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Editor: Paul L. Caron, Dean
Pepperdine University School of Law

Monday, July 16, 2018

Simkovic: How Secure Is Tenure?

Following up on my recent posts:

Michael Simkovic (USC), How Secure Is Tenure?:

Colleges and universities typically pay educated professionals a fraction of what similar individuals earn in the private sector (typically around 60 to 80 cents on the dollar) in return for greater job security and academic freedom.  In recent years, some law schools have effectively reneged on this bargain, slashing compensation, de-prioritizing research support and/or accepting outside funding that compromises academic freedom, and terminating even some tenured faculty members.

Recent reports suggest that Vermont Law School has taken this to the extreme. According to the ABA Journal, Vermont Law School recently stripped tenure from 14 of its 19 tenured professors. This was done without a formal declaration of financial exigency, and according to faculty members and the AAUP, apparently without the consent of faculty members typically required for such decisions. ...

If the reports are accurate, Vermont has essentially acted as if tenure does not exist. This could potentially raise questions about whether Vermont is in compliance with ABA standard 405, but it is unclear how assertive the ABA or site visit teams will be in enforcing those standards. 

The incident highlights the importance of faculty members joining organizations like the AAUP which protect tenure and academic freedom.  At many institutions, tenured faculty members are increasingly getting the worst of both worlds—private-sector level risks with public-sector level compensation.

Anecdotally, faculty members with marketable skills and experience are increasingly leaving for more attractive positions in the private sector.

In the short term, faculty members considering a lateral move or prospective faculty members considering entering the academy should check a university's credit rating and very carefully research how the university has handled financial difficulties in the past.  Except for those given an opportunity to work at a handful of elite, well-funded, and highly credit-worthy institutions with strong tenure protections, educated workers may increasingly conclude that giving up a lucrative career in the private sector is inadvisable until tenure protections are adequately strengthened or compensation is increased to offset greater risk.

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Simkovic has a hard time acknowledging reality. Vermont Law cannot pay those tenured professors. They don't have the revenue. I calculate that with the cuts, they are still running a $10 million annual deficit. The alternative is shutting down and everyone losing their jobs. Which is likely to happen anyway. Tenure exists to protect against political retaliation and things of that nature, not as a financial guaranty in the face of bankruptcy.

Posted by: JM | Jul 16, 2018 10:09:51 AM

JM--so if it really is financial exigency Vermont should have coped with it the right way--by making such a declaration through official channels and by considering the many ways that such exigencies can be dealt with. Often there is more administrative dross than faculty dross. Not clear that Vermont looked at that issue. Even if cutting faculty size is done, it should be done on a disciplined basis--i.e., considering what academic disciplines are most central and necessary, considering what programs are most important for the future--rather than just picking off faculty from a top-down approach. Tenure exists to protect against political retaliation and academic governance exists to ensure that reasonable methods are used to make difficult decisions with adequate consultation. It's not clear that Vermont paid any attention to protecting tenure or to academic consultation, and it will likely suffer for making poor decisions because of that.

Posted by: Linda Beale | Jul 16, 2018 3:12:04 PM

Tenure and academia have been the target of the Cato institute, the Koch brothers, right wing media, and the Republican party for years. College graduates are far more likely to vote Democrat than Republican. It’s not hard to understand why. Professors teach students facts and train them to think critically. The right wing wants an uneducated population that believes regressive tax and regulatory policy will benefit the masses rather than an elite few. When the policies fail, the right wing wants the uneducated masses to blame minorities and immigrants rather than right wing ideology.

Geographic regions composed of liberal and educated citizens also threatens the power of the right wing. Liberal educated citizens have higher economic productivity than uneducated citizens. College graduates earn over 50% more than high school graduates and are more likely to be employed. Law school graduates earn almost one million dollars more than a college graduate over their lifetime. Not surprisingly, at the macro level, this results in a disparity in economic outcomes between blue states and red states. Blue states along the coasts, with large populations of liberal educated citizens, are much more productive and have a higher GDP than red states in flyover. The discrepancy in wealth between the citizens in blue states like California, New York, and Virginia compared to citizens in the failed red state experiment of Kansas and southern states undermines the conservative narrative. Destroying colleges and law schools through the elimination of tenure and online smear campaigns spreading lies about the lack of jobs for college and law school graduates only advances the right wing agenda.

Posted by: Cato | Jul 16, 2018 3:13:31 PM

If I had to guess, I would say that the highly unusual $17 million loan VLS got from the Department of Agriculture last year has some contract language that would not look kindly upon the school entering financial exigency. But what is apparent to everyone except the law school defense brigade is that VLS, like many law schools, is and has been running at a deficit for some years, has no parent university to bail them out, and is at the very end of their tether. We have seen from the horse's mouth how bad the bleeding has been at the University of Minnesota Law School, that's a top 20ish law school with state funding and a public university attached. VLS is a small, unranked, private law school in a state where the capital has like 7,000 people. Like Valpo and Indy Tech and others, VLS's time has come, regardless of whatever self-interested talk about tenure protections one might come up with.

Posted by: Unemployed Northeastern | Jul 16, 2018 3:24:11 PM

Answer: not very

Posted by: mike livingston | Jul 17, 2018 4:25:14 AM

Listen, and understand. Math is out there. It can’t be bargained with. It can’t be reasoned with. It doesn’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead.

Posted by: AMTbuff | Jul 17, 2018 4:53:15 AM

"Law school graduates earn almost one million dollars more than a college graduate over their lifetime"

Can't even peddle it under your own name, eh? Anyhoo as you know that was the high end of law school graduates, from a past age of greater opportunity and far less student loan debt, that will not be seen again. Also the figure is pretax and pre-student loan repayment but hey, that's only like half a million dollars right there...

Posted by: Unemployed Northeastern | Jul 17, 2018 9:08:49 AM