Saturday, April 25, 2009

why tenure? OR should we get rid of tenure?

Francis Fukuyama in the Washington Post and re-printed in the C-J...

I am a tenured professor. But I'd get rid of tenure.

I would too-- if only for myself. As a wonderfully pleasant job characteristic, it follows that I sacrifice other forms of compensation in my labor market-- a lot of pay. I'd make that trade-off anyday. I love to teach, do research, and provide service to the university and the community. But without tenure, they'd have to pay me more-- and why would they want to fire me? So, tenure is a fringe benefit that I don't use very much.

That said, I think it's an important job characteristic, given the sort of work done by professors. Fukuyama starts with the common, but limited, defense of tenure as an institution:

Tenure was created to protect academic freedom after a series of 19th Century cases when university donors or legislators tried to remove professors whose views they disliked....

A former professor friend of mine ran into this. He wrote a candid assessment of the Texas state budget and recommended that Texas A&M not operate a golf course. The Board of Regents was not fond of that recommendation, and as the story goes, wanted to have him fired.

The rationale for tenure is still valid. But the system has turned the academy into one of the most conservative and costly institutions in the country. Yes, conservative: Economists joke that their discipline advances one funeral at a time, but many fields must wait for wholesale generational turnover before new approaches take hold. The system also hamstrings younger untenured professors, making them fearful of taking intellectual risks and causing them to write in jargon aimed only at those in their narrow subdiscipline...

All true! That's one of the downsides. Another is the occasional fossil or slug who hangs on and takes advantage of his boss' inability to fire him!

The larger issue, however, is this. Professors have specialized knowledge-- and are responsible for hiring their peers. Administrators are not in a good position to judge professors or their hires. And the university wants professors to hire good peers-- in fact, choosing candidates better than themselves is ideal. But what professor would want to do that without tenure?

Another problem is that the intellectual fads cited by Fukuyama can change over time. What was once valuable in terms of research might fade. And research which is likely to be judged by more subjective values is prone to reversals, political infighting, etc.


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