Finishing School

The case for getting rid of tenure.

Tenure can hurt students and universities

Imagine you ran a restaurant. A very prestigious, exclusive restaurant. To attract top talent, you guarantee all cooks and waiters job security for life. Not only that, because you value honesty and candor, you allow them to say anything they want about you and your cuisine, publicly and without fear of retribution. The only catch is that all cooks or waiters would have to start out as dishwashers or busboys, for at least 10 years, when none of these protections would apply.

It sounds absurd in the context of the food-service industry—for both you and your staff. But this system has governed academia for decades. Tenure—the ability to teach and conduct research without fear of being fired—is still the holy grail of higher education, to which all junior professors aspire. Yet fewer and fewer professors are attaining it. The proportion of full-time college professors with tenure has fallen from 57 percent in 1975 to 31 percent in 2007. The numbers for 2009, soon to be released by the Department of Education, are expected to dip even lower.

To which some educators are saying: good riddance. Tenure is a bad deal not just for universities, which are saddled with its costs, but also for professors, who are constrained by its conventions. Cathy Trower, a researcher at Harvard University who has studied tenure for the last decade, says the current system may actually be scaring talented young people away from academia. “This one-size-fits-all, rigid six-year up-and-out tenure system isn’t working well,” she says.

The case against tenure has been around as long as tenure itself. (The American Association of University Professors first declared the principles of academic freedom and tenure in 1915 and then revised them in 1940.)But the argument becomes only stronger over time. As tuition climbs and universities struggle to pay their bills, tenure is starting to look unaffordable. Keeping a professor around indefinitely—tenure means they can’t be forced to retire—simply costs a lot. Mark C. Taylor, chair of the Columbia University department of religion and author of the forthcoming  Crisis on Campus: A Bold Plan for Reforming Our Colleges and Universities, calculates that someone who serves as an associate professor with tenure for five years and then becomes a full professor for 30 years costs a private university $12.2 million. * Public universities pay $10 million over the same period. And because most universities pay tenured professors out of their endowments, each professor freezes up tens of millions in otherwise-liquid endowment money for a generation. University debt jumped 54 percent last year, with an average debt of $168 million. If the average university tenured about 15 fewer professors, they’d be in the black.

Then there’s the effect of tenure on students. “Publish or perish” is the maxim of tenure-track professors. The corollary, of course, would be “teach and perish.” Tenure committees claim to weigh publishing and teaching equally, but in practice publishing counts most. Taylor recalls a colleague winning a teaching award early in his career. Mentors urged him not to put it on his résumé. When the best young teachers focus their energies on writing rather than teaching, students pay the price.

The most common pro-tenure argument is that it protects academic freedom. Once a professor gains tenure, the thinking goes, he or she can say anything without fear of being fired. Academia thrives on the circulation of dangerous ideas. The problem is, for every tenured professor who’s liberated at age 40 to speak his mind, there are dozens of junior professors terrified to say anything the least bit controversial, lest they lose their one shot at job security for life. Academia relies on young scholars to shake things up. Yet tenure incentivizes them not to. Instead, it rewards students who follow in the footsteps of the elders whose favor they will require when the day of judgment arrives.

Besides, says Taylor, the idea that a tenured professor can finally “speak out” is absurd. “If you don’t have the guts to speak out before, you’re not gonna have it after.” Even tenured professors still have all kinds of incentives to keep their heads down. There’s still research to fund, administrators to placate, time off to negotiate.

Just as tenure creates economic inflexibility, it also creates intellectual inflexibility. By hiring someone for life, a school gambles that his or her ideas are going to be just as relevant in 35 years. Tenure can also discourage interdisciplinary studies, since professors are rewarded for plumbing deep into an established subject area rather than connecting two different ones.

Critics say that tenure hurts students by making professors lazy. Course loads vary widely from school to school: At some public universities, professors teach nine or 10 courses. At smaller schools, they teach as few as one or two, totaling as few as 140 classroom hours a year. If you can’t be fired, what’s to stop you from refusing to teach an extra course? “I honestly don’t know what a lot of academics do a lot of the time,” says Taylor.

But the clincher for the anti-tenure argument may come from the very people it is supposed to benefit: academics. Specifically, young academics. Consider the career path of an aspiring full-time tenured professor: Four years of college, six years getting a doctorate, four to six years as a post-doc, and then six years on the tenure track. By the time you come up for tenure, you’re 40. For men, the timeline is inconvenient. But for women who want to have children, it’s just about unworkable.

That’s one reason the number of full-time tenured professors has dropped so much in the past few decades: Women have joined the academic work force, but some have opted to take a part-time role. It’s also why Princeton President Shirley Tilghman once called the tenure system “no friend to women” and suggested abolishing it entirely, although her views have softened since.

Defenders say that tenure helps attract the best and brightest. Universities can’t match the salary offered by a pharmaceutical company or an investment bank, the thinking goes, but they can offer job security. Yet the appeal of job security may be overrated. Tenure may be an added incentive, but it’s almost never a deal maker. “All sorts of brilliant people want to be members of academe,” says Trower. “I don’t think it’s because of tenure. It’s because of the work.” The life of the mind is its own reward.

So what’s the alternative model? Renewable contracts. Some suggest seven years. Others say 10. The goal would be to give professors enough security to make them comfortable but not enough to breed complacency and lock the university into a deal that no longer makes sense.

Don’t abolish tenure altogether, says Trower. Just rework it. Create a tenure track that explicitly rewards teaching. Give interdisciplinary centers the authority to produce tenured professors. Allow for breaks in the tenure track if a professor needs to take time off. Offer the option of part-time tenure, a lower-cost alternative for professors who want to hold other jobs. In other words, make tenure flexible rather than a monolithic, in-or-out club.

Some universities have already made the leap. Evergreen State College in Washington implemented renewable contracts back in 1971. Florida Gulf Coast University scrapped tenure when it was established in 1991. Boston University now offers salary premiums to professors who decide not to take tenure. Market forces will drive other universities to follow suit, whether they want to or not. But it wouldn’t hurt to get a head start.

Correction, Aug. 12, 2010: This article incorrectly suggested that associate professors do not have tenure. In most cases, they do. (Return  to the corrected sentence.)

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