No Tenure? No Problem!

Most professors accept the following statement, or something very nearly like it: tenure exists in order to protect academic freedom. Without tenure, so the story goes, scholars would be forced to choose between employment and the quest for truth; dogma would replace objectivity.

Because academic freedom and tenure are seen as inextricably connected, abolishing the one is tantamount to abolishing the other—in some people’s minds, at least. But nothing could be further from the truth: academic freedom flourishes in an environment without tenure, especially for those most vulnerable: the junior faculty.

I should know: I’m a junior faculty member at John Brown University, which has no tenure!

In a tenured environment, the untenured assistant professor is in a difficult position. Assistant professors shoulder a considerable burden: while teaching heavy loads and reading and publishing even more than they did in graduate school, they must also wander through a labyrinth of committee work. Additionally, they must sail between the Scylla of being seen as a pushover (in order to be noticed for making a worthy contribution) and the Charybdis of being seen as overbearing and overly aggressive (in order to gather the all important votes of collegiality from his colleagues).

Collegiality is exceptionally important for an assistant professor at a tenure-granting institution. Those outside the academy may be surprised to learn that one’s colleagues generally get a say in whether or not one stays on at the university. But that’s an important feature in tenure decisions, and it helps explain why younger academics are encouraged to keep any nonconformist opinions to themselves (or even better, to fervently endorse the opinions of their more seasoned colleagues). It’s a bitter irony for an institution that celebrates wholeheartedly a belief in academic freedom that its practitioners must assiduously hide their true convictions from their colleagues—unless, of course, one’s convictions are devoutly conformist!

The overall result fosters a groupthink precisely contrary to tenure’s stated intentions of preserving and protecting academic freedom. Eliminating tenure would free younger faculty from collegiality’s insistence on ideological conformity. Or, at least, that’s how I see it now, after working without tenure’s safety net for five years. Having freedom from tenure means that things other than collegiality determine my promotion or termination.

My situation may be different from that of most assistant professors. My university not only has no tenure but is explicitly Christian. Most academics would see such a state of affairs as a recipe for fear; I have found just the opposite. Because what one should believe is explicitly stated as part of our mission as teachers at a Christian university, and is made very clear before one accepts the job, everything else flows easily. My position here would not be as secure if my beliefs changed, but, conversely, I wouldn’t want to work here if they did.

The result of tenure’s absence is that, with no vote on collegiality, there’s greater freedom to disagree strongly and openly with colleagues. Additionally, there’s a healthy sensitivity to the market: my job security is not found in a legal contract but in the quality of skills I bring to tasks and the perceived value of those skills. I am incentivized to do my best, and that’s how it should be.

That is not to say that tenure is completely without value for professors. The value is primarily financial, yet, unlike most financial incentives, tenure doesn’t make someone want to work harder or better. On the contrary, when someone receives tenure, he can relax and stop driving himself to perform. A tenured associate professor can dream about a significant book, top journal article, or major grant, but that is all gravy. Regardless of his professional successes or failures, he can still pay the bills and put food on the table, thanks to tenure.

Before we get too prissy, let’s just state the obvious: who wouldn’t want that? Surely a junior lawyer promoted to partner would prefer it if, regardless of his caseload, he still draws the same salary. What a relief! (While that may have once been the case for some firms, in today’s economy, even partners must add value to the firm!)

One common argument made against tenure, that the professoriate should be permitted—or forced—to compete in the market economy, falls on deaf ears in academia. This is due largely to the shibboleth of academic freedom and also, perhaps, because the average professor despises or fears the market economy.

But there’s a different kind of economic argument for tenure. Faculty members’ salaries and employment potential are principally determined by research, while professors perform a great many other duties that the market doesn’t reward: they serve on committees; they meet with students; they attend community functions; they write recommendation letters for students; they talk to donors; they teach; they apply for grants and fellowships, etc. Tenure can therefore be viewed as a long-term bonus for performing those functions, but that bonus is a promise of future employment instead of cash.

For example, the market does not reward excellent teaching, in part because there’s no agreed upon standard but also because excellence in teaching does not enhance a university’s prestige the way that valued research does. Serving on two or three additional, important committees will improve one’s hiring chances at another university not one whit; spending all that time on one’s own research may lead to a handsome offer from some other institution.

These non-research activities may not be held in great esteem, but they are extremely useful to their particular universities. Having committed so much to their universities by performing these duties without recompense, their universities commit to them as well. Universities are normally nonprofit or public enterprises, so rather than awarding professors with part ownership in the firm, universities reward them with tenure.

Tenure can also be seen as protection from the harsh realities of the academic job market. Yet with that protection comes some equally cruel realities. For one, universities lock professors into lower salaries by rewarding them with security instead of money. Furthermore, tenure distorts the job market to reduce mobility, limit opportunities, and protect mediocrity. Unproductive tenured professors take the places that would otherwise be reserved for professors looking to move on or to move up. Fewer full-time teaching positions exist, because universities are reluctant to create lifetime financial obligations in the form of tenure and tenure track positions.

Because it is so costly to have an additional full-time teacher, universities make do with many part-time ones. Tenure fosters an academic underclass of wandering postdocs, VAPs (visiting assistant professors), graduate students, and adjuncts—a trend that should greatly trouble tenure’s defenders. It’s one thing to say that a hardworking professor receives tenure for his academic accomplishments; it’s another thing to say that a host of adjuncts have to work for a pittance to pay for it.

In sum, the benefits of tenure have little to do with academic freedom. Instead, they are a kind of financial reward, but one with multiple strings attached. We need to consider the financial benefit of tenure and ask whether tenure could ever be replaced by different financial instruments: annual bonuses, part ownership of a university’s assets, or even some kind of unemployment insurance.

But the resistance to change is tremendous. After all, tenure is extremely desirable for many; it not only permits professors to keep their jobs when they perform at barely average levels or worse, but it allows them to maintain tight control over much of the nation’s intellectual dialogue through “collegiality.” Of course, the rest of us must ask whether the privilege afforded by tenure helps or hinders higher education, or, for that matter, the U.S.