Term Limits for Tenure

The recent economic implosion and resulting belt-tightening at most colleges has people thinking seriously about how to get more educational value for the dollar. Faculty tenure is one of the institutions that ought to come in for scrutiny; some serious scholars, many of them tenured, argue that it may not be beneficial on net.

The Community College system in Kentucky recently voted to end tenure for all new faculty hires. Virginia’s community college system abandoned tenure in 1971. Maybe tenure is an idea whose time has passed.

People usually think that tenure ensures guaranteed lifetime employment, but that isn’t exactly correct. As Professors Roger Meiners and Ryan Amacher point out in their book Faulty Towers: Tenure and the Structure of Higher Education, a tenured faculty member is legally entitled to a set of legal safeguards that the institution must overcome before it can terminate his employment. Untenured faculty members, on the other hand, can be dismissed like any other employee.

Because the hurdles are so difficult in proving good cause to terminate a tenured professor, schools usually leave them alone. The University of Colorado’s decision to fire the infamous “Ethnic Studies” professor Ward Churchill for plagiarism and academic fraud led to difficulties barely less onerous than landing a man on the moon. Only in the rare and egregious case will a school decide to go to the trouble.

The justification invariably given for tenure is that it is needed to protect professorial freedom—to speak, and write freely. Otherwise, it’s argued, hostile administrators or trustees could easily fire professors for saying things they didn’t like. That did happen on occasion early in the 20th century and there was reason to protect faculty members against autocratic overseers.

But as history professor Page Smith writes in his book Killing the Spirit, “What faculty needed and deserved to have was review procedures that protected them from arbitrary actions by administrators or trustees. What they got was much more: a degree of security unequaled by any other profession and difficult to justify in abstract terms.”

Tenure causes a number of inefficiencies. In a time of penny-pinching, perhaps the most glaring is that it creates faculty rigidity. Dean Edward Morris of Lindenwood University pointed out in The Lindenwood Model, “Today’s students may benefit greatly in their lifetimes by taking courses in Mandarin Chinese rather than the Romance languages. But it may be difficult to find room for a new instructor in Chinese with a language department full of tenured professors of Italian and French.” The need for greater flexibility was specifically cited as one of the reasons for the vote in Kentucky.

Lindenwood University, by the way, abolished tenure in 1989 when it desperately needed to cut costs and become better at attracting and keeping students in order to survive. At the time, many professors were aghast at the idea of dropping tenure. The school, however, not only survived, but has grown robustly. Evidently, tenure is not essential.

The need for flexibility explains why for-profit schools like the University of Phoenix do not have tenure. If you want to make money, you need to operate efficiently. Since market conditions change, no less in education than in, say, the restaurant business, universities need to be able to adjust without incurring high costs. Tenure gets in the way of flexibility.

Imagine if restaurants operated with a tenure system. The owner might say, “Customers want light meals with vegetables, but darn it, I have tenured a chef who can only prepare meat dishes with heavy sauces.” Tenure would be a recipe for failure in the restaurant business.

Not only does tenure cause inflexibility, but it also undermines productivity. When Dean Morris’s was working toward his doctorate, his faculty advisor was someone “on a very extended glide path to retirement.” Once tenured, professors can (but don’t always, of course) adopt an attitude of “just going through the motions.” They teach as little as possible, and their classes tend to be rather perfunctory. What Professor Murray Sperber’s describes as the “faculty-student non-aggression pact” (in which the professor assigns little work and gives high grades but puts little effort in teaching the class) is most likely to come about when you have a tenured professor who knows that there is no penalty for pretty much ignoring the students.

In fact, the bias against teaching that tenure introduces makes itself felt immediately in the new scholar’s career. Whether the young, would-be professor makes tenure does not depend on the quality of his teaching. It depends on publications. Therefore, the rational course is to concentrate on doing research and writing books and articles that will impress the tenure committee. Time spent on preparing an excellent class discussion or carefully grading student essays is wasted under the “publish or perish” regime.

Much of the research that the aspiring professor publishes is of little interest or value even to other academics. It’s produced just as a ritual. As Thomas Sowell, who had a long teaching career, said in his book Inside American Education, “Much of what is being mass-produced under the label of scholarship has been variously characterized as trivial, routine, or even meretricious.”

Devoting professorial time to such endeavors is bad enough, but when you look the trade-off, the result is truly awful. The tenure system demands a lot of generally worthless academic writing, and to get that we badly degrade the teaching of undergraduates. Well-taught classes can awaken and inspire students, but instead we often get dull, plodding classes with little student engagement because untenured professors are so consumed with the quest for tenure.

Yet another drawback to tenure is that it can lead to intellectual conformity in academic departments. In their article “Academic Tenure: An Economic Critique” (not available online but published in Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy, Vol. 14, no.2), professors Robert McGee and Walter Block write that it’s a “tattered secret” that professors “may devise a pattern of departmental appointments that shuts out significant schools of thought,…and may make political judgments when reviewing the professional merits of their peers.” That is, the tenure system can and does lead to academic departments where only those who are intellectual replicas of the senior members who make the decisions get to stay.

Those are weighty objections to tenure. Do we have to have it in order to protect professors against arbitrary dismissal?

As Professor Smith wrote, tenure goes well beyond what was (and perhaps still is) needed to shield faculty members against unjust dismissal. All that is needed is a “just cause” clause in the employment contract stating that the faculty member may only be fired for certain kinds of conduct, which do not include speaking freely. Institutions could customize the language to suit their situations. Schools with a religious mission might wish to restrict faculty free speech that questioned the tenets of their religion. The legitimate objective of protection against arbitrary dismissal can be achieved through contract.

Tenure was never a very good idea and in this time when most colleges and universities need to find ways to get the most educational value for their (now lessened) money, it shouldn’t be treated like a sacred cow.