Monday, August 16, 2010

The Argument Against Tenure

Christopher Beam:

The most common pro-tenure argument is that it protects academic freedom. Once a professor gains tenure, the thinking goes, he or she can say anything without fear of being fired. Academia thrives on the circulation of dangerous ideas.

The problem is, for every tenured professor who's liberated at age 40 to speak his mind, there are dozens of junior professors terrified to say anything the least bit controversial, lest they lose their one shot at job security for life. Academia relies on young scholars to shake things up. Yet tenure incentivizes them not to. Instead, it rewards students who follow in the footsteps of the elders whose favor they will require when the day of judgment arrives.

I agree completely.

Tenure is being phased out in British universities, and my friends there report that this has made no difference. Professors without tenure become regular civil service employees, whom it is difficult to fire as long as they are doing their jobs; and why would we want to protect professors who are not doing their jobs from dismissal?

The only argument I can see for tenure is the reverse of the usual one, that is, because it provides at point at which universities can get rid of people who just aren't working out. Without the ritual of the tenure review it might be very difficult to ever fire any professor at any point in his or her career.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Well, in this country professors, even those at state schools, likely won't become "regular civil service employees."

The main argument for tenure, it seems to me, is it protects professors from would-be reforming university administrations. Since change is usually bad, and since the changes reforming administrators propose are usually based on blinkered ideologies of one sort or another, and since the outcome of administrative change, regardless of the ideology, is always to increase the power of administrators, I think that's a pretty good argument for tenure. It gives the forces opposed to reforming administrators a strong base from which to resist them.