Faculty Tenure: Crucial or a Vestige?

 Why would a university agree to make an appointment that so severely restricts its ability to terminate an underperforming, even incompetent employee?

The granting of tenure to professorial faculty at the nation’s universities is a long and venerable tradition. A professor with tenure has a life-time appointment that can only be revoked if the recipient commits some egregious transgression, which is usually summarized by such formal labels as moral turpitude, gross negligence or dereliction of duty. In effect, the only tenured professors who get the sack are those who have robbed a bank, raped a co-ed or pistol-whipped a colleague. The only exception to these draconian circumstances is when a university program or degree, which encompasses the professor’s academic discipline, is discontinued. But even then, the university usually finds an alternative academic home in which the professor can carry on his duties, his life-time appointment undisturbed. In short, with extraordinarily rare exception, a tenure appointment is indeed a life-time position.

Why would a university agree to make an appointment that so severely restricts its ability to terminate an underperforming, even incompetent employee? The answer goes back to the dawn of the modern university. The role of the faculty, as originally conceived, and as interpreted still to this day, was to discover truth, wisdom and beauty in the subjects that command human interest (e.g., math and science, engineering, medicine, law, humanities, the arts, economics, politics, agriculture, and so on) and to transmit their findings to students and to the society at large. To do so, faculty need to be free to pursue controversial theories, novel ideas and unexplored terrain. Their discoveries may prove discomforting to those who sponsor, donate to or otherwise manage the university, and who therefore – to silence the faculty member – might be in a position to fire, or to influence those who could fire the faculty member. In order to guarantee the faculty member’s academic freedom to pursue knowledge down whatever path it leads him, the system of granting tenure was instituted. The only comparable situation is with federal judgeships as conceived of in the US Constitution.

Well, the reasoning is sound. And it is certainly the case that scores of advances in the subjects listed earlier have been pioneered by faculty research at American universities. So what’s the problem? Why is the tenure system under attack? Here are some reasons:

  • Until roughly 50 years ago, tenure was granted to only a tiny fraction of the population representing the intellectual elite, many of whom did use their unique academic freedom to bring forth sparkling new ideas and inventions. Today there are literally hundreds of thousands of tenured faculty in the United States. Clearly, the ranks of tenured faculty contain far more than just the absolute intellectual cream of American society. Moreover, while many professors (perhaps most) do fine work, the vast majority are not engaged in research that could expose them to the whims of someone who might fire them without cause. The academic freedom that is provided by the cloak of tenure has been granted to far more individuals than the small number who might really need it.
  • Not surprisingly, in a program of this magnitude, there are bound to be abusers. Those of us who spend our lives in academia are sadly all too familiar with colleagues who use tenure as a shield to protect themselves from the consequences of shoddy research, an inadequate amount of research, poor teaching, irresponsible administrative habits, questionable personal behavior and an overall job performance that is the antithesis of what the public would consider elite – and therefore worthy of a life-time appointment.
  • Tenure has served as a poor role model. Tenure-like systems now extend (beyond federal judgeships and academic professorial faculty) – both formally and informally – to public school teachers, many government workers, certain unionized positions and even to corners of the corporate world. Ultimately, there is no good rationale for any of that. But as long as the academic tenure model can be held up as a salutary structure, it serves as an example to be copied.
  • Tenure contributes to the ossification of academia. The number of sexagenarian, septuagenarian and even octogenarian faculty on American campuses is startling. These are not the groups on campus from which innovation originates.
  • Perhaps counter intuitively, tenure reinforces groupthink on campus. The overwhelming dominance of a leftist worldview among campus faculty is well-known, amply discussed by many (e.g., in The Coming Decline of the Academic Left) and no longer in dispute. Well, once the universal mindset is established, the presence of deeply entrenched forces effectively prevents any serious challenge to the dominant mindset. Moreover, those just starting in the system and hoping for tenure themselves have little motivation to rock the boat by challenging prevailing “wisdom.”
  • The dynamic nature of American business includes the freedom to fail. The number of successful businesses built on the wreckage of previous, failed endeavors is astounding. Tenured professors have no freedom to fail. Thus the corresponding motivation to succeed that accompanies creative destruction in business is totally absent in academia. It’s hard to learn from your mistakes if no one ever acknowledges that you have made any.

These are serious criticisms, which call for responses. How might the academic world respond? There are three possible courses of action. First, one could argue that, for all its flaws, tenure protects academic freedom and the latter is so important that it is worth the cost of the ill effects just described. The opposite response would be that the costs are so outrageous that the practice must be halted – tenure should be abolished. Perhaps there is a reasonable course of action in between these extremes. I’ll probably get crucified for suggesting such a course, but the luxury of retirement does afford a certain degree of literary freedom – so consider the following.

There already is a probationary period for faculty who aspire to a tenured position – it’s called an assistant professorship. Generally, it lasts 5-6 years. But many institutions treat it as a pledge period and grant admission to tenured status perfunctorily. Even those institutions that examine an assistant professor’s tenure credentials carefully are wont to “graduate” many who, while they will prove to be solid teachers and researchers, will also work at a level that hardly requires academic freedom. Here’s an alternative:

  • Only those assistant professors who demonstrate extraordinary levels of scholarship, creativity, imagination and leadership would be granted tenure – say 15-20% of the candidate pool.
  • In order to facilitate such a critical decision, the length of the probationary period would be extended to 8-10 years.
  • The best of the rest would be offered renewable, long-term contracts, say 5-10 years.
  • The next coterie would be offered short-term contracts, say 2-4 years.
  • And finally, those who don’t pass muster would be let go.
  • Contracts may or may not be renewed, but if the latter, a long grace period would be standard.
  • Those granted tenure would be called Professor; those offered contracts, Associate Professor.

A successful implementation of this plan would address all the elements of the critique above. The plan could be further improved with two more wrinkles: (i) allow for the extraordinary possibility that  an associate professor up for contract renewal would have elevated the quality of his work to such an extent that tenure is now an appropriate consideration; and (ii) institute 10-year reviews of professors, with the possibility of “demotion” to associate professor. Of course (ii) would make the term “tenure” problematic and for that reason I am of mixed mind on (ii).

American universities stand on a precipice. The problems are manifold:

  • The cost of the product they dispense to students is astronomical.
  • Too much of what is called higher education is more accurately described as indoctrination. (See ibid again.)
  • Because of bloated administrative staffs, university budgets are absurdly inflated. The traditional three sources of revenue – state appropriations, federal grants and student tuition/fees – are tapped out.
  • Students are drowning in debt.
  • The value of what students (and their parents) obtain in return for their expenditures and debt is debatable.
  • Too much of the education is provided by adjunct faculty.
  • Universities lag behind K-12 institutions and the private sector in the deployment of technology.
  • Universities are often slow to innovate, and are being challenged by for-profit institutions.

Addressing the tenure issue will not solve all of these problems. But if universities can muster the courage to address the tenure issue in a meaningful way, then perhaps they won’t find some of the other problems to be so intractable.

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An abridged version of this article appeared in the Manhattan Institute’s online journal, Minding the Campus.

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