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

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Want To Kill Tenure? Be Careful What You Wish For

Chronicle of Higher Education, Want to Kill Tenure? Be Careful What You Wish For:

The trustee hadn’t said a word for an hour as the board of the small Midwestern liberal-arts college debated ways to turn around its flagging fortunes. But during a lull in the conversation, he finally spoke up. As David Strauss recalls, "He looked at everybody as if we’d all been fools, and said, ‘Well, the solution is easy. Get rid of tenure.’"

Strauss, a principal of the Art & Science Group, a consulting firm that works with colleges, had heard the argument before. Almost anyone who works in higher education has. Many outside academe — and some within — see tenure as an entitlement that encourages "deadwood" professors to coast and shields firebrands who spout off, an anachronism that hinders colleges from innovating and drives up costs.

Strauss says that the trustee’s suggestion was politely ignored and talk soon turned back to more pressing issues, such as enrollment and academic programs. Though tenure is increasingly scarce, its status as an ­ideal in higher education is so sacred that sentiments like the trustee’s are rarely expressed openly. Indeed, several academic leaders, lawmakers, and advocates for adjuncts and academic freedom didn’t respond to requests for interviews for this article. But the trustee’s argument against tenure isn’t going away, and may be gaining momentum.

WisconsinKentuckyArkansas, and Tennessee have all made policy moves in recent years that have sought to to weaken tenure, or that faculty members have interpreted as threats to it. Leaders of some private colleges who want to adapt more quickly to marketplace demands have invoked dire institutional finances as a reason to propose — if not always follow through on — cutting tenured faculty.

For both political reasons and because of institutional policy choices, tenure arguably faces more peril now than it has in nearly 70 years.

In some respects, tenure is already dying. The percentage of faculty members who are tenured or on the tenure track has been declining for decades, as colleges shed tenure lines and bring in more adjuncts. The share of tenured and tenure-track faculty members has declined from 45 percent in 1975 to less than 30 percent in 2015, according to data compiledby the American Association of University Professors. Meanwhile, the percentage of part-time faculty teaching courses has nearly doubled, from 24 percent to 40 percent, over the same period.

The quiet erosion of the tenure beachhead has been very effective, says Richard P. Chait, an emeritus professor of education at Harvard University and an expert on the subject: "If a little sand disappears every semester, or every academic year, it’s not quite as observable."

But the long-term implications of the shift could be substantial, says Thomas L. Harnisch, director of state relations and policy analysis at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, because tenure protects academic integrity. "What we’re ­really talking about," he says, "is the soul of higher education."

What does the potential end of tenure portend for the future of higher education? What are the benefits and costs of tenure — and of getting rid of it? And are those costs purely economic and straightforward, or is there something deeper at stake, with consequences that are hard to predict?

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Trustees are usually trustees because they donated money, which usually means they have a lot of money and power, and are usually conservative business people.

Trustees don't dislike tenure because it costs money. It actually saves money by getting better quality faculty to accept lower pay for higher job security.

They dislike tenure because it protects academic freedom and integrity ("firebrands spouting off" according to this article)

Professors sometimes say or write things that offend rich conservative business people, like pointing out that tax cuts don't magically pay for themselves, or that hedge and private equity managers pay a lower tax rate on their labor income than middle and working class americans.

This can lead to calls for higher taxes on rich people or regulations which limit their power to protect the rest of the population. Some rich people find having a great deal of power, but less than complete absolute power, deeply troubling and consider anything that could undermine their power an affront and a threat to be summarily dispatched.

Donors sometimes call universities and insist that professors be fired because of their views. These views are often little more than honest descriptions of facts and data.

But whether the professor is right is either irrelevant, or matters only in the sense that the calls to fire the professor are louder when the professor *is right* because that makes the professor's ideas even more dangerous to plutocratic power.

Posted by: Tame | Jul 14, 2018 9:08:08 AM

@ Tame: And liberal tenured professors like to hold on to their institutional political hegemony in university governance, including hiring power. They want to protect their ability to self-replicate/perpetuate the institutional political status quo in the hiring process.

Posted by: anon | Jul 14, 2018 1:04:30 PM

" liberal tenured professors like to hold on to their institutional political hegemony in university governance, including hiring power. They want to protect their ability to self-replicate/perpetuate the institutional political status quo in the hiring process."

Dude, the only one's hiring on an explicitly political / ideological basis are conservatives and libertarians. Look at George Mason and Hoover.

Posted by: Tame | Jul 14, 2018 6:37:15 PM

But you know what? Tenure protects conservative professors too. So if you actually believed that universities were full of liberals who wanted to fire every conservative they met, you'd want tenure to protect the conservative minority.

Posted by: Tame | Jul 14, 2018 6:38:55 PM

I think trustees largely dislike tenure because it limits their flexibility.

They are largely ignorant about the nature of academic work or the role that the tenure process plays in producing good work.

They are, on the other hand, very familiar (from their success in the private sector) with budgets and bottom lines. So naturally their attention focuses on the latter.

They pay little attention to how the institution got to where it is or where it will end up if they tear apart longstanding institutional mechanisms.

The CHE post is good but it does not emphasize the role that tenure plays in insuring self-governance by academics of academics. Tenure has to be earned by demonstrating to peers the validity and significance of one's research and the effectiveness of one's teaching.

Faculty should join the AAUP - as recommended recently by Mike Simkovic in a very good post at Brian Leiter's site - and I think faculty should push for representation by rank and file faculty (not former faculty now serving as deanlets) on boards of trustees to increase board awareness of faculty issues.

Posted by: Steve Diamond | Jul 14, 2018 10:01:13 PM

All I can say is that tenure has created a situation in which universities are populated by faculty who march in lock step politically and intellectually and far too many students who are frightened by ideas that do not fit into their own "safe spaces". That is not what tenure was supposed to do. At this point it seems that it is a rationale for people who are not otherwise employable to keep their very comfortable positions as the job markets shrink and they have nowhere to go.

Posted by: David Barnhizer | Jul 15, 2018 5:57:12 AM

The notion that tenure is under attack because rich conservative trustees are trying to silence courageous progressive scholars from speaking truth to power is among the silliest assertions I've encountered in a long time. And we live in the golden age of silly assertions!

Posted by: Mike Petrik | Jul 15, 2018 6:53:50 AM

@ Tame, so you're saying if tenure were abolished tomorrow, all these professors who accepted less pay for job security would quit and do, what?

Posted by: Dale Spradling | Jul 15, 2018 9:19:57 AM

You abused it, so now you should lose it. I don't care. Get rid of tenure.

Posted by: Anon | Jul 15, 2018 12:58:53 PM

Vermont Law School’s recent, and selective, attack on tenured professors. Elimination of tenure for 75% of its faculty.

Posted by: LawProf | Jul 16, 2018 6:50:25 AM

The ~70% of non-tenured and not-tenure track college professors shrug their shoulders and go back to their off-brand Ramen noodles while waiting in line at the walk-in clinic...

Posted by: Unemployed Northeastern | Jul 16, 2018 9:16:17 AM