The Enigma of Tenure

Malcolm Kline

This article is the second in a two part series on the merits and shortfalls of tenure. Malcolm Kline is the executive director of Accuracy in Acedemia. In this article, Kline calls tenure policies into question. Read the first article, in favor of tenure, here.

Tenure is a foreign concept for most Americans—especially the ones who pay for it. Most students and parents know that teachers and professors can be tenured, but they may not be sure what it entails or whether it is worth the cost.

But in the world of academia, tenure has its staunch supporters. According to twenty-two scholarly organizations, “Tenure is a linchpin of independent rigorous scholarship.” Rebecca M. Blank, chancellor of the University of Wisconsin at Madison, complains that “critics dismiss tenure as ‘a job for life,’” when “it is about academic freedom.”

Too often, however, the benefits of tenure are limited, only protecting those who don’t need protection.

Despite the prevalence of tenure, a survey of the academic landscape today reveals “intellectual rigor” to be in short supply. Academic freedom, meanwhile, is in the eye of the beholder—or, rather, in the hands of those who enjoy it and at the expense of those who don’t. You don’t have to take my word for it: the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education‘s First Amendment case log shows how limited this “freedom” can be.

But the “jobs for life” part is accurate. Despite Blank’s protestations that tenure does not provide unconditional employment, that is essentially what most tenured professors enjoy—if they have the right political viewpoints.

On American campuses, the intellectually rigorous are an endangered species. As David D. Perlmutter, a dean at Texas Tech, notes, “Retractions of papers are on the rise, with misconduct the leading cause.”

A much more compelling argument for tenure rests on the assertion that the rare conservatives in academe are protected by it. One of these conservatives, University of Tennessee law professor Glenn Reynolds, made this case on the blog Instapundit. This should not only concern conservatives, but all of those in academia who claim to value diverse viewpoints, since conservatism adds to intellectual diversity.

Moreover, it is hard to think of a justifiable reason why conservatives with impeccable scholarly credentials and no record of inappropriate behavior should be denied the same benefits that their more liberal and numerous peers enjoy. Still, from what we’ve seen, for conservative professors, tenure isn’t a fig leaf. It isn’t even a fig.

Just this year Marquette indefinitely suspended John McAdams, a tenured political science professor who took a more traditional outlook. McAdams even had the support of the pro-tenure—and not very traditional—American Association of University Professors (AAUP).

At Oklahoma University, geology and geophysics professor David Deming had all of his courses taken away from him and the school moved him to a basement office after he wrote a letter in the school newspaper advocating gun rights. Ultimately, tenure did not save him from unemployment: a federal judge and an out-of-court settlement did when he sued his employers.

Jean Cobbs, a sociology professor at Virginia State University who repeatedly won accreditation for her department, was stripped of her chairmanship after riding on a Republican float in the homecoming parade. Fired by VSU in 2005, she received a settlement of $600,000 two years later.

It is worth noting that, where these stories had a happy ending, the beleaguered scholars received redress not from tenure but from the legal system. So who does benefit from tenure? In her book, The Faculty Lounges and Other Reasons Why You Won’t Get the College Education You Paid For, Naomi Schaefer Riley notes that “If you count faculty in vocationally oriented departments, those who teach area, ethnic, cultural, and gender studies, as well as a significant chunk of the country’s research scientists, you will arrive at a number that is more than half the tenured faculty in the United States.”

And although tenured faculty may make up an increasingly smaller proportion of the professoriate than in days gone by, they are hanging onto their jobs with both fists. Nearly half of them “would like to and expect to work past normal retirement,” economist Paul Yakoboski found. Some professors know a good deal when they see it—and they don’t want to let go.

Anecdotes may abound on both sides of the tenure question, but even those in favor will go to great lengths in acknowledging the problems with tenure.

Murray Sperber, the author of Beer & Circus: How Big-Time College Sports is Crippling Undergraduate Education, avers that tenure allowed him to write critically of an Indiana University icon, basketball coach Bobby Knight while he was a professor at IU. Nevertheless, he noted that the professor across the hall from him slowed down on his teaching duties after achieving tenure in order to free up time to pursue a beloved avocation: “He became a bridge player.”

Colleges and universities where tenure does not exist find that students and faculty alike survive and even thrive. Riley writes that, in contrast to the predictions of tenure enthusiasts, firings at these institutions are rare.

Undoubtedly, there are fine professors with tenure. We’ve named a few in this article. Yet, as the academics are fond of telling us, correlation is not causation. There are also, moreover, tenured professors who probably never should have been hired.

If you want a marketplace of ideas, shouldn’t it be a free one without regulations or cartels? Indeed, one might observe that the tenure-free universities Riley wrote of seem to enjoy more academic freedom than other institutions of higher learning.

Tenure might be past its expiration date.

Image: wikipedia

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