Untenuring Tenure

Peter Wood

Should tenure be abolished? Naomi Schaefer Riley argues that it should. Her new book, The Faculty Lounges and Other Reasons Why You Won’t Get the College Education You Paid For, is a Navy Seal Team Six-style assault on Fortress Tenure: quick, precise, and conducted with air of finality.

That is not to say that she overcomes all my ambivalence on the topic. The tenure system in American colleges and universities does have overwhelming faults. It forces tenure-track faculty members to concentrate disproportionate attention on publishing; it conduces to an attitude of indifference towards both teaching and research among a substantial number of those who achieve it; and it is part of an academic caste system that treats adjuncts (“contingent faculty”) very poorly. Even its faults have faults: The pressure for more and more scholarly publication leads to an ever-growing flood of trivial research, much of it gussied up in obscurantist jargon intended to limit access to like-minded “experts.”

Riley doesn’t stop there. Tenure in her view also makes reform-minded college presidents irrelevant, since the tenured faculty can obstruct reforms with impunity and generally outlast anyone who poses a challenge to their amenities. Tenure is the cement in the wall of groupthink and political correctness, because the tenured faculty in a department almost always have the ability to reject candidates for faculty appointment whose political views are not an easy fit. Tenure fosters the sorts of inequities that make unionization of faculty more attractive—and unionization in Riley’s view will “probably” push the professoriate further into “mediocrity” and “deepen the divide between the humanities and the hard sciences.” And tenure is directly damaging to the finances of colleges and universities, since it locks into place a class of overpaid and underproductive contributors—though Riley doesn’t see this as a major contributor to sky-high college prices. “Truth be old, tenure is not the reason college costs so much. Expanding bureaucracies, luxurious facilities, remedial education, and a third-party payer system are more likely culprits.”

I take every point in this indictment as valid, and yet…

My reservation is one that Riley encountered among other academics as she wrote the book. Tenure is a pernicious system in many ways, yet without it, dissenting faculty members (such as those who make up much of the membership of the National Association of Scholars) would be much more vulnerable to ill-treatment and the threat of dismissal. Riley reports this anxiety without answering it directly:

Harvey Mansfield, Stephan Thernstrom, Paul Cantor, Harvey Silverglate, even my own father, David Schaefer—these are just a few of the conservative professors who have told me they support the institution of tenure.

These are professors who regularly say things that make administrators and other faculty members unhappy. They believe there is a good chance they would have been fired by now, were it not for tenure. I can’t say they are wrong. But the question is whether their concerns should be outweighed by all the problems that tenure produces.

She gives the last word on the topic to Chester Finn, to the effect that there are too few conservatives left in academe to make policy around the need to protect them.


Scholars such as Harvey Mansfield may have sufficient standing to ride out controversies without the protection of tenure, but there are plenty of others who are more vulnerable. Nor are they all conservative. Enunciating any position at odds with the ruling orthodoxies on campus these days invites trouble. Abolishing tenure might not lead to a wave of purges, but it would surely bring about an even greater degree of conformity and quiescence.

Not that I think this settles the issue. Tenure itself, as Riley emphasizes, chills free speech. I hear at least several times a month from junior faculty members who say they support the work that the National Association of Scholars does but who don’t dare join us out of fear of harming their prospects for tenure. I’ve also seen comments right here on the Innovations blog to the effect that academic freedom is a right solely for the tenured—a view that nicely accommodates all manner of academic thuggery.

Tenure at one level cuts against academic freedom, while at another level it whispers support for those who dissent. Where does the balance lie? If we did away with tenure, would the pressure for conformity stifle all creative scholarship?

Probably not. Colleges and universities can proceed with a lot of valuable work even when they are under intense political pressure. I was just reading Hugh Raffles’ account in Insectopedia of how Karl von Frisch, who won the Nobel Prize in Physiology in 1973 for his discoveries in how bees communicate, had managed to continue his work at the Institute of Zoology during the Nazi era. He attracted the malign attention of a Nazi scientist, Ernst Bergdolt, who repeatedly tried to have him fired. Von Frisch had a Jewish great-grandmother, but he was also suspect because he treated bees as individual animals and thus failed, in Bergdolt’s words, “to find connections to the natural establishment of a volkish polity.”

We should never underestimate the obtuseness of those who would politicize science. But even under outright persecution, scholars can often manage, like von Frisch, to do good work. If tenure were abolished in American higher education, we might well see our own versions of Ernst Bergdolt attempting to ramp up political correctness still further. The makings of that inquisitorial approach are visible at places like Virginia Tech, which demands that faculty members report annually on their contributions to “diversity,” and American University which demands a similar accountability from faculty members on “sustainability.” Such impositions, of course, rest lightly on those who believe diversity or sustainability are perfectly wholesome matters for which universities have a legitimate interest in demanding faculty conformity. Those who have doubts, let alone those who dissent, however, are put in a difficult spot.

The existence of tenure in our colleges and universities seems to afford little protection against the hive mentality on display in these instances. Most faculty members, whatever their private reservations, go along with whatever is demanded of them in terms of allegiance to this or that dogma. We imagine, rightly or wrongly, that if we go along with the dogma, we will have a zone of autonomy elsewhere where we can get on with our work without interference.

Naomi Schaeffer Riley’s point thus gains credibility. What good is tenure if it fails to protect faculty members from political litmus tests? The justification for tenure—both historically and philosophically—is that it frees faculty members to pursue the truth by insulating them from those who would demand or impose doctrinal conformity. It puts teeth in the principle of academic freedom. But when John Dewey and Arthur Lovejoy were devising the AAUP canonical Statement of Principles in 1915, they weren’t thinking much about the threats to academic freedom that could arise within the university, or the specific threat of academic torpor brought on by excesses of conformity.

The AAUP today continues to picture the university as a hearty band of original thinkers hard pressed by external political pressures. Now and then some demagogue gives momentary color to this view, but for the most part higher education’s torments are of its own devising. The American people and the American government have been lavish in material support for the university and little inclined to interfere in its internal business.

But if that’s true, what purpose does tenure serve? It is protecting academic freedom from any serious external threat, and it has shown itself generally incapable of staving off the very real internal threats. Riley reports that while most faculty members cite “academic freedom” as the principled basis for tenure, they go to say that what they really like about tenure is the promise of guaranteed lifetime employment.

Moreover, the academic freedom argument falls to pieces when we recognize that tenure is awarded to people in fields such as “transportation and materials moving,” nutrition, and “protective services,” whose need to make controversial statements in pursuit of the truths aimed at by their disciplines is tenuous. Riley cites an amusing attempt by the AAUP general secretary Gary Rhoades to rationalize tenure in these fields by imagining the tenured nutrition professor would be freer to speak out on the “obesity epidemic” and the protective services prof might have something to say about “our border policies.” They just might, but do we need to offer them lifetime employment to coax out of them a fearless statement that obesity is unhealthy or that we should border patrols to the experts? Tenure likewise seems unnecessary to protect faculty members who voluntarily enter into contracts with for-profit corporations that stipulate that the corporate partner controls the content of any resulting research publications. Riley also questions whether tenure is justified in fields such as women’s studies, which are centered on “predetermined outcomes” rather than open-ended inquiry.

Does the institution of tenure mean that colleges and universities do more good work than they otherwise would? The Faculty Lounges has increased my quotient of doubts.

This article originally appeared on May 27, 2011 on the Chronicle of Higher Education's Innovations blog.  

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