The Aresan Clan is published four times a week (Tue, Wed, Fri, Sun). You can see what's been written so far collected here. All posts will be posted under the Aresan Clan label. For summaries of the events so far, visit here. See my previous serial Vampire Wares collected here.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Unexamined Veil of Tenure

That's the title of an article at The Chronicle of Higher Education. The author, Steve Conhen, argues that tenure is a harmful institution and needs to seriously reformed. His argument is that tenure protects bad teachers and that attempts to address this problem, through post-tenure evaluation are completely ineffective.

The article makes good points but I think what the article sort of misses is that this really is a question of trade offs. Tenure is valuable because it improves academic freedom, but it is harmful because decreases the chances that bad professors will be fired. The fact that there were only 10 tenured professors let go in two years out of 600,000 (that would be 1 for every 120,000) shows that tenured professors are let go at a much, much lower rate than other comparable professionals. Compare that to doctors, who lost their medical license at a rate closer to 1 in 500 (and that's not even looking at the number that simply lost their jobs without losing their license). Such a low rate of termination suggests relatively high numbers of bad professors on the roles (even if we're talking, say, less than 5%, that's still really high).

The question is whether these roles of bad teachers are somehow worth it for all the academic freedom that professors get. So, how does tenure contribute to academic freedom? There are some things to consider. First, academic freedom is going to be limited by other factors, such as the need to publish in journals that may not appreciate radical theses, the desire to avoid alienating students or colleagues or create controversy. Simply put, humans are social creatures, and few of us are really brave enough to stand far outside the norm. Second, most professors only get tenure after they've passed their most intellectually agile (mid 20s) and radical part of their life. By the time professors get tenure, their ideas are mostly settled, and since there is no protection for academic freedom before tenure, it's much less likely that radical ideas are going to start springing up afterwards. In fact, it's more likely that professors who express radical ideas (at a time when they are more likely to harbor such ideas) will not get tenure, since other professors may deny them tenure for ideological reasons. Third, even in the absence of tenure, most colleges would be reluctant to remove any established professors for ideological reasons, for fear of marring their reputation. In fact, before the institution of tenure, it was quite rare to dismiss professors for ideological reasons. Fourth, long term contracts would still serve the cause of academic freedom (though not quite nearly as well) as lifetime tenure. A professor with a ten year contract has little fear of being fired for ideological reasons, but still the incentive to continue to be productive, so that the contract might be renewed.

I wish there was a more systematic way to compare academic freedom with tenure vs no tenure, but in the absence of such evidence it seems that tenure only modestly improves academic freedom, and that the problem of bad professors is more significant. Thus, presuming I am right, tenure might be better replaced by a system of long-term contracts. Of course, I'm open to dissent.

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