Universities should ditch tenure

One would doubt the sanity of a typical employer offering his laborers lifetime employment regardless of how well – or even, if – they performed.

It would be ridiculous for Carnegie Hall to retain musicians who have long since been outclassed in talent; ludicrous for a landscaper to guarantee his manual laborers permanent employment regardless of their productivity; and positively absurd for the Chicago Bulls to continue to pay a salary to Michael Jordan.

Yet tenure means every major university in the United States does precisely this. Once tenured, professors cannot be taken off the payroll except for exceedingly rare cases of severe misconduct – usually conviction of a felony.

Universities typically defend tenure through its original responsibility as the protector of academic freedom. But times have changed. We no longer allow employers to hire and fire at will. Universities and companies alike are not permitted to fire employees simply because of their beliefs.

Given this legal protection, it seems specious at best to claim academic freedom can only be protected by tenure.

Instead, tenure tends to protect only indolence. Not only do many tenured professors no longer feel the need to engage in such annoying trivialities as teaching undergraduates – something preferably left to part-time, nontenured adjuncts – but they have no more incentive to change potentially outdated or even obsolete modes of thinking.

A psychology professor accustomed to the structuralist school of thought is unlikely to adapt to the newer cognitive approach to the study of his field without some pressing incentive – such as losing his job – and would rather instead continue to pursue meaningless research in a specialty plainly passe to everyone else. Such is the academic freedom truly protected by tenure.

More troubling, however, are the implications for future academics. The peer review nature of tenure tempts petty departmental politics and prejudices into playing an abnormally large role in what should essentially be a meritocratic decision.

Furthermore, in a nation where nontenured faculty makes up under a third of all full-time college instructors, it is clear tenure has succeeded in stagnating thousands of departments by entrenching senior members on the payroll for many decades.

Granting lifetime professorships to young, inexperienced scholars is a risky and costly venture.

Thus, this understandable yet unavoidable hesitation in offering tenure only further discourages junior, nontenured faculty from conducting innovative study in favor of producing more conservative scholarship to appeal to the conservative scholars voting on their tenure bid. Given the choice of either firing or permanently employing a scholar producing risky and uncertain research, it’s not hard to see why this perverse incentive exists.

This dichotomy between hiring-for-life and firing illustrates the bizarre employment philosophy of American universities. It seems as if colleges are deluding themselves into believing they only have two choices when it comes to professors.

The correct solution lies in the middle, between these two extremes – the use of renewable multi-year contracts, with an increasing duration each time. Professors would be hired initially for five years, then renewed for 10, then renewed again for 15. This not only rewards seniority and provides meaningful job security, but also assures accountability and clears out the expensive departmental deadwood the tenure system – itself the obsolete product of a bygone era – has entrenched in academia.