot in the insular halls of academia. I want academic’s ideas poked and prodded, taken apart and put together in different ways. Tenure does not encourage that. Just the opposite.

    Besides, I’ve never believed much in the appeal to authority.

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    @rr

    Upon admission to graduate school, I informed my advisor of the good news – that I would be moving on to a graduate position the following year. His response – “Hey, congratulations, that’s great. Keep your politics quiet until you get tenure.”

    Tenure for the university professor has value for conservatives for the reasons highlighted by Professor Yoo and David.

    Diane Ellis, Ed. How can this be when tenure removes accountability from the profession and results in a lot of asinine intellectuals producing work that can impact society?…

    Dr. Sowell makes a specific point to separate “research scientists” (who occupy much of university faculty tenured positions) from “intellectuals.” A tenured physics professor is different from an English professor. A research scientist has concrete, provable results/products unlike an ‘intellectual’ who only produces ideas. As Professor Yoo points out, you need to be well published as a researcher to even get tenure and as David points out; these individuals keep producing even after they get tenure. ‘Intellectuals’ and public school teachers on the other hand abuse the tenure system which leads to indolence and nonsense.

    “[Our Universities] are the best at what they do, and what they do is research.” -Thomas Sowell.

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    @DanielAdamMurphy
    John Yoo: But I think it serves the valuable purpose of allowing ideas to be generated without the fear of social or political pressure. Hopefully, researchers use this freedom to explore questions wherever they go, even if (or especially if) they are unpopular. Some of the greatest contributions to thought were paradigm-shifters that went against the grain of the conventional wisdom of the day.

    I’d have an easier time agreeing if the granting of tenure wasn’t a process so dominated by politics, and so susceptible to weeding out those who don’t subscribe to all the right—er, correct—orthodoxies.

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    @

    Oh brother.

    Universities are businesses supplying a product. Tenure is nothing other than the post-secondary version of seniority in the highly unionized K-12 school system. It promotes ossification, inflexibility, redundancy, inflated cost structures and politics. Beyond that it is the ultimate stakeholder-based governance system concerned with nothing other than self-preservation. It create an inverted pyramid where the professors rule supreme and the students are a barely tolerated pestilence.

    Corporate America has been crying in the wilderness for years (read the Spellings Commission report) that the current system produces job seekers qualified for nothing that needs doing.

    There is nothing that goes on in universities that cannot thrive and be made better by market forces. There is a government market for research, there is some market for academic texts and so they will be written. Published authors and celebrated minds create prestige that attracts undergraduates and so the great, productive minds will find a ready market for their services.True, it might make professorship a less cushy job — maybe not so many conferences, but that is a good thing.

    The notion that permanent job security is a necessary condition for great thoughts to flourish is ridiculous.

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    @DuaneOyen

    I think that some form of tenure is important, but you can make a serious argument that some type of reform should be applied as well. In certain areas it is prone to inappropriate political manipulation. There should be some objective criteria- beyond pure publication- that are added to ensure that the ideological buddy system doesn’t rule, and that weight is given to outstanding teaching as much as research. Teaching is always given short shrift- um, isn’t a key purpose of a college, ya know, instruction? For example, why not add an outside-institution committee (local business leaders, etc.) to review tenure cases as an added vote, including sending observers to lectures?

    And the saddest statement ever made was “”Hey, congratulations, that’s great. Keep your politics quiet until you get tenure.” Until that is not an all-too familiar and believable comment, public university legislatures should “meddle” by withholding state funds unless their schools better reflect the sensibilities of the populations (and I say that as an employee of a public university who also knows how idiotic some legislators can be; but when it goes too far, you try anything).

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    @rr

    http://www.nationalreview.com/phi-beta-cons/231222/further-update-professor-howell-university-spins

    True Duane. And I can tell you from personal experience that at major research institutions, teaching means absolutely nothing in comparison to number of publications. The students certainly suffer from that kind of mentality.

    If you haven’t heard already, here is an article on the sad situation involving Dr. Kenneth Howell at the University of Illinois. This is what happens when non-tenured professors live, speak, and teach their beliefs.

    The university mode of operation is reduced to a pathetic McCarthyism of the new political correctness. I’m afraid to inform you that individual liberty and constitutionally enumerated freedoms, once the beacon and rallying cry of the University system, now flickers dimmer (to borrow a Steynism) in Champaign-Urbana.

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    @DavidKreps

    I also benefit from tenure. And I recently spent a decade “managing” (hardly the right word) faculty members at one of those elite institutions. So I have mixed feelings about the institution. That said:

    1. The description of my particular tenured colleagues as people who live a carefree and lazy life does not ring particularly true. To get tenure, they needed to be driven, hardworking individuals. That sort of personality doesn’t evaporate.

    2. Professor Yoo is quite correct about the power of merit-based salaries as motivator. Peer pressure is even stronger.

    3. Whatever may be the deficiencies of the tenure system, I wonder whether, without it, students at the UC Berkeley Law School would today have the benefit of Prof. Yoo’s teaching. The number of conservatives on the faculties of elite universities may be less than desirable, but without tenure, those few might be even more reticent to offer political opinions or to serve their country when called, at least if they like their (university) jobs.

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    @DavidKreps

    Cindy: …. I am wondering how many of you with positive comments about tenure actually have children in the schools? · Jul 22 at 5:38am

    A daughter in graduate school, two sons in the local public high school. And, overwhelmingly, their teachers have been very dedicated and hard-working. But that’s because of the organizational culture of their schools, fed in turn by the quality of students. (It’s that sort of school district.)

    One reason my experiences with the tenure system (at my own institution) are not so negative is that it is a screen, not an entitlement. Historically, only around 35% of newly hired assistant professors get tenure. And, I can assure you, it doesn’t consist of the already-tenured annointing their ideological buddies. Where tenure is a virtual entitlement, once hired, and where the social equilibrium amongst facultymembers doesn’t otherwise encourage hard work and dedication, which explains my sons’ HS, tenure can certainly be quite harmful.

    But suppose you do away with tenure, at least in those places where it is harmful. It is easy to say that “good standards will then be applied.” It is harder to believe.

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    @JimmyCarter

    “The notion that permanent job security is a necessary condition for great thoughts to flourish is ridiculous.”

    What a great linel

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    @

    David — I don’t buy it. Everyone else that goes into public service does so at their own peril and may or may not be assured of a job upon returning to the private sector. We might actually benefit from a government with fewer academics if they were that concerned. That notwithstanding, John Yoo’s intellect is colossal and I even suspect that the notoriety he received from his time in the Bush administration would be as much of an asset to a law school as his capabilities as an instructor. Controversy can bring prestige as well. So I don’t believe he would be just sitting on his thumbs at the Hoover Institution if he didn’t have a lifetime guaranteed job to return to. There are far worse things than faculty tenure so I’m not falling on any swords here, but the arguments for the defense of the practice strike me as wholly unpersuasive.

    • #15
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    @DianeEllis

    James Poulos, Ed.: Judged from the standpoint of civilization, putting an end to tenure will only hasten its demise. ·

    Aren’t you being a bit melodramatic by claiming that our civilization depends on professors having tenure? How can this be when tenure removes accountability from the profession and results in a lot of asinine intellectuals producing work that can impact society, as you say, but in very negative ways. As Tom Sowell writes in Intellectuals and Society:

    Intellectuals, in the restricted sense which largely conforms to general usage, are ultimately unaccountable to the external world. The prevalence and presumed desirability of this are confirmed by such things as academic tenure and expansive concepts of “academic freedom” and academic “self-governance.”…John Stuart Mill argued that intellectuals should be free from even social standards — while setting social standards for others. Not only have intellectuals been insulated from material consequences, they have often enjoyed immunity from even a loss of reputation after having been demonstrably wrong.

    Tenure protects intellectuals from producing trash, of which there seems to be an overabundance. Surely there’s a better way to foster ingenuity and innovation within academe, which also provides a mechanism of accountability.

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    @

    I was planning to write a long response. Instead, just this: in my gut I wish, as Diane Ellis says above, that there were some mechanism for accountability, but my overall feelings mirror David Kreps’ above almost precisely and Mr. Yoo’s as well. Tenure is a tough thing, but my best teachers and professors, regardless of political leanings, have influenced my life far outside of the few years where I was in their classes. I have no problem knowing that their ideas and methods were protected through tenure.

    Does it make me a hypocrite, though, that I cheered Ward Churchill’s ouster at the University of Colorado? If you do want to argue against modern tenure, he would be an exceptional case study. Regardless of his idiot writings, he was fast-tracked to tenure that he didn’t deserve and never should have held.

    For the record, while I spent a few years teaching continuing ed classes at a local university, I’m not about to be a tenured member of any faculty.

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    @JamesPoulos
    Diane Ellis, Ed. […] Tenure protects intellectuals from producing trash, of which there seems to be an overabundance. Surely there’s a better way to foster ingenuity and innovation within academe, which also provides a mechanism of accountability.

    End tenure, Diane and you will still have asinine intellectuals, still producing trash. The tenure system is designed to drive the asinine out of academia and into the world of public intellectuals. Now, everyone knows and attests that the tenure system is being abused. And we should all decry the way that ‘politics’ — meaning, let’s be frank, ideologically left litmus-testing — has infected and colonized academia. But we try not to kill people because they have bad infections.

    But the second claim, that tenure is bad no matter who’s in control, is more serious. It seems to hinge on the case that tenure is anti-free market, and that anything tenure can do markets can do better. From the perspective of markets this is obvious. But the whole point is that tenure is unintelligible from that perspective. If we lose the perspective that comprehends the purpose of tenure, we will have bigger problems on our hands than the loss of tenure.

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    @
    James Poulos, Ed. If we lose the perspective that comprehends the purpose of tenure, we will have bigger problems on our hands than the loss of tenure. · Jul 22 at 10:32am

    I’m trying to stay with you James, but you’ve lost me here. Is this a cultural argument? That tenure implies a cradle to ensure that the life of the mind is allowed to flourish in some special place?

    But doesn’t the practice suggest that even at achieving this goal it is ineffective? Tenure creates a huge barrier to enter this world which seems to require orthodox views. As a practical matter it has also become the way that every liberal arts college governs itself — regardless of quality. And in that respect is even more insidious.

    But maybe I need a tenured professor to explain it to me ;-)

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    @DuaneOyen
    David Kreps
    One reason my experiences with the tenure system (at my own institution) are not so negative is that it is a screen, not an entitlement. Historically, only around 35% of newly hired assistant professors get tenure.

    This is what strikes me as ridiculous. If any business had that bad a batting average, it would go under. 35% “success” is what makes it seem more like a club than a sincere desire to fill a position with a good person-fit.

    In the UK, you are hired as a Lecturer (Assistant Professor is the US equivalent), and then undergo a sort of probation review after 3 or 4 years to see if you are eligible to be retained as a career prof (Senior Lecturer, Reader, etc.). You can still be let go for non-production or other cause, but you are pretty secure, sort of like Civil Service. In the US, the bar is higher, but then the bar to remove is an order of magnitude higher still.

    I still say retain it, but fix it. And 35% should be 70% if they are doing it right.

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