The Trouble With Tenure

Nadel, Mark

The Trouble With Tenure by Mark Nadel After a painful period of with- incompetent civil servant, and it drawal. I can now oDenly admit that I was once a tenure jhkie. I played all the...

...In hiring and tenure decisions, differences in dogma are commonly regarded as considerations of merit...
...Once unshielded by tenure, the deadwood might show some signs of life, in which case not only the universities but the professors themselves would be enriched...
...The better people donít need tenure to hold on .to their jobs...
...But compassion, which granted, is a noble sentiment, canít be allowed to lock us into tenure systems, in academia or anywhere else...
...It should surprise no one that promotions in academia, like promotions elsewhere, run the gamut from merit-based to politics- or personality -based...
...It relieves the job holder of having to maintain any level of competence, let alone excellence...
...A system truly devoted to merit has to find a way to size up people according to their performances throughout their careers...
...We should protect not professors alone, but also automobile workers, accountants, and pharmacists, too, from economic reprisal as they exercise their rights as citizens...
...If it is essential, universities are in the ludicrous position of saying that academic freedom is vital for senior faculty members but not so important for junior faculty members...
...But finding out who is and is not carrying his weight seems to be a relatively simple matter-perhaps simpler than conferring lifetime employment on someone...
...in practice, that's even more difficult than getting rid of an Mark Nadel, a former assistant professor at Cornell, is now a senior analyst at the Government Research Corporation...
...Of course, Sagan and Trivers both lived on to fight another day...
...it comes late to some and fades fast in others...
...the much celebrated free exchange of ideas is the poorer for that...
...Every student knows of tenured professors who havenít read, let alone written, a scholarly article in 25 years, and who havenít revised their lecture notes in as long either...
...Shortly before such discrimination became more difficult, tenure was denied to a prominent female political scientist but was awarded at the same time to a man in the same department with a considerably more meager record...
...And these bad professors are never fired...
...The governing statement on the subject is the 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure of the American Association of University Professors, and it argues that only if a professor has secure, permanent employment can he be truly free to express his views without fear of reprisal...
...If, for example, Bud Goodfellow is popular with his senior colleagues but has the embarrassing drawback of having no demonstrated qualifications for tenure, all his fan letters are forwarded to the appropriate committees and deans while any negative comment is conveniently ignored...
...Even the American Civil Liberties Union does not argue that lifetime employment is necessary to guarantee those rights...
...Cornellís record in most social science departmerits may seem bizarre, but it is not unique...
...If it doesnít, as the experience of universities shows, real merit is the loser...
...the admonition to ďpublish or perishĒ is normally well taken...
...Although his department had recommended him 30 for promotion the previous year, this time it denied him tenure-on academic grounds, of course, the department chairman said later...
...Three years ago, a former colleague who was finishing his third book, was on the editorial board of a major political science journal, and was an innovative and popular teacher, was denied tenure...
...they just had to stay smart to do their jobs and to keep them...
...And those people might well contribute more if they had a little less security...
...When thereís a loser in department political battles whom the department seeks to fire, a substantial 32 record of research and publication makes that hard to db_btit thatís what teaching is for...
...Dismissing the Unorthodox Moreover, some colleges have used the tenure decision to enforce whatever political orthodoxy currently prevails...
...Some people naturally decline in ability...
...then a faculty committee holds a formal hearing...
...The first kind first: certainly professors shouldnít be fired for their political views-but neither should anyone else...
...But at least as great is the threat that comes from those with tenure, who can severely limit the academic freedom of the younger colleagues without ever having to answer for their conduct...
...Particularly now, with the academic job market contracting, many senior professors who either got tenure when times were easier or havenít kept up with their fields are sitting in judgment of younger professors who by any standards are better teachers and researchers...
...Tenure can lock colleges into todayís intellectual fad for 30 years after the fad ends...
...No One Would Get Fired Academic freedom is not the only rationalization for tenure, nor is the threat to academic freedom the only fault of tenure...
...The best-known fault of the system is that it creates and sustains deadwood -people who may have been good when they got tenure, but arenít any more...
...Bows are made in the direction of teaching and service on administrative committees (an activity usually performed by people who are neither inclined toward nor adept at teaching or research...
...In' theory, a tenured professor can be fired for gross misconduct...
...Tenure is not only a lifetime commitment to individuals...
...Tenure committees, of course, maintain they are judging only on the basis of merit and not ideological considerations...
...Merit is more complicated than that...
...In practice, it isnít...
...The main stated reason for academic tenure is that it is the only sure way to guarantee academic freedomindeed, within the profession tenure and academic freedom are commonly seen as the same thing...
...If any employment system is to be based on merit-and all tenure systems make that claim-it just canít make one hiring decision early on for each person and then stick with it for life...
...Certainly no professor wants his department to become a laughingstock in the field because of its low quality, but thereís also a temptation not to appoint anyone too brilliant or too ambitious, for fear that heíll overshadow you...
...This is an impressive argument...
...Some Signs of Life When professors continue to grow intellectually and to contribute both in research and teaching, they are of continued value to their universities and would be kept on with or without tenure...
...Others who are less fortunate have been exiled to lesser colleges with less time and resources for research...
...Theoretically they can be, of course, and the AAUP says more arenít because college administrators lack the courage to take the appropriate action to deal with gross incompetents...
...There was no question in my mind that the Senate staffers I knew were considerably brighter than most academics I had worked with...
...Obviously this isnít going to work as a way of weeding out the incompetentsit takes too much time and effort...
...Why should tenured professors alone be afforded this protection...
...itís a lifetime commitment to methodologies and schools of thought...
...Defenders of tenure argue that the present system forces universities to make tough, final judgments on whether young professors meet their standards of excellence...
...But the logic of tenure is that hiring and firing decisions are intrinsically threatening to academic freedom and professors must, therefore be insulated from those threats...
...The same unaccountability exists in other tenured fields, but seldom with the aura of nobility it carries in academia...
...Having tenure means that for years professors can pretend to be accomplishing something without anyone checking to see if they really are...
...For the uninitiated, I should explain: tenure in a university virtually guarantees a professor life-time employment regardless of future worth or conduct...
...and unlike tenure decisions in places like law firms, for instance, there is remarkably little incentive to make meritocratic decisions...
...At all major colleges and universities, and increasingly at minor ones, merit is defined as published research...
...But in effect it creates a privileged class that runs our educational institutions and is almost entirely unaccountable for its conduct and competence...
...then the college president has to start formal proceedings...
...With few exceptions, all professors have some ardent fans among students and some detractors...
...There are two kinds of free expression that tmure is supposed to protect: freedom to express political opinions outside the classroom, and freedom to express scholarly opinions inside it...
...The tenure system does not reliably re9ult in the promotion and retention of professors of demonstrated high quality...
...The challenge universities have with regard to their best professors is not providing them with job security but keeping them from being lured away by other universities...
...lfnleds the professor is widely pophlar with undergraduates, a state of nirvana achieved by precious few, it is easy enough to lie about his teaching and make it appear that the department is doing students a favor by denying him tenure...
...Similarly, when I was up for tenure myself, I had the strange experience of being told by the department chairman, who hadnít written anything substantial in 20 years, that I was being turned down because my second book wasnít as good as my first book and it was only my second book that counted...
...They are totally vulnerable, especially because they may be judged by those same professors whose views they are challenging...
...The great irony of tenure is that it helps most those who have the least to contribute...
...By their own logic, then, tenured professors deny academic freedom to their nontenured colleagues...
...Shortly thereafter Selzer came up for tenure...
...then, if the hearing results in a guilty verdict, the non-producer can go...
...Either job security is essential to academic freedom or it is not...
...For assistant professors the tenure system has more often been used to suppress academic freedom than to protect it...
...All tenured professors talk about their big books that are underway, but between twohour lunches, perfecting a forehand, and occasionally teaching, those books often never seem to get written...
...It is an implicit budgetary limitation on the range of inquiry that is possible in a university...
...When we turn to the second kind of academic freedom-the freedom to express scholarly opinions-the argument for tenure breaks down again...
...Without tenure, the argument runs, no one would ever get fired, and substandard professors would stay on year after year...
...Just as the desire to get tenure is a powerful motivation to work hard, tenure itself is a powerful motivation to goof off...
...After Selzer returned from a research trip to Europe, a CIA agent called him and they discussed his research over the telephone...
...They werenít born smarter...
...Young professors who toe the line, who carefully do research narrow and irrelevant enough not to discomfort their superiors, often have a much easier time of it than smart young Turks who are challenging the prevailing views in their fields...
...Academia and Law Firms But all this is the stuff of academic novels...
...happens less frequently...
...Every professor knows of departments or whole colleges where promotions are based entirely on internal faculty politics...
...But when closely examined the connection between tenure and academic freedom begins to crumble...
...In theory, this is a valid argument...
...Do Nothing and Do Well However, it is possible to publish and still perish, or to do nothing and do well...
...Security and Merit I donít mean to say that job security should be treated cavalierlyprofessors have mortgages, children, and alimony payments like everyone else...
...It militates against change and flexibility...
...Selzerís colleagues, when they got wind of this, were up in arms, and recommended that he be dismissed...
...I played all the appropriate academic games, I bowed and scraped, I acted with a naivete uncommon in grown man-all this in pursuit of tenure, the quintessential academic tribal rite...
...More recently, however, in the very same department a tenure candidate whose only appreciable scholarly work in ten years of teaching was a dissertation that he had been unable to get published, but who was more popular with his colleagues, was voted tenure...
...The tenure system encourages people who should be at the prime of their professional lives to go into semi-retirement...
...A Senate committee staff director I once worked for asked me how the professional staff members of Congress compared to academics...
...Freedom to hold scholarly views is something tenured professors certainly have, but their nontenured colleagues certainly donít...
...Unlike most other promotions, however, those in universities are binding for life...
...Even if professors stay as active and intelligent as they were when they got tenure, there are still flaws in the system...
...For a professor to be fired, according to AAUP guidelines, the faculty of a college has to elect a committee to look into his case and report on it...
...Defenders of tenure believe that the main threat to academic freedom comes from outside the faculty-from yahoos in state legislatures, or from militant students...
...Certainly the abolition of tenure would mean a few firings...
...In many institutions different standards are used for different individuals...
...others the system encourages to decline...
...But the AAUP, in the name of ensuring fair treatment, has made appropriate action a near-impossibility...
...The most notorious recent case involved a Brooklyn College political scientist named Michael Selzer...
...Carl Sagan was another young professor with a bold approach whom Harvard let go...
...To the AAUP, this freedom is at the very heart of the exchange of ideas that is the essential business of a university, and tenure is central to it...
...Making poor choices wonít cause a department to lose business...
...Arcane Theories The paradox of tenure is that the scholars who are doing most of the writing and teaching and who are most likely to challenge prevailing views are the young scholars who do not have tenure...
...In this kind of situation, where the temptation exists to make the wrong decisions, itís easy to do...
...This happened despite the fact (or probably because of the fact) that his research exceeded in quality and quantity that of all the professors voting against him...
...The unfortunate result of these hoaxes is that in most large departments teaching-which should be a hiring criterion of the utmost importance-is not tdken seriously except as a means of,building a case based on personal biases, Institutional Commitment Even at its best, tenure locks an institution into a lifetime commitment to people, and that can be terribly damaging to any institution...
...Like any system of professional job security, tenure is justified in terms of lofty ideals...
...Administrators, if they were charged with that responsibility, could probably do it well if professors were unwilling to do so...
...Often it does precisely the opposite...
...In my former department at Cornell, during the six years I was there, and subsequently as I watched at a bemused distance there has been no consistent relationship between promotion and any observable measure of individual merit...
...A common way to fabricate cases for or against tenure is to make up tales about the tenure candidateís teaching...
...Robert Trivers, a founder of the new discipline of sociobiology, was recently denied tenure at Harvard-although the university of course denied that his heretical theory of human behavior was the reason...
...This is the subject of much controversy, the assumption being that guaranteeing these decisionsí fairness would be difficult (of course, decisions to grant tenure arenít fair either...
...One professor at Cornel1 lists among the publications on his curriculum vitae an unwritten book on judicial politics that he first announced as forthcoming ten years ago...
...if tenure is a prerequisite of academic freedom, then having some deadwood on the payroll is a small price to pay for it...
...Particularly in the humanities and social sciences, arcane theories and methodologies are embraced with all the passion and myopia of the American Legion holding forth on the Panama Canal...
...But everyone knows that scholarly reputations are made by publishing...

Vol. 9 • January 1978 • No. 11


 
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