Secure Abjure Tenure
| Scott Masten |
Thanks to Peter, Nicolai, Dick, and Lasse for the invitation to guest blog and for the opportunity to sound off on current issues to a broader audience than just my LCD screen. [Thank you! -- LCD Screen.]
A fairly recent example of such an issue was the discussion — anew — of proposals — anew — to abolish professorial tenure. Earlier this month, the New York Times Sunday Book Review ran an essay titled “The End of Tenure?” This was preceded by a July NYT “Room for Debate” forum on the question “What if College Tenure Dies?” and a proposal a week or so later by the American Bar Association to eliminate the term “tenure” from the ABA standards covering job security and academic freedom. A flurry of blog posts on the merits of tenure — many by law professors — ensued.
Leaving aside the details of the debate, an interesting pattern emerged in the “sides,” with more market-oriented (libertarian- or conservative-leaning) writers tending to be more critical, or at least skeptical of the merits, of tenure (see, for example, here and here; here; and here, compared, for instance, with this. The rule-proving exception is here).
I say “interesting” because tenure and its administrative counterpart, faculty governance, were not imposed on higher education institutions by some legislative or regulatory body but arose autonomously, as it were, in the academic marketplace. There are, after all, some three thousand academic institutions in the U.S. alone. If tenure and faculty governance are as detrimental to the performance of colleges and universities as the critics contend and if an alternative organizational arrangement exists that avoids the drawbacks of the current arrangements without causing some other, worse-yet problems, one would think that some school would recognize these advantages, dispose of the obsolete encumbrances, use some of the proceeds from the resulting efficiency improvements to attract (sans tenure) a group of top-flight professors, and leap to the top of the academic pecking order.
The tenure-skeptic’s response to this would likely be something to the effect that “most colleges and universities are nonprofit or state-owned and therefore no one has the incentive to take advantage of the substantial efficiencies that eliminating tenure would yield.” But this merely pushes the institutional question one step further back: Why is it that most colleges and universities, including the most successful ones, are incorporated in a way that prohibits the distribution of institutional surpluses? Or put another way, why aren’t for-profit universities targeting the elite segment of the higher ed market?
Another response might be that we got stuck on a bad evolutionary path, an academic version of the proverbial (not actual) QWERTY keyboard. Tenure and faculty governance have been fairly durable. But their emergence in the U.S. dates back only to the end of the 19th century, coinciding (not coincidentally, I would argue) with the introduction of research as a central function of universities. Research changed educational transactions in a number of ways: It increased specialization and the heterogeneity of faculty, reduced faculty mobility, made it harder for administrators to understand and evaluate faculty contributions, and increased conflicts over the role of universities. Educational institutions could have responded at the time in any number of ways to the organizational challenges the introduction of research posed. The fact that tenure, faculty governance, and the norm of academic freedom were the institutions that emerged to address these problems should create at least a presumption (rebuttable, to be sure) that these arrangements had advantages over the feasible alternatives. (Did someone say “remediableness”?)
Of course, even if tenure and faculty governance were right for the time, circumstances may have changed, or be in the process of changing, in such a way that their original justification no longer holds. But making that case requires understanding the problems that tenure and faculty governance arose to address in the first place and then showing that the attributes of academic transactions or the technology of governance have changed in a way that tilts today’s comparative analysis toward other solutions.