Monday, June 25, 2012

Can tenure survive ... again?

Apparently, we must be on ALEC's hit-list as yet another "Should tenure be abolished"? article has appeared, this time in the Wall Street Journal.

Flava from the "Readers comment" (which was appended to the article itself, along with the usual comment blog free-for-all).


Of course. The concept is akin to a lifetime contract of employment, fictional everywhere but in academia. It subjects students to instructors who cease taking education seriously and are virtually impossible to discipline or remove.

—Mark Carter

I have three degrees from three different universities. Yet one thing remained the same—the tenured faculty performed much more poorly.

—Susan Strayer

As senior faculty at a major university with tenure for most of my career, I fully support the idea that tenure should be abolished. It serves only the lazy and incompetent. I refused tenure in my new post, and cheerfully suggested if I was ever not doing my job well, I should be sacked. Eight years later, I still have a job. So would anyone committed to the purpose of higher education.

—John Gwin


Without tenure, most would be afraid to risk innovation and failure, which is the stuff great discoveries are made of. It took Jonas Salk five years to perfect the polio vaccine. Should he have been denied tenure every time a research trial failed?

—Jill Rooney

No, academia is not the corporate world where you have to become your boss's lapdog to keep your job. Professors should be allowed to conduct research on any topic without worrying about losing their job.

—William Harry

Sure, there are people with tenure who are blights. There are also people who get corporate jobs in the allegedly competitive private sector and keep them for years who are no better. There are bugs in every system.


Teaching anything that challenges students to work harder, or transforms views they hold when they arrive, tends to generate lower "customer satisfaction" scores. Without tenure, the most entertaining professors who simply confirm students in their pre-existing beliefs would be the most secure in their employment. The whole of academia would be geared to producing a swarm of uncritical self-satisfied graduates who leave college with little more than they went in with.




  1. I hate to say this, since I believe in the value of tenure, and would love to be tenured some day myself, but with 75% of the faculty already non tenure-track, I have to wonder whether tenure isn't already, for all intents and purposes, terminal. At the very least, it's taking a very different shape, in which tenured faculty are becoming, in effect (and sometimes in fact), a subset of the administrative class, with very different workloads, and hence very different perspectives, from those who teach the majority of the classes.

    1. All of which means I actually agree with Naomi Shaefer Riley on some points (eek!). And I think Cary Nelson may be underestimating the number of schools with "serious research expectations for tenure." 10% seems low -- or maybe his idea of "serious" is different from mine (a book? at least when I was on the market a decade ago, plenty of teaching-oriented places were beginning to expect a book, even if they hadn't in the past). The place where I part company with Riley is her assumption that just because tenure is now earned primarily via research, a tenure-track system has to work that way. Tenuring teaching-oriented faculty would yield all the benefits she names, plus the ones Nelson describes.

  2. Of course the WSJ commentator who summarized the position in favor of eliminating tenure is Naomi Schaefer Riley, the "writer" who was fired from the Chronicle for her blog post on Black Studies.

    In this WFJ piece, Riley betrays her complete lack of knowledge of the problems that face higher education when she writes the following:

    "Meanwhile, much of the teaching is being done by the people at the bottom of the academic ladder, the adjuncts. They make up more than half of college faculty today, and their effect on student learning has been well documented: An increase in adjuncts on campus produces both lower graduation rates and more grade inflation."

    This is not an argument for eliminating tenure; it's an argument for hiring more full-time profs. By mentioning this at all, Riley implies that the tenured, full-time professors are somehow to blame for this situation. Riley, a corporate shill, either does not understand the relationship between the corporatization of higher education and the very situation she laments or she chooses to ignore it.

    She gives all journalists a bad name.

  3. I am amazed that the side sawing "No" (don't abolish tenure) gets to have its say. This is so unlike the Wall Street Journal, the editorial line of which is that climate change is either hokum, or not anthropogenic, despite over 97% of climate scientists saying otherwise, but then they're all on the gravy train, right?


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