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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.