The Magazine

What Price Tenure?

Pretty high, unless you have it.

Aug 1, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 43 • By HELEN RITTELMEYER
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Professor Ward Churchill Picture

Professor Ward Churchill, 2005

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Until it was amended in 1994, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act included an exception for universities, permitting them to set a mandatory retirement age of 70 for tenured faculty. Out of all America’s employers, universities were among the handful that Congress worried would be overburdened with seventysomethings not exhausted by decades at their jobs, not enticed by the relaxations of retirement, not removable by some sort of performance review, and yet nowhere near valuable enough to justify their salaries. It’s possible that Congress suspected what Naomi Schaefer Riley has tried to prove: that tenured professors have it much too good.

That is the contention of The Faculty Lounges, which opens with a New Yorker cartoon of a lecturer saying, “Today, class, I’m proud to announce my tenure.” He is throwing off his pants. That’s about what Riley thinks of the institution of tenure—and among her “reasons why you won’t get the college education you pay for,” it tops the list.

Tenure is supposed to protect two things: academic freedom and a professor’s decent expectation of job security. Academic freedom doesn’t much move Riley, who supposes that “many Americans might wonder why academic freedom is a principle worth defending anyway. Don’t some radical faculty members deserve to be run off campus?” Yes, and if you asked a liberal administrator to name one, he’d say Harvey Mansfield.

She notes that instructors of remedial math and basic French do not really need much academic freedom, which is true, but then she claims that science professors do not need much academic freedom, either. Her argument is that science professors must be indifferent to academic freedom, since so many of them are “voluntarily giving it up” by signing strings-attached research deals with corporations. But academic freedom provides valuable shelter to practitioners of low-cash-value “pure science”—and they survive even today, just as they have since corporations first started tempting research scientists with big money, which for the record was decades ago. Besides, academic freedom may be a luxury for some academics, or even most, as free speech is for citizens; that doesn’t mean it’s not a good bulwark to keep around for the Mansfields who really need it, who surely outnumber the Ward Churchills who abuse it.

Then again, if we measure academic freedom by the ideological diversity it ought to produce, tenure seems to be doing a poor job of protecting it. In fact, it’s not hard to imagine that it’s doing just the opposite.

Tenure is a long-term commitment, which inclines hiring committees to play it safe. Colleges have a legitimate interest in not hiring professors with awful or embarrassing opinions. But the full symptoms of crankhood do not usually appear until the patient’s fifth or sixth decade, so hiring committees must be wary of anyone whose views seem in danger of becoming embarrassing later on, and the range of acceptable opinion becomes that much narrower.

More important, tenure makes it hard for professors to move from one institution to another, and someone who so much as lands a tenure-track position at a college is unlikely to leave it. This amplifies the peer-pressure effect. If the academic labor market were more mobile, a conservative who discovered that his campus was more uniformly or vehemently liberal than he’d expected could pack up and move somewhere more congenial. As it is, with newly hired Ph.D.s feeling like all their eggs are in one basket, the urge to fit in with one’s colleagues is powerful.

As for job security, academics don’t deserve it any more than the rest of us. They might even deserve it less: Their time is entirely unsupervised, they hardly have a boss to speak of, and their job description consists of teaching, which is difficult to evaluate, and research, which can be evaluated only infrequently. That makes four temptations to slack off. Why add a lifetime job guarantee?

The arguments against tenure are persuasive. They were persuasive last time around, too, when Vietnam-era campus radicalism and rioting brought tenure as close to death as it’s ever been. But of the 20 anti-tenure bills introduced in state houses in those years, only one passed—and that covered only new hires at Virginia community colleges. Three national reports questioning tenure all fell with a thud. In the decades since then, only 13 independent four-year colleges have ditched tenure. So the real question for Riley isn’t why, but why now?

The enrollment explosion is one good reason, because it has made tenure vulnerable. Right now, 70 percent of high school graduates go to college for at least a little while, but this increase in enrollment has predictably led to a dilution of standards. More freshmen means more freshmen in need of remedial instruction. (In the University of California system, the proportion of incoming students needing remedial math or English is a demoralizing 6 out of 10.) But tenured professors don’t want to teach remedial courses; they don’t even want to teach introductory courses. So there is a fundamental mismatch between what students need and what tenured professors are offering, which is one reason for the “adjunctification” of college instruction. Administrators seem to prefer hiring outside the tenure track, and if the trend in that direction continues, tenure might be eroded from within by Ph.D.s on multiyear contracts. This seems more likely to deal tenure its death blow than any assault from
outside academia.

What if tenure did disappear? Academic freedom would survive, just as it has at West Point, Grove City College, and Bennington. (West Point has a grievance procedure for professors who believe their academic freedom has been violated; it is currently gathering cobwebs.) It’s no coincidence that all of these tenureless schools have strong personalities: military, Christian, hippie. Professors who need to stay in philosophical agreement with their bosses know to pick bosses they find philosophically agreeable. So, in an academia without tenure, more schools might develop in that direction. Professors would feel less secure in their jobs, but they would be spared the breakneck frenzy of those first seven years. Academic fads might be more popular, but they wouldn’t get trapped in amber so often. And the faculty would stop lounging. It’s difficult to imagine a tenureless academia coming into being tomorrow; but 10 or 15 years from now? 

Coeducation was accomplished in a lot less time.

Helen Rittelmeyer is an associate editor at National Review.