Featured below us a stimulating debate over the pros and cons of the university tenure system. Of course the conservatives and neoliberals promoting the corporatization of the tenure system want it gone — not because it favors research over teaching, but because it gives some protection for academic free speech (a very faulty and tenuous thing, often flagrantly violated) over total conformism (which prevails regardless), and because those who think universities should be run like a business want to replace experienced tenured professors with highly exploited part-time and adjunct instructors who work for little pay and no benefits. For a comprehensive history of academic free speech and repression, over 30 case studies of academic repression, the rapid corporatization of the university, the economic and politically motivated move to destroy the tenure system, and the shocking decline in the values and quality of “higher education,” see my edited anthology, Academic Repression: Reflections on the Academic-Industrial Complex (AK Press, 2010, 590 pages).
The Wall Street Journal, June 24, 2012
“Should Tenure for College Professors Be Abolished?”
At some point, discussions about the quality of higher education in the U.S. come around to the subject of tenure. And the disagreement could hardly be more stark.
On top of that, critics say, tenure has become the tool of a stifling orthodoxy in academia, rewarding only those whose views on curriculums, administration and finances are in line with the status quo.
Proponents of tenure say it’s the only way to preserve the quality of higher education in this country. It sets the bar high for professors, supporters say, ensuring that only the very best are retained.
And, they say, it gives professors the freedom to pursue the groundbreaking research that advances knowledge in so many fields, and the security to challenge administrators and students to do their best.
Naomi Schaefer Riley, a writer and the author of “The Faculty Lounges and Other Reasons Why You Won’t Get the College Education You Paid For,” argues that tenure for college professors should be abolished. Cary Nelson, a professor of English at the University of Illinois and president of the American Association of University Professors, counters that tenure should be retained.
I. Yes: It’s Bad for Students
By Naomi Schaefer Riley
There are a lot of problems with tenure for college professors, but they all lead to the biggest one: It isn’t good for students.
That’s because tenure, by giving professors permanent jobs largely on the basis of the work they have published, has created and enforced a system that rewards research over teaching.
There is clear evidence that research is more highly valued than teaching throughout the higher-education system. According to a 2005 study published in the Journal of Higher Education, the more time college professors spend in the classroom, the less they get paid. This was true not only at large research universities, but also at small liberal-arts colleges.
Professors have gotten the message, busily churning out research for a growing number of publications that in most cases are read by next to no one.
Meanwhile, much of the teaching is being done by the people at the bottom of the academic ladder, the adjuncts. They make up more than half of college faculty today, and their effect on student learning has been well documented: An increase in adjuncts on campus produces both lower graduation rates and more grade inflation.
Adjuncts are under more pressure than other professors to make a good impression on students, because they are judged by student evaluations and nothing else; thus the grade inflation. But they also have less time than professors to engage with students; thus the lower graduation rates. Adjuncts typically have no offices and often no office hours, and in many cases they are running from one campus to the next to make a living.
A New System
The best way to improve the quality of education for college students is to get professors to focus more on teaching. And to do that we need to ditch the tenure system and start evaluating professors on the basis of their teaching ability, without any guarantee that they will keep their jobs if they don’t continue to measure up over the years.
Some professors claim that universities must reward research rather than teaching because there is no objective measure for good teaching. So we need some objective stand-in, the argument goes, and published articles offer a good proxy.
This is plainly false. Good teaching involves preparation for lectures and discussions, extensive work in grading and a lot of contact with students. Those are all elements that students as well as faculty colleagues and school administrators could recognize and reward if they chose to.
For instance, to evaluate grading you might try looking at the substance of comments that students receive. Many professors simply write things like “great” or “unclear” on a paper or exam, rather than writing more-enlightening comments, much less correcting students’ prose.
Evaluations of professors’ teaching should be done by their colleagues as well as administrators and even young alumni in addition to students—and they should be conducted regularly. Teaching is a dynamic profession. Just because you taught a class well at 30 doesn’t mean you will do so at 60, and just because you are teaching well at 60 doesn’t mean you were born with the skills to teach.
We need to reward good teaching regularly, not give permanent job security for what professors have accomplished up to a given point, as tenure does.
Freedom Without Dissent
Professors often defend tenure because they say it protects academic freedom. But in practice, tenure has plainly failed on this count. Universities today are perhaps the most intellectually uniform institutions in the country, and tenure is the biggest reason for that.
In every department, from physics to music, faculty vote to give tenure to clones of themselves, and those clones stay in their cozy places for decades.
Tenured professors indeed have the freedom to research obscure niches in their fields that are of little interest or value to the vast majority of their students—as many do. But real dissent—in the form of ideas that challenge both academics and students to study issues in very different ways and perhaps arrive at conclusions that are uncomfortable for many—is rarely allowed to go very far, because dissenters don’t get tenure.
And the stifling influence of the tenured extends beyond the classroom. Every battle in higher education, whether it’s over the curriculum or how the money is spent or the politics of university administration, is a battle of attrition. The faculty, thanks to tenure, will always win. They will outlast any university president, any governor, any trustee, any regent, any parent and any student. They are why meaningful reform of any sort is virtually impossible. Once again, the people who suffer most in the end are the students.
Ms. Riley is a writer and the author of “The Faculty Lounges and Other Reasons Why You Won’t Get the College Education You Paid For.” She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
II. No: It Offers Crucial Protection
By Cary Nelson
There was a time when the myth of deadwood in universities was no myth: Tenure sometimes protected faculty who should not have been hired in the first place.
Those days are gone. With the excess teaching talent available today, tenure now is the ultimate quality check, ensuring that universities retain the very best of a highly qualified pool of teachers.
It also encourages those teachers to stay intellectually curious and take chances with unconventional work, something no system that doesn’t offer long-term security can accomplish.
For more than 40 years, the number of new Ph.D.s has outstripped the number of teaching jobs available, allowing ruthlessly selective hiring. Five hundred to a thousand candidates for a single faculty position is not uncommon. Yes, there remain dysfunctional faculty, but it’s no longer a systemic problem, despite the fact that most critics of tenure still make the outdated argument that it is.
Of course, hiring committees sometimes make mistakes, and when they do, the tenure system allows them to correct those mistakes. But tenure also compels the committees to take a close look at every case they consider, because they are probably going to have to live with the decision they make for a very long time. That level of commitment, and the weight it brings to the tenure decision, wouldn’t be there in a system that relied on contracts that came up for renewal every few years. I know that I have not been a terribly kind tenure decider. If a candidate is just good, not excellent, I vote “no.”
Protecting the Risk Takers
Critics of tenure argue that the system rewards research, not teaching. But pay comparisons indicating that research is more highly valued can be faulty: Professors in some fields are simply paid more than those in other disciplines, regardless of the amount of research they do, and different fields lend themselves to different proportions of classroom and research time. So direct lines between pay and classroom time are difficult to draw.
My best estimate is that only 10% of American colleges and universities have serious research expectations for tenure. And every institution needs the research that 10% of American faculty do if everyone’s teaching is to stay up-to-date.
Tenure doesn’t guarantee that every faculty member is courageous, but it protects those who are. Not every faculty member will speak out against bad plans proposed by powerful administrators, but tenure protects those who do from retaliation. Not every faculty member takes risks in challenging students, but many do. Tenure protects faculty from the ideological wrath of students, parents and politicians.
The tenure system even offers some protection to those who don’t have tenure. It helps establish a campus climate in which free expression is both tolerated and valued. It establishes a system in which long-term, intellectually unconventional and innovative work can be rewarded. It guarantees colleges and universities a core of faculty members who have the kind of institutional commitment and memory that makes good decisions and successful collaboration possible. Multiyear contracts can’t do the same. They provide repeated opportunities to get rid of those who rock the boat. Multiyear contracts can keep people intellectually cautious.
The Best Stay Fresh
If you make good hiring decisions and then revisit them at tenure time, you will rarely find the faculty members who meet those tests going stale. You will be selecting colleagues who remain intellectually curious and passionate about their teaching and research throughout their careers. There is no evidence that tenure encourages conformity, and plenty of evidence to the contrary. Curriculums change regularly because faculty members embody their changing disciplines. What’s more, most good job candidates are doing cutting-edge work, not simply reproducing what their tenured colleagues already do.
Despite the benefits tenure provides, it is difficult to find supporters. Tenured or tenure-eligible faculty members have declined from two-thirds to less than one-third of the teaching force since 1975. At many elite institutions, tenure is secure, but elsewhere it is disappearing. Faculty consequently may lose control of the curriculum and the hiring of teachers. They are already losing the support for academic freedom and spirited teaching that tenure protects.
We will eventually see a resulting decline in the quality of what has been the best higher-education system in the world, as the people capable of designing a college curriculum and staffing it lose authority over the areas of their professional expertise. The history of American higher education demonstrates that the quality of teaching and research is greatest when faculty are secure in their freedom to inquire, speak, teach and publish. No one has shown that anything other than tenure can produce that result.
Mr. Nelson is a professor of English at the University of Illinois and president of the American Association of University Professors. He can be reached at email@example.com.