By Ron Lipsman
Professors with tenure have lifetime appointments that can only be revoked after some egregious transgression, 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.
Why would a university agree to make an appointment that so severely restricts its ability to terminate an underperforming or incompetent employee? We all know the historic reason: faculty need to be free to pursue controversial theories, novel ideas and unexplored terrain. Then why is the tenure system under attack? Here are some reasons:
- Until roughly 50 years ago, tenure was granted only to 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, the ranks of the tenured, hundreds of thousands strong, include far more than just the 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 firing without cause.
- Some of our colleagues use tenure as a shield to protect themselves from the consequences of shoddy research, poor teaching, questionable personal behavior and an overall job performance that is the antithesis of what the public would consider elite - and therefore worthy of a lifetime appointment.
- Tenure serves as a poor role model. Tenure-like systems now extend (beyond federal judgeships and academic professorial faculty) 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 this. 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. The overwhelming dominance of a leftist worldview among campus faculty is well-known, amply discussed by many (e.g., in my own The Coming Decline of the Academic Left) and no longer in dispute. Once the universal mindset is established, the presence of deeply entrenched forces effectively prevents any serious challenge to it. 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.
The Assistant Professorship
These are serious criticisms which call for responses. How might the academic world do so? 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. The opposite response would be that the costs are so outrageous that the practice must be halted. 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: (1) 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 (2) institute 10-year reviews of professors, with the possibility of "demotion" to associate professor. Of course (2) would make the term "tenure" problematic and for that reason I am of mixed mind on it.
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.
Ron Lipsman is professor emeritus of mathematics and former senior associate dean of the College of Computer, Math & Physical Sciences, University of Maryland.