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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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.