Should Tenure Be Abolished?

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These days tenure for teachers is such a brawl in America's elementary and secondary schools that it's easy to forget that it's more a cornerstone of higher education.  When Austan Goolsbee, Chairman of the President's Council of Economic Advisors, announced earlier this month that he was leaving the White House to return to the University of Chicago it was a reminder just how strong the ties — and inducements — of university tenure can be, and why it has recently come under fire.

At colleges and universities, tenure basically bestows a job for life unless an institution runs out of money. Originally intended to shield professors from meddling by college administrators, donors or politicians, tenure has evolved into one of the most coveted perks in higher education. It signals excellence and it confers employment stability.

  Critics of tenure contend it has outlived its usefulness and is a poor fit for the modern university. Supporters counter that the intellectual independence it confers is essential to a culture of inquiry. Let's start with the main complaints:

Tenure creates bad incentives and is a drag on productivity. Critics argue that tenure does nothing to encourage academics to remain productive after they are tenured. And it's true that for many scholars, their most productive years are early in their careers.  Tenure also creates perverse incentives for administrators because they see little point in engaging people who are essentially immovable objects.  As a result, schools have been relying more on cheaper adjunct professors on contracts rather than full-time scholars.

It's too easy to earn in many places and teaching doesn't matter in most places. What it takes to get tenure varies by school. At some universities, the bar is high, for instance multiple articles in refereed journals and academic books. At others it's a much lower bar, an article or two.  And almost nowhere does quality of teaching matter — publications, not teaching awards are the coin of the academic realm.

  It can be abused. Tenure — and by extension the academic freedom it confers — at times becomes all-purpose non-conformist insurance.  In 1999, six professors from various Virginia colleges and universities sued the state alleging that a ban on accessing pornography from state computers infringed on their academic freedom. Ridiculous, sure. But illustrative. Academic freedom is supposed to be about serious inquiry within a discipline, critics argue, not a blanket ability to do what one pleases in the name of scholarship.

Yet while jettisoning tenure has intuitive appeal, the proponents have some points, too: subtle or overt retaliation for academic or political views out of the mainstream does happen. Besides, good administrators can navigate around tenure to build effective academic departments. Good administration can also ensure that tenure is a meaningful bar — especially in a labor market where the supply of academics often far outstrips demand at universities.

As public universities face increasing budget pressure, tenured faculty help ensure quality in academic departments, and tenure makes these jobs more attractive to ambitious academics in the first pace. They say that getting a PhD means forgoing current income in order to be able to forgo future income. Tenure is one way to make university jobs attractive in an environment of scarce resources.

Where people come down on these questions is mostly a matter of values — for instance, efficiency versus unconstrained inquiry. And in general where people stand depends on where they sit. A noteworthy exception? College presidents. A survey released last month found that most of them preferred long-term or short term contracts to tenure. Private college presidents were even more skeptical of tenure than their public counterparts.

Compromise proposals to modify tenure without ending it have been floated. Ideas include making it renewable or using fixed term contracts instead of a lifetime term.  But where states including Minnesota, Florida, and Arizona have tried to modify tenure, the opposition has been vehement and reforms have amounted to little.

Higher education economics, meanwhile, are increasingly making tenure obsolete in favor of adjuncts and contract teaching anyway. Forget professors for a moment, that trend is not necessarily good for students, universities, or states either. As a once and future adjunct myself, the adjunct system is terrific for people like me who only want to teach part time, but it's terrible for people seeking to be professional academics and it's at odds with part of the scholarly mission of universities.

So perhaps it is time for a tenure brawl in higher education, and time to take the ideas to mend — rather than end — tenure more seriously. Otherwise, before too long the point may become academic.

Andrew J. Rotherham, who writes the blog Eduwonk, is a co-founder and partner at Bellwether Education, a nonprofit working to improve educational outcomes for low-income students. School of Thought, his education column for, appears every Thursday.