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Does Tenure Protect Academic Freedom — Or Academic Mediocrity?

Academic freedom has become a red herring to argue for the need for tenure. Here is why tenure is not serving the public good.

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Many states are considering legislation to end tenure. Texas is taking the lead on the issue, with Senate Bill 18, which has quickly become politicized. Both liberal and conservative faculty claim tenure is needed for protection from political agendas — academic freedom is at stake. A comparable critique of SB 18, by Adam Kolasinski, argues that Texas and other states’ “bills that weaken or abolish tenure protection … if passed, would undermine all reform efforts,” because then “woke administrators will purge them [conservatives] in short order.”

To be sure, academic freedom is crucial to the professorial responsibility to advance and disseminate knowledge. But tenure is not synonymous with academic freedom, as many in academia claim.

The First Amendment by law protects academic freedom at public universities regardless of tenured status. And I have proven it.

Having been a critic of tenure for more than 50 years and resigning it each time it was awarded, I have collected these frequently asked questions about tenure and reasons why it is not serving the public good.

How Did Tenure Come into Existence in the First Place?

Tenure was originally created at private religious universities, which were most prevalent in early America. Its purpose was to protect professors’ jobs from wealthy donors who might object to teachers of theologically controversial subjects (e.g., evolution). 

Decades later, tenure has morphed into a guaranteed job for life at public universities. Though the First Amendment doesn’t protect faculty at private schools, it does at public institutions. 

What’s Wrong with Tenure?

If you want insight into the problem with tenure, simply ask college students if they have experienced professors who were unsatisfactory teachers. I regularly ask students in my classes that question — the response is sadly almost always unanimous: yes. No wonder a study done at Northwestern University found that non-tenured, adjunct faculty get higher teacher evaluations than much higher-paid tenured faculty.

Even these productive faculty, behind closed doors, usually admit that tenure is not as much about academic freedom as it is about job-for-life security; it’s a nice perk, why give it up if I don’t have to?  

And the ones who stop working hard after netting the big plum of tenure are making the entire profession look bad.

Doesn’t Post-Tenure Review Solve the Problem?

Post-tenure review is argued as the means to revoke tenure for poor performance or misconduct. The problem is that it’s rarely used. A study published in the Chronicle of Higher Education in 1994 reported that out of 280,000 tenured professors in the United States, only 50 to 75 each year have their tenure revoked. According to researcher Cathy Trower of Harvard University, those numbers have not changed. That is .02 percent annual termination, give or take. The private sector typically reports 5-7 percent involuntary turnover to eliminate dead wood.

During testimony in March on Texas’ bill to end no-accountability tenure (SB 18), an attorney for Texas A&M recounted that A&M has had only about four post-tenure review terminations over the past few years. If that were to average one a year, with 1,488 tenured faculty at A&M, that comes to .06 percent. He did indicate that many faculty resign rather than go through the long, humiliating process of post-tenure review. But he shared no statistics. In my 50 years of teaching, I’ve met no one who quit ahead of their review.

What are the Costs of Tenure to Higher Education?

The rising cost of higher education is problematic, increasing at a rate that far exceeds inflation. Tenure contributes significantly to this problem.

A University of Texas study in 2011 revealed that UT Austin alone could potentially save $266 million annually if half of its professors were as productive in teaching as the top 20 percent, if they terminate the least productive faculty, and if they shifted their small workload to other professors.

Tenure also locks in big costs and makes it difficult to redeploy resources to areas of higher demand.

Tenure makes it hard to be nimble. President Woodrow Wilson, who had served as president of Princeton University, famously said, “It is easier to change the location of a cemetery, than to change the school curriculum.” 

What Does Tenure Abuse Look Like?

This is the most troubling aspect of tenure. Here are a couple of examples:

A former dean of Texas Tech University Rawls College of Business was removed for grade tampering and for Title IX misconduct. Though removed as dean, he was allowed to remain as a tenured faculty member.

An associate dean was terminated from her administrative position due to financial misconduct for using over $225,000 in research funds to pay her wife (misrepresented as an independent vendor company) in a manner deemed deceptive and in violation of university policy. She was also allowed to remain as a tenured professor.

Can Tenure Adversely Impact Academic Freedom?

To achieve tenure, a tenure-track assistant professor goes through probation that results either in being tenured or terminated.

The senior tenured faculty must recommend promotion. Do you think during promotion un-tenured faculty feel like they have academic freedom to challenge the senior faculty? 

Will there be a Loss of Prestige without Tenure?

In 1988, the United Kingdom largely did away with traditional tenure to increase productivity among the nation’s colleges and universities. It was replaced by a distinction between permanent and temporary contracts for academics. Over 30 years later, these schools have suffered no loss in prestige.

What is an Alternative to a Tenure Contract?

There is a straightforward solution that’s also a good deal for quality faculty — multi-year rolling contracts. This is different from a terminating contract, which expires and must be renewed. With a rolling contract, the recipient has a multi-year time horizon before termination is possible. 

An untenured professor would initially receive a fixed contract during probation. That could be renewed if performance meets expectations. After that they could be promoted to associate professor and granted a three-year rolling contract. Annually, the school can reset the three-year clock if the professor is doing a good job, or tell an underperforming professor they have three years to find another job, or negotiate a lump sum to get them to leave right away. 

This is excellent job security and is much safer for the taxpayer than committing to a guaranteed job for life. Also, rather than a tenured faculty member being forced out through dysfunctional retaliatory acts, they can simply be bought out for less expense and hassle.

Conclusion

Today academic freedom has become a red herring to argue for the need for tenure, which is simply a contract — not federal law, as is the First Amendment. The main reason academics are fighting for tenure is because it guarantees their jobs for life — a perk understandably hard to give up.


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