In Times Of Yore, There Was Tenure

NYT had a Room For Debate on tenure. Mark C. Taylor:

Tenure is financially unsustainable and intellectually indefensible. The fundamental problem is liquidity – both financial and intellectual.

If you take the current average salary of an associate professor and assume this tenured faculty member remains an associate professor for five years and then becomes a full professor for 30 years, the total cost of salary and benefits alone is $12,198,578 at a private institution and $9,992,888 at a public institution. To fund these expenses would require a current endowment of $3,959,743 and $3,524,426 respectively and $28,721,197 and $23,583,423 at the end of the person’s career. Tenure decisions render illiquid a significant percentage of endowments at the precise moment more flexibility is required.

Capital is not only financial but is also intellectual and here too liquidity is an issue. In today’s fast changing world, it is impossible to know whether a person’s research is going to be relevant in five years let alone 35 years.

If you were the C.E.O. of a company and the board of directors said: “We want this to be the best company of its kind in the world. Hire the best people you can find and pay them whatever is required.” Would you offer anybody a contract with these terms: lifetime employment, no possibility of dismissal, regardless of performance? If you did, your company would fail and you would be looking for a new job. Why should academia be any different from every other profession?

To those who say that the abolition of tenure will make faculty reluctant to be demanding with students or express controversial views, I respond that in almost 40 years of teaching, I have not known a single person who has been more willing to speak out after tenure than before. In fact, nothing represses the free expression of ideas more than the long and usually fruitless quest for tenure.

Brian Leiter:

Professor Taylor–whom we’ve encountered previously arguing for “transforming” universities by destroying them and cheerleading for Derrida, has now weighed in, with his characteristic lack of insight and knowledge, on the subject of tenure.  Put aside the absurdity of a postmodernist religion professor peddling the “tough talk” of the marketplace; let’s overlook too that salaries are not paid out of endowment (as he bizarrely suggests), but a combination of tuition, endowments, and research grants; and let’s even grant him his make-believe numbers about what a professor costs over 35 years; the facts remain that:

1.  Tenure does not mean “lifetime employment, no possibility of dismissal,” it means only dismissal for cause, with associated procedural safeguards;

2.  Dismissal only for cause is a less common employment arrangement in the United States than it used to be (though is still enjoyed by significant numbers of school teachers, police, firemen, and by many civil service employees, among others), but is far more common in other Western industrialized nations with stronger labor movements and established civil service systems; that it is not the norm in the U.S. is one of the pathologies of American society, to be lamented, not lauded;

3.  Tenure is an important part of the non-economic compensation for academics, and its abolition would raise the costs of hiring faculty astronomically;

4.  At the best research universities, the percentage of senior faculty who remain research-active 30 years after tenure is extremely high, which puts the lie to Taylor’s absurd claim that “it is impossible to know whether a person’s research is going to be relevant in five years let alone 35 years”;

5.  Taylor’s claim that “in almost 40 years of teaching, I have not known a single pereson who has been more willing to speak out after tenure than before” is such obvious bullshit, it’s hard to believe he had the audacity to say this in public; in 17 years of teaching, I can think of at least a half-dozen cases of faculty who, after tenure, became markedly more outspoken and undertook more controversial research.  And bear in mind that the biggest threats to academic freedom are likely to come not from, e.g., state legislators pissed off by dumb or controversial reilgion professors (though without tenure there will certainly be more cases like that, as we have noted previously), but from powerful economic interests adversely affected by work on health and safety issues by scientists.  (One might also think that the recent experience in the U.K. without out-of-control administrative bureaucrats would give even Taylor some pause.)

There are two real problems with the current tenure system:  first, that universities are often too reluctant to seek dismissal for cause; second, that the academic freedom rights of untenured and non-tenure-stream faculty are insufficiently protected in the current system.  The AAUP could take the lead on the first issue, including by standing on the side of universities that terminate tenured faculty for cause and following proper procedures.  The AAUP might also help with the second, by being more aggressive about calling out universities that trample on the academic freedom of the non-tenured.

Megan McArdle:

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.  If nothing else, they provide a nice simple model which helps introductory economics professors explain Say’s Law.

At the end of the process, most of the aspirants do not have tenure; they have dropped out, or been dropped, at some point along the way.  Meanwhile, the system has ripped up their lives in other ways.  They’ve invested their whole youth, and are back on the job market near entry level at an age when most of their peers have spent ten years building up marketable skills.  Many of them will have seen relationships ripped apart by the difficulties of finding not one, but two tenure-track jobs in the same area.  Others will have invested their early thirties in a college town with no other industry, forcing them to move elsewhere to restart both their careers and their social lives.  Or perhaps they string along adjuncting at near-poverty wages, unable to quite leave the academy that has abused them for so long.

Is this producing better education?  Doubtful; there’s no particular relationship between scholarship and the ability to teach.  How about valuable scholarship?  Well, define valuable–in many liberal arts fields, the only possible consumer of the research in question is a handful of scholars in the same field.  That sort of research is valuable in the same way that children’s craft projects are priceless–to their mothers.  Basically, these people are supporting an expensive hobby with a sideline business certifying the ability of certain twenty-year olds to write in complete sentences.

And what about the people who do get tenure, and are producing scholarship in areas that other people care about?  Doesn’t tenure protect free intellectual inquiry?  Diversity of thought?  Doesn’t it allow teachers to be more demanding of students?

Perhaps–but the question is, at what point?  Most scholars in their sixties are not producing path-breaking new research, but they are precisely the people that tenure protects.  Scholars in their twenties and thirties, on the other hand, have no academic freedom at all.  Indeed, because tenure raises the stakes so high, the vetting of future employees is much more careful–and the candidates, who know this, are almost certainly more careful than they would be if they were on more ordinary employment contracts.  As a result, the process of getting a degree, getting a job, and getting tenure has stretched out to cover one’s whole youth. So tenure makes young scholars–the kind most likely to attack a dominant paradigm–probably more careful than they would be under more normal employment process.

More McArdle


MEGAN MCARDLE: Tenure: An Idea Whose Time Has Gone. Some pushback in the comments, but with a higher education bubble set to burst I think we’ll hear more along these lines. Gulp.

Joe Weisenthal at Business Insider:

But so what?

First of all, other industries have models, whereby you kill yourself for several years in hopes of achieving some brass ring. Law and Wall Street have similar models, though to varying degrees. Most folks at the top law firms don’t make partner.

But beyond that particular rigid structure across business, there are plenty of models where there’s a huge reward for those at the top, which only a select few can make it to.

The thing is, lots of folks want to live the academic life? Who wouldn’t want to spend their careers on a nice idyllic campus, getting paid to just think, study, write (and possibly teach) all the time. It sounds freakin’ awesome.

But because the life is so desirable, the system will inevitably be brutally competitive, with few winners. That would be the case, with tenure or not.

If you don’t want to be in a tournament, so to speak, with few winners, and huge rewards, you can become a public school teacher. You definitely don’t want to become a lawyer, or go into Wall Street, or something like that.

But as long as you know what you’re getting into beforehand, there’s really nothing wrong with it*


*Disclosure: The author’s father is a tenured physics professor, though he’s at a small, teaching (not scholarship) based institution, and the situation is not really the same. But just in case someone were going to point it out, there you go….

John Schwenkler at The American Scene:

I want to highlight one important point that Brian Leiter makes in the last of those three links, namely that tenure is a form of non-monetary compensation, and that academic salaries would likely skyrocket in its absence.At least the first half of this claim is, I think, obviously right. The average tenure-track academic has spent nearly a decade in graduate school during which he or she did full-time work for a salary barely above the poverty line, then endured a brutal job market resulting in a stressful and often thankless job, likely with a salary that’s about half that of his or her friends who bailed out of academia and spent a measly three years in law school. I’m not complaining, of course! – but let me just say that this arrangement is made significantly more attractive by fact that those who make it through the crucible don’t have to face the usual worries about getting fired when times get tough or the management shifts around. Would many academics be doing this anyway, if the pay were still poor but the job less secure? Speaking for myself, probably yes, which is part of why I’m not quite sold on Leiter’s claim that the abolition of tenure would have “astronomic” impacts on the costs of hiring faculty. (It might just as well make it so that the overall quality of the professoriate was not as good.) But the prospect of tenure does do quite a lot to offset the various things that might otherwise steer people away from careers in academic, and it’s important not to overlook that influence.

UPDATE: Christopher Beam at Slate


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  1. Pingback: What We’ve Built Today « Around The Sphere

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