Colleges and Universities and Opinion and Economic Analysis and Education & Workforce Development

HICKS: Tenure is protectionism in a tweed jacket

February 20, 2010

It is winter in academe and, like several hundred of my colleagues across the country, I am being reviewed for tenure. For the sake of integrity of purpose, there is no better time for me to speak to the flaws in the system. Here goes: I believe tenure at U.S. universities is antiquated and increasingly irrelevant. Failure to seriously examine the tenure system will ultimately weaken, not strengthen, universities. Tenure distorts the incentives for good teaching, research and public engagement.

Tenure came about at a time in which state universities were fairly novel. The notion that free speech among professors had to be protected from angry legislators and donors prompted professors to lobby for a tenure system. But, despite the many claims made about tenure, it is nothing but plain old protectionism. Dressing it up in a tweed jacket doesn’t change it.

Today, the danger to universities is not that a few crazy Ward Churchills will lose their platform of hate, but rather that professors with something useful to say will be widely ignored. Already, much of the most important research comes not from universities, but from think tanks and laboratories where compensation is tied to effectiveness and innovation. The continuation of tenure, in its current form, simply abets the disinvestment of relevance in the modern university.

Academic tenure, with its promise of lifelong employment based upon five to seven years of work experience, is silly and makes those of us who have pursued a career in teaching and research look disingenuous. Honestly, how hard is it to take seriously someone whose chance of losing his or her job through poor performance is roughly 1/10th that of dying in an automobile accident?

Tenure, like other protectionist measures, really benefits only a very few. Tenure burdens students and universities with folks who once performed well, but may now be unproductive. The bigger problem, though, is in how it distorts incentives. Tenure provides unneeded job security to high performers at a significant loss of salary. Ironically, it is this tenure system that shuts out opportunities for younger scholars and leads to widespread use of part-time and adjunct professors. It prevents taking risk with potentially brilliant scholars whose work is not on a tenure time line (their significant research cannot be churned out on prescribed timetables).

At a time when few Americans expect lifetime employment, the notion that those of us working for the state ought to be fully insulated from performance evaluation is obscene. The easiest way to fix the tenure system is simply to phase out the guarantee of lifetime employment, replacing this job security with better salaries and short-term contracts. The Legislature can help with this, by rewarding innovative universities. Schools cannot do this on their own, but those that develop objective measures of performance and then hold faculty to these standards in periodic assessments deserve this help.

Fixing tenure may not be popular in my circles, but it is a necessary and inevitable step to modernizing America’s great universities.•

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Hicks is director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at Ball State University. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at cber@bsu.edu.

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