Tenure Under Fire


Mark C. Taylor’s well written article, in the New York Times, excoriating tenure certainly deserves attention from both sides of the tenure coin. His claim that tenure is financially unsustainable is tough to refute in these difficult economic times. 

However, Taylor, who is the religion department chairperson at Columbia University, has his work cut out for him when he proclaims that tenure is academically indefensible. His analogy of a CEO being unwilling to offer a lifetime guaranteed contract to his employees is a pathetically weak argument. Qualified educators knowingly take pay cuts to spend their time imparting valuable knowledge and life lessons to the members of their classrooms. His argument becomes even more tenuous when he must admit that tenured professors do NOT have a guaranteed lifetime contract. Read about the tenured professor who was fired for viewing pornography from school computers.

Mark Taylor did raise a very valid and germane point when he observes that many tenured professors become complacent and intellectually illiquid(Not liquid). Put another way, a fat cat tenured teacher may not have to stay relevant and up to date in their field as the built-in job security does not create a sense of urgency with respect to professional development. Read his well written book titled Crisis on Campus for more depth on his various positions opposing academic tenure.



Unsustainable and Indefensible

Tenure is financially unsustainable and intellectually indefensible. The fundamental problem is liquidity – both financial and intellectual.
Tenure decisions render illiquid a significant percentage of endowments at the precise moment more flexibility is required.
If you take the current average salary of an associate professor and assume this tenured faculty member remains an associate professor for five years and then becomes a full professor for 30 years, the total cost of salary and benefits alone is $12,198,578 at a private institution and $9,992,888 at a public institution. To fund these expenses would require a current endowment of $3,959,743 and $3,524,426 respectively and $28,721,197 and $23,583,423 at the end of the person’s career. Tenure decisions render illiquid a significant percentage of endowments at the precise moment more flexibility is required.

Capital is not only financial but is also intellectual and here too liquidity is an issue. In today’s fast changing world, it is impossible to know whether a person’s research is going to be relevant in five years let alone 35 years.
If you were the C.E.O. of a company and the board of directors said: “We want this to be the best company of its kind in the world. Hire the best people you can find and pay them whatever is required.” Would you offer anybody a contract with these terms: lifetime employment, no possibility of dismissal, regardless of performance? If you did, your company would fail and you would be looking for a new job. Why should academia be any different from every other profession?

To those who say that the abolition of tenure will make faculty reluctant to be demanding with students or express controversial views, I respond that in almost 40 years of teaching, I have not known a single person who has been more willing to speak out after tenure than before. In fact, nothing represses the free expression of ideas more than the long and usually fruitless quest for tenure.

Nothing represses the free expression of ideas more than the long and usually fruitless quest for tenure.
It is a mistake to pose this question in all-or-nothing terms – either you have permanent tenured faculty or itinerant adjuncts. A middle ground will address most of the problems. After a trial period of three to five years, faculty members who merit promotion should be given seven-year renewable contracts. For this system to work effectively, these reviews must be rigorous and responsible.

All too often lofty defenses of tenure mask the self-interested search for job security.(true enough, but what is wrong with that? Highly educated folk are taking a financial hit switching from corporate to academia) Higher education is in a state of crisis. If we are to provide the education our students and children deserve and our country and the world require, we must confront these questions openly and honestly. The abolition of tenure will create a more flexible faculty that can be held responsible in ways that have been impossible for far too long.