Tenure Bedevils the University


The tenure system sustains many of the problems in contemporary higher ed.

What ails the modern university? Well, where should one start to catalogue its ills? Too many colleges and universities fail to provide their students with a liberal education in any meaningful sense—that is, an education that enables them to liberate themselves from error and baseness. Too many faculty, particularly in the “softer” disciplines, pursue “research agendas” of dubious worth, and build high the silos they inhabit so that they have nothing much of interest to say to many of their colleagues, let alone to their students.

Yet alongside this extreme heterogeneity due to faculty specialization, an almost equally extreme homogeneity prevails among the faculty politically. The social sciences and humanities display more ideological conformity than one is apt to find in almost any other workforce in the economy. This ideological unity produces a range of narrow, specialized courses, too many of which ring the familiar changes of “progressive” grievances regarding race, class, gender, and sexual orientation. Throw in a commitment to “diversity” that is only skin-deep, and it is increasingly hard to take university faculty—as a group—very seriously as disinterested pursuers of truth.

Turn the university to another angle, and one sees another set of problems: administrative bloat, increasing use of poorly paid adjunct faculty, and empty “mission statements” about “excellence” while instructional quality suffers. Turn it a few more degrees and see over-reliance on student evaluations, rampant grade inflation and pressure to raise graduation rates, plus appeasement of students as “customers” and fierce competition to attract them with increasingly posh residence halls, food courts, recreational facilities, and entertainment opportunities. Turn it yet again and watch costs rising much faster than inflation for those students and their parents, coupled with opaque admission and financial aid systems, and cumbersome bureaucracies that teach unintentional lessons in caprice and contradiction. One more turn to a new angle: now one glimpses the alcohol-fueled “hook-up” culture, a joyless pursuit of joy with hearts and souls in the balance while faculty and administrators ignore what’s going on under their noses, as student affairs staff piously preach a faith consisting of two moral doctrines of surpassing inadequacy, “consent” and “safe sex.”

Over the quarter century since Allan Bloom published The Closing of the American Mind—a book still worth another look—the “higher ed wars” have raged unabated across all these fronts. On some, progress has begun, thanks to off-campus institutions such as the National Association of Scholars and the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, academic ventures such as the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton or the Tocqueville Forum on the Roots of American Democracy at Georgetown, and student-led initiatives such as the Love and Fidelity Network. But the high ground is still held by the forces responsible for ideological uniformity, illiberal curricula, rising costs, moral default, and institutional irresponsibility. And seated in the high citadel, secure against almost any siege tactics, are the tenured faculty of the university.

These are the figures in the bull’s-eye of Naomi Schaefer Riley’s criticism in The Faculty Lounges, and Other Reasons Why You Won’t Get the College Education You Paid For. Riley, a former Wall Street Journal writer, author of God on the Quad, and the daughter of academics, sees most of the pathologies of the university as traceable to tenure itself. Why are so many academic departments so ideologically homogeneous? Why are assistant professors so hard at work producing so many books and articles, for so few readers, on narrow subjects of such doubtful value? Why are teaching loads so light for so many of the permanent full-time faculty at many universities? Why is it so hard to clear out the “deadwood” of lazy or incompetent teachers in the ranks of senior faculty? Why are so many classes taught by adjunct faculty with no substantial role in the life of the institutions where they teach? Why are curricula, graduation requirements, and available courses chopped up into such a crazy quilt of incoherent academic programs? Why is it so hard for university administrations to reform or shut down underperforming or misdirected academic units, and to reallocate resources? The answer to each of these questions is: tenure. (Riley’s title might be best understood if its third word is taken as a verb, not a noun.)

The case for faculty tenure is that, by protecting professors from arbitrary and willful dismissal for the exercise of their independent judgment, it shields academic freedom and thus ensures the intellectual vitality of the university. Tenure protects freethinking faculty in their research, and in any speech in which they might engage outside the university. And a corps of tenured faculty ensures the governance of the institution according to authentic intellectual norms that guarantee the quality of the curriculum and pedagogy. Or so the argument goes.

But the tenure system makes the faculty themselves the gatekeepers of intellectual life, without much serious constraint on their decisions to hire, tenure, and promote their junior colleagues other than their own sense of what is right and fitting. This is a recipe for power without responsibility, anywhere self-interest conquers ethics, as it all too commonly does. The price is paid by junior faculty, adjuncts, graduate students being trained to be the next generation of professors, and undergraduate students frequently subjected to shabby teaching of obscure courses by inaccessible, uninterested senior faculty who would rather be pursuing their research. And all this without much evidence that academic freedom would seriously suffer if universities jettisoned what is effectively a job-for-life system. The common reassurance that tenure “was never meant” to be protection for incompetent and/or abusive employees is cold comfort when we observe how uncommon it is for the worst of the lot to lose their jobs or suffer any serious consequences. And for conservative professors (like her own father) who believe they would be the first victims of a liberal establishment in the absence of tenure, Riley quotes the sympathetic education scholar Chester Finn: “Protecting 411 conservatives is insufficient reason to retain a tenure system. Because it’s protecting 400,000 liberals too.”

Riley’s short book is a splash of cold water in the face of anyone who has thought of tenure as the crown jewel of American academe. In fact, her argument may be even better than she claims, as the thought keeps recurring, long after one has finished the book, that problem after problem in the university is either partly or wholly caused, or exacerbated, by faculty tenure. Johns Hopkins professor Benjamin Ginsberg argues, in The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why It Matters, that a proliferation of “deanlets” now eats away at the substance of faculty governance of the university. It is certainly true that administrative staffing and expenses have grown faster than instructional staffing and spending in recent years, and that universities have become more bureaucratically sclerotic, with reaccreditation busywork, program reviews, “assessment” of “learning outcomes,” and “strategic plans” aplenty. But faculty governance of the university has, for the most part, been surrendered to administrations rather than captured by them. Research has overtaken teaching; curricular specialization has overtaken liberal education; senior faculty holding one another accountable has been overtaken by a negligent “live and let live” ethic. Is it any wonder that parents, taxpayers, board members, and legislators doubt the good faith of faculty so insulated from the kind of performance accountability that prevails in the rest of the economy? Is it any wonder that many university administrations have responded to these doubts by ginning up the appearance—albeit seldom the reality—of institutional accountability through endless streams of committee meetings, reports, and “assessments”?

As costs have risen, universities have become more adept at all sorts of flimflam to attract customers, to compete for top billing in the annual U.S. News and World Report ranking, to throw up a smokescreen around their pricing practices that should make airlines envious, and to appeal for more government subsidies for financial aid on the dubious grounds that more and more Americans “need” a college degree. The effect on anxious families of college-bound youngsters is hilariously recounted by Andrew Ferguson in Crazy U: One Dad’s Crash Course in Getting His Kid into College. But why is the modern university presented to prospective students and their parents as four (or five or six) years of fun and games, with the off chance of collecting an actual education on the way to the sheepskin? Probably because the only people permanently part of the institution—the faculty—have done so little to persuade anyone that a coherent education is what it’s all about. They’ve gotten away with that because of tenure. Riley says early in the book that “tenure is not the [only] reason why college costs so much,” but maybe the dots are not all that hard to connect. After all, as she rightly remarks later on, “Tenure has skewed the incentives so that the people who should have the most concern about the economic and educational sustainability of the institution—the people who hope to be there for decades to come—actually have the least.”

Riley’s alternative to tenure is a system of renewable multi-year contracts for faculty. This should not radically alter the lives of good teachers and scholars, but it could set off a cascade of deep changes for the better in institutional life. If such a system were instituted, with the burden on faculty to show they had performed as teachers devoted to the missions of their institution, universities might make their way back to a reinvigorated sense of what they’re supposed to be about. Pay might have to go up for some professors—tenure’s job security is worth a good deal, after all—but so might teaching loads in many fields where research “productivity” is actually productive of very little substance. A lot of the insecure adjuncts might be brought in from the cold and made more fully members of the professoriate, once administrations don’t have to worry any longer about locking in the employment of full-timers for life. The faculty-administration wars might be brought to a peaceful end, with faculty once more rising from within the institution to assume the duties of deans and provosts for short terms, and the class of “deanlets” and “adminicrats” not seeming so distinct and clueless any longer. Grade inflation might be tamed, teaching might be honestly assessed, and high graduation rates might no longer be considered an obviously good thing.

Is there any chance of a revolution against tenure taking place on a large scale? It’s hard to see how. Those who have tenure now cannot be deprived of it without a breach of contract, and moving to a system of renewable contracts with new faculty would entail a long and uncomfortable period of transition until the old guard is fully retired. Moreover, a large number of universities would have to resolve to jump into a partly unknown future together—perhaps all the Ivies together, or the whole California system, could get the ball rolling, but individual institutions would be loath to go first, for obvious reasons. Still, Naomi Riley’s The Faculty Lounges makes a compelling case that “better the devil you know than the devil you don’t” is not always a wise proverb.

Matthew J. Franck is Director of the William E. and Carol G. Simon Center on Religion and the Constitution at the Witherspoon Institute. He is Professor Emeritus at Radford University, where he held tenure and chaired the Department of Political Science for fifteen years.


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