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Francis Fukuyama's Case Against Academic Tenure:

Well-known political scientist Francis Fukuyama argues that we should abolish tenure:

I'm a tenured professor. But I'd get rid of tenure.

Tenure was created to protect academic freedom after a series of 19th-century cases when university donors or legislators tried to remove professors whose views they disliked...

The rationale for tenure is still valid. But the system has turned the academy into one of the most conservative and costly institutions in the country. Yes, conservative: Economists joke that their discipline advances one funeral at a time, but many fields must wait for wholesale generational turnover before new approaches take hold.

The system also hamstrings younger untenured professors, making them fearful of taking intellectual risks and causing them to write in jargon aimed only at those in their narrow subdiscipline...

These problems are made worse by a federal employment law that bars universities from instituting mandatory retirement. Deans and provosts can't remove elderly professors who take up slots that could fund two or three younger colleagues...

Things don't have to be this way. Academic freedom can thrive in think tanks and research institutes. U.S.-style tenure doesn't exist in Britain or Australia. Japan grants tenure but forces professors to retire at a relatively early age (60 at Tokyo University). . .

I have long shared Fukuyama's concerns. And, even though I was recently voted tenure myself, I still have serious doubts about this institution. I'm not even sure that it really does very much to protect academic freedom. As I explained in this post, a university intent on imposing ideological orthodoxy can simply exclude dissenters at the entry level hiring stage or at the point of promotion to tenure. Although I'm happy to be tenured, I still doubt that the small increment of extra protection for academic freedom provided by tenure is worth the immense costs noted by Fukuyama and other critics.

UPDATE: As a preemptive response to accusations of hypocrisy ("How can you accept the benefits of tenure if you're opposed to it?"), I cite my post on the ethics of benefiting from policies that you oppose.

Ricardo (mail):
Two comments:

Tenure was created to protect academic freedom after a series of 19th-century cases when university donors or legislators tried to remove professors whose views they disliked...

Who is to say these cases won't simply return once tenure is abolished? This is a common rhetorical trick: to say something last happened long ago is to imply it is unlikely to happen again. Princeton has received a lot of pressure over the years to get rid of Peter Singer, for instance, but tenure undoubtedly protects his position.

U.S.-style tenure doesn't exist in Britain or Australia.

International top talents, if given the choice, tend to choose to work at an American university instead of a British or Australian university. International comparisons of research universities show American universities occupy a disproportionate share of the top slots. There are lots of reasons for this but, at the end of the day, no university is going to abolish tenure if it will hurt its ability to attract faculty.
4.20.2009 10:48pm
Christopher Phelan (mail):
Isn't tenure a market outcome? Isn't, say, Pepperdine University free to abolish tenure, at least for all new hires? If it saw itself as being able to move up in the pecking order by doing so, wouldn't it do so in a minute?

I never understand why generally libertarian types want to get rid of the option for a university to make a legally binding promise. Given that no university has to tenure anyone (unless there is some law I'm missing) doesn't the existence of tenure simply increase the options of a university?
4.20.2009 10:53pm
MCM (mail):
I didn't take Fukuyama as saying that tenure should be illegal, simply that it's a bad idea.
4.20.2009 10:56pm
Ilya Somin:
Isn't tenure a market outcome? Isn't, say, Pepperdine University free to abolish tenure, at least for all new hires? If it saw itself as being able to move up in the pecking order by doing so, wouldn't it do so in a minute?

Universities are nonprofit institutions, many of them owned by state governments, and all heavily subsidized by government whether formally public or not. As a result, it is incorrect to characterize their policies as "market outcome[s]." Because university administrators will reap few benefits from abolishing tenure and much political pain, they are unlikely to do so, even if it would be in the long-term interests of the university as a whole.

I never understand why generally libertarian types want to get rid of the option for a university to make a legally binding promise.

I don't advocate "getting rid of the option" in the sense of having the government pass a law forbidding it. But there is nothing unlibertarian about criticizing the institution without advocating a legal ban on it.
4.20.2009 10:57pm
Ilya Somin:
International top talents, if given the choice, tend to choose to work at an American university instead of a British or Australian university. International comparisons of research universities show American universities occupy a disproportionate share of the top slots.

There is no evidence that this has much to do with tenure (as opposed to higher pay, greater research budgets, etc.).
4.20.2009 10:58pm
Ricardo (mail):
There is no evidence that this has much to do with tenure (as opposed to higher pay, greater research budgets, etc.).

As I implied, we don't know one way or the other. The point is that American universities haven't seen fit to risk an experiment with abolishing tenure in order to provide us with the data we would need to make this judgment.

It remains the case that American universities are at the top of the league tables. How is pointing out that Australia and Britain don't have tenure an argument in favor of abolishing tenure?
4.20.2009 11:20pm
Christopher Cooke (mail):
Tenure does tend to lock into place some bad teachers. And, tenure decisions often have little to do with a professor's ability to teach. But, I do favor academic freedom, and think tenure protects that value. My own view would be to tie compensation to performance, e.g., student reviews, peer reviews, dean reviews, more directly. I would keep tenure, but set up a system of variable compensation based on performance, stressing teaching first, and publications second.
4.20.2009 11:21pm
josil (mail):
I'd like to see the end of tenure or tenure-like arrangements (e.g., civil service)at all levels of public education. Below the university level, it seems to safeguard the incompetent and punish the skilled. Genrally, everyone in every job should have those protections or no one. Why should teachers be afforded the security of tenure as compared to the hundreds of other occupations?
4.20.2009 11:23pm
Christopher Phelan (mail):
I will stand by my "market outcome" assertion. About a decade ago, the President of Boston University, John Silber I think, decided tenure was a bad idea. He was also very determined to raise the status of BU. He supposedly tried to offer a bunch of tenured economics professors from other universities big money (at the time) 5 year contacts to come to BU. My understanding was that he had no takers. Now, of course, there was some amount of money that he could have offered to get those professors to come. But there was no overlap. The amount they required to get them to come was more than he was willing to offer. That tells me, at least in that case, tenure was the efficient market outcome.
4.20.2009 11:25pm
PQuincy1:
(for the record, IAT).

1. "Because university administrators will reap few benefits from abolishing tenure and much political pain..."

There is a problem of "incentives for whom", here, but I believe it is still the case that any university that abolished tenure without creating a similar system of job security would find hiring difficult. Perhaps Harvard could get away with it, though even there I'm dubious, because every-so-slightly less prestigious institutions could immediately begin raiding with lower salaries but tenure, and that offer would often be persuasive. Otherwise, though, non-tenuring institutions would simply cut themselve off from the pipeline of good new scholars -- or at the very least, would have to pay vastly more for their services. Look, for example, at the relative prestige of faculty vs. 'soft-money' bioscience researchers: the latter, no matter how successful with grants, are considerably lower on the totem pole, since it's assumed that the reason they are living off their grants is that they could not get a job at a tenuring/hard-money institution, in many cases (there are some exceptions to this, which might provide a model for an institution dropping tenure).

2. I also wonder about this as a market matter. While it's true that tenure protects a significant number of under-performers, it also allows universities to hire absolute superstars for remarkably modest salaries, even counting the relatively generous benefits. In what other highly professionalized and competitive business can you hire the very top of the heap for $200,000 a year? Or the very best young prospects for well under $100,000 a year? The fact that academic administrators' salaries have shot into the empyrean realm while professors' have stayed modest suggests that offering tenure is a highly effective way to keep academic salaries down. Morever, the incentives of tenure are aligned with the structure of research in a way that makes sense, too. Research academia is a profession in which practitioners, while teaching, are expected to make multi-year gambles on projects, data and outcomes, over and over again. Who would be venturesome in research if some job protection did not exist? (Note that I'm taking the academic freedom protection as a stipulated good, but also bracketed, though it does matter).

3. However, there's one point where I agree with critics: tenure should be linked to a set retirement age, or at least the option for universities to retire underperformers at 65 or 70. Then again, given the low level of academic salaries overall, it's normally fairly inexpensive for universities to buy out dead wood for relatively modest funds (on top of their already existing retirement plans), so the number of aged nincompoops clinging to their chairs is, at least where I've seen, quite small. The individual injustice at having to buy out the least competent with a raise may be problematic, but systemically I suspect it's a fairly modest expense.
4.20.2009 11:40pm
Doc W (mail):
I've come to appreciate the value of tenure as an indtitution, not just in support of academic freedom conventionally defined, but also because without tenure it would be much more risky for faculty at an undergraduate college to challenge and criticize the policies and decisions of administrators. The mission of a college is understood to be education, and in that realm the vast preponderance of expertise lies with the faculty. Yet a single administrator, the college president, may on-paper wield dictatorial power. That power can be effectively balanced by the moral authority of the faculty, but only to the extent that individuals are willing to speak out publicly. Even with tenure, in my experience, too few faculty are willing to do so for fear of reprisals against their departments.
4.20.2009 11:43pm
Ursus Maritimus:
If tenure changes it will be by denying it to new hires.
4.20.2009 11:45pm
Allan Walstad (mail):
Oops, "Doc W" popped up at the top of my comment. I've been posting for some time now under my given name.
4.20.2009 11:48pm
Steve:
No one has really made a good case that the prevalence of tenure represents a market failure. If there were an alternative that would result in a more successful or prestigious institution, one could reasonable expect that someone, somewhere would have adopted it by now.
4.21.2009 12:21am
trad and anon (mail):
Isn't tenure basically an alternative compensation arrangement? Tenured faculty have relatively light workloads and are almost impossible to fire. Because people like light workloads and job security, this enables the university to pay their professors less. Where is the money going to come from to pay them more? Especially now, with fundraising at a standstill and endowments down 30%, if they are lucky.
4.21.2009 12:24am
Ilya Somin:
The mission of a college is understood to be education, and in that realm the vast preponderance of expertise lies with the faculty. Yet a single administrator, the college president, may on-paper wield dictatorial power. That power can be effectively balanced by the moral authority of the faculty, but only to the extent that individuals are willing to speak out publicly. Even with tenure, in my experience, too few faculty are willing to do so for fear of reprisals against their departments.

Actually, there are lots of limitations on presidents' power. Just ask Larry Summers. The abolition of tenure need not mean that the president can fire faculty members whenever he chooses. The power to fire could be vested in the professors' department, for example (as it currently is for untenured faculty at most schools).
4.21.2009 12:45am
Ilya Somin:
How is pointing out that Australia and Britain don't have tenure an argument in favor of abolishing tenure?

Because the absence of tenure hasn't led to their having less academic freedom than American universities.
4.21.2009 12:46am
Ilya Somin:
While it's true that tenure protects a significant number of under-performers, it also allows universities to hire absolute superstars for remarkably modest salaries, even counting the relatively generous benefits. In what other highly professionalized and competitive business can you hire the very top of the heap for $200,000 a year? Or the very best young prospects for well under $100,000 a year? The fact that academic administrators' salaries have shot into the empyrean realm while professors' have stayed modest suggests that offering tenure is a highly effective way to keep academic salaries down.

Superstars aren't worried about being fired, with or without tenure. Even if they were fired, they could easily get a job at another top institution. The reason why they work for (relatively) low salaries is that they find that being an academic has far more nonpecuniary benefits than would a job in government or the for profit sector.
4.21.2009 12:48am
Perseus (mail):
Universities are nonprofit institutions, many of them owned by state governments, and all heavily subsidized by government whether formally public or not.

Is that true of Hillsdale?
4.21.2009 2:18am
dr:
Sorry -- my snide remark earlier was uncalled for. You were right to cut it -- my apologies.
4.21.2009 2:34am
dr:
oops -- never mind.
4.21.2009 2:35am
The River Temoc (mail):
Without tenure, how can we be sure that people like John Yoo can publish unfettered, and that their institutions will not succumb to political pressure to fire them?
4.21.2009 7:25am
The River Temoc (mail):
U.S.-style tenure doesn't exist in Britain or Australia.

Is Fukuyama sure about this? I had an (American) friend who was a professor at Oxbridge; she told me that she had gotten tenure.
4.21.2009 7:26am
Crimso:

The fact that academic administrators' salaries have shot into the empyrean realm while professors' have stayed modest suggests that offering tenure is a highly effective way to keep academic salaries down.


In my area of expertise, there are many job opportunities in private industry, and the average salary I could expect there is about 3X what I make in academia. No way would I take my current position without tenure without at least doubling my salary (and probably not even then).
4.21.2009 7:36am
rosetta's stones:
This is basically a union-management issue. I don't expect the UAW to give up much of what they have in hand, absent Big 3 bankruptcy, and I certainly wouldn't expect tenured public employees at a university to give up anything either.

I'm amused with the comment above about the valiant tenured, defending the academic ramparts against the rampaging administrations. These guys just need to join AFSCME and be done with it.
4.21.2009 8:18am
Enjineer (mail):
About 33 years ago, Ross Wilhelm was a professor I had in a graduate class at the University of Michigan Business School. He argued that tenure should be granted immediately to newly hired instructors and dropped after ten years. In that manner, the young maverick would be able to build a reputation without fear of recrimination but, after ten years, would have to rely on the reputation established. Sounds like a winner to me.
4.21.2009 8:31am
wm13:
Regarding whether tenure is the market outcome, there is a problem with network effects. An industry that offers relatively low pay, combined with light workloads and absolute job security, will tend to attract lazy, unadventurous people, who of course will object to any attempts to change the system. That doesn't prove that another system wouldn't work better, but it makes the transition very difficult.

I think tenure is a poor system, because it results in universities staffed by cautious time-servers and intellectual conformists. However, the country offers (in think tanks, research laboratories, publications etc.) plenty of opportunities for intellectual work by the more adventurous and industrious, so I doubt that tenure has any significant depressive effect on national wealth or welfare.
4.21.2009 8:57am
Smooth, Like a Rhapsody (mail):
To tweak the hypothetical a little, it seems that every argument against university tenure could/should be made a fortiori against tenure for K-12 teachers.
4.21.2009 9:32am
David Drake:
As a former university professor, I question how much universities offer real academic freedom today, or perhaps question what the people who talk about "academic freedom" mean by that term.

For example, if I am teaching "corporate law," am I really free to spend most, or any, of my class time advocating, say, that the Holocaust did not happen, or, for an example closer to the course content, that students should not form or work for corporations or law firms that do a lot of corporate work because corporations rob consumers, destroy the environment, and move us ever farther away from some Jeffersonian ideal republic?
4.21.2009 9:55am
Allan Walstad (mail):

The mission of a college is understood to be education, and in that realm the vast preponderance of expertise lies with the faculty. Yet a single administrator, the college president, may on-paper wield dictatorial power. That power can be effectively balanced by the moral authority of the faculty, but only to the extent that individuals are willing to speak out publicly. Even with tenure, in my experience, too few faculty are willing to do so for fear of reprisals against their departments.

Actually, there are lots of limitations on presidents' power. Just ask Larry Summers. The abolition of tenure need not mean that the president can fire faculty members whenever he chooses. The power to fire could be vested in the professors' department, for example (as it currently is for untenured faculty at most schools).

I thought that what happened to Summers was an example of the very significant informal power that faculty possess precisely because they can speak out without fear of being fired. (Granted, it ought to be an embarrassing example for Harvard and its faculty...) Tenure may be less significant for that purpose at elite institutions, whose tenured faculty, if still productive, could easily move to another research-oriented institution. My experience is at a modest undergraduate college. I don't deny that other institutional arrangements might be devised to capture what I take to be the advantages of tenure without its disadvantages. I just have more appreciation of the advantages than I once did.
4.21.2009 10:35am
33yearprof:
I'm very active on the public stage on an issue that draws heated anger from those on the other side of the issue (for whom it is am emotional battle, not an intellectual discussion). For over two decades, at least twice a year there is a concerted effort to get me fired from my tenured position at the law school. They always fail because the law Dean understands academic freedom, my colleagues will go to the wall for me freedom of speech (although they favor the other side in the public debate), the university views my work as "law reform" (and gives me performance pay credit for it) and as a vital backstop, I have tenure. IMHO, I NEED that extra security.

Some of us, those who are "active in the formulation of public policy" (as our Faculty Policies say) in dicey areas, NEED tenure. I know of many younger professors who share my views on the Second Amendment and Firearms in Society who have suffered in silence until they were granted tenure.
4.21.2009 10:40am
BTB:
David Drake:

"For example, if I am teaching "corporate law," am I really free to spend most, or any, of my class time advocating, say, that the Holocaust did not happen, or, for an example closer to the course content, that students should not form or work for corporations or law firms that do a lot of corporate work because corporations rob consumers, destroy the environment, and move us ever farther away from some Jeffersonian ideal republic?"

Academic freedom relates more to what ideas a professor may publish outside of the classroom. There is a duty inside the class to teach the students the material of that course.

Inside of that framework, there is considerable latitude for college professors to infuse their viewpoints. No one would stop Professor X from preaching about the evils of corporations so long as he still taught relevant material.
4.21.2009 10:46am
Connecticut Lawyer (mail):
A friend of mine at Chicago (in the Econ Dep't) argues that tenure forces faculties to make hard decisions about whom to keep. Otherwise, they'll just keep everyone, rather than using the lack of tenure to prune the deadwood.
4.21.2009 11:35am
rosetta's stones:

33yearprof:
"I'm very active on the public stage on an issue that draws heated anger from those on the other side of the issue (for whom it is am emotional battle, not an intellectual discussion). For over two decades, at least twice a year there is a concerted effort to get me fired from my tenured position at the law school."


In some small sense, I'm reminded of the Stockholm Syndrome.

Perhaps the practice of tenure has created the polarization and intellectual retardation described here? Dump it, get a healthier turnover, and might this all go away?
4.21.2009 12:36pm
FWB (mail):
I would venture to say that in today's university level political climate, tenure is more important than ever if we want "diversity" of opinion.

Why is tenure such an issue? Honor! or lack thereof! Honor among those in adminstration. Honor among those at the peer level. The honor of the professor in seeing the need to move out of the way when heshe becomes dead wood.

As I regularly tell my dean: "Fire me! Fire me now!" I don't give a damn. If I don't have this position, I'll make my own elsewhere. I've moved between academe and the private sector numerous times coming back whenever the U has needed and requested my services. But then I am the "token" classical liberal.

Tiochfaidh ar la!
4.21.2009 12:54pm
Eli Rabett (www):
The football coach model ain't bad, six or seven year rolling contracts.
4.21.2009 1:19pm
Joseph Slater (mail):
I basically agree with Christopher Phelan, but I will add this. Tenure is also an important incentive to get people to go through what it takes to get and keep a job in ungraduate academia. Law profs are an exception: we get paid pretty well, typically teach only 3-4 classes a year, and only need a 3-year J.D. to be qualified (OK, often there's a year or two of clerking and/or big firm work, but that's paid).

Your average history/philosophy/poli-sci/psychology, etc. prof. will have spent 7+ years getting a PhD, generally making very little money. They will then face a very tough job market. Often, they will have to take a one-year gig or two in random parts of the country before even getting a tenure track job. Also, the early years of an academic are hardly "light work": publishing requirements are way up over past generations; preparing to teach, say, six classes a year, many as new preps, is enormously time consuming. Don't get me wrong -- if you stay in the biz for 10-20 years, it gets a lot easier. But the first few years of teaching can be brutally hard work.

The pay for the average undergrad prof. is still relatively low in the cosmic scheme of things. People only go through what I've described above because the job has a form of job security, if you can get tenured. My guess is that employers in the biz think this arrangement works for them too.
4.21.2009 1:25pm
ohwilleke:
Tenure makes a good deal more sense than comparable civil service protections in governnment.

In government (and even K-12 education), there is a good argument that so long as there is a layer of management with civil service protections from hiring between political appointees above, and rank and file workers belows, and there is also merit hiring, that the concerns about protecting rank and file government workers from arbitrary politically motivated and patronage firings that justify the system for all non-political appointees is non-existent. In this view, civil service protected middle managers could substitute for civil service protections for firing, thereby dramatically reducing the number of people who are hard to fire, and presumably, making it easier to remove poorly performing employees from the payroll.

But, in academe, your tenured colleagues are likely to also be your competitors and contenders in ideological competition. Controversy is often what makes a professor attractive as a hire and while a point of view may be popular enough for a few years to allow that professor to secure tenure, ideological winds change and there would likely be ideological purges but for tenure.

While the manager at a VA benefits processing center is unlikely to have it out for you personally, on average, although it may happen, a department chair or dean from a different ideological faction of your discipline may be very keen to be rid of you. Tenure discourages anyone from even going there, and instead encourages professors to play fair by competing via publishing, etc. Tenure also makes possible commitments to long term risky research agendas that may not produce publications or other visible payoffs for years at a time. Somebody has to have an incentive system that counteracts the quarterly profit orientation of corporate America.
4.21.2009 1:49pm
Joseph Slater (mail):
Of course pretty much the entire rest of the industrialized/democratic world has just-cause discharge rules as the default for most employees. And in the U.S., so do many public employees (through civil service laws), unionized employees (through union contracts), and various others, through private contract. Heck, the state of Montana has a statute providing for just-cause discharge rules instead of at-will.

So, just cause rules are hardly radical; in fact, they are quite common. Critics of tenure might consider that the problem is not the principle just cause discharge rules, but rather that tenure has become a sort of super-just cause rule. Despite the anecdotes and stereotypes one encounters, union workers and public workers under civil service laws do get fired (as do workers in other countries and in Montana), for example for poor performance. Tenured profs rarely are. Perhaps in some cases tenure protections go too far beyond normal just cause principles.
4.21.2009 2:01pm
cathyf:
At a small college (and small liberal arts colleges which no one has heard of form the backbone of undergraduate education in the US) the academic freedom which tenure protects is squarely about teaching. It's about, first of all, the right of the instructor to assign a student the grade that the student has earned. The right of advisors to encourage students to take classes that will be hard for them and that they may have to work very hard at. Both of which will result in some students failing, dropping out, etc., and have adverse impact on the school's USNews ranking.

Several commenters have suggested that student evaluations are the Holy Grail of faculty evaluation tools -- so, did you think that one through? Maybe that was the lawyers drumming up business -- after all, who wouldn't want to write the brief where you get to ridicule the notion that anonymous comments by teenagers couldn't possibly be motivated by racial or gender animus.

I think that the market failure that is addressed by tenure is that a college/university, whether public or private, is largely a public good which has no owners. Or, more specifically, the institutional reputation is a public good. And it is precisely the institutional reputation that is constantly under the usual attacks of the Common Pool problem. What do administrators think is bad? Students flunking out -- there goes that revenue stream, not to mention the dings to the retention rate and graduation rate. Students taking an elective and discovering some new thing that they are very good at and enjoy -- students who change majors often end up graduating late, which dings that graduation rate again. Students who go to ratemyprofessor.com and spew invective against the professor who "gave" them the D after they didn't turn in half the homework and got 35 out of 80 on the final.

Tenure has no value outside of the specific institution -- ask any tenured former faculty from a school that has closed how that "lifetime employment" worked out. The average tenure of a college president is five years, so a president has no real incentive to care about the long-term health or reputation of the place. Of course the formal fiduciary duty towards the college lies with the trustees -- but right there in the name you can see the problem. Trustees are trusted to act in the interest of the institution, but there is not the natural incentives of ownership like you have with boards of directors made up of stockholders. And boards of directors have substantial Agency Problems even with ownership; trusteeship is even more challenging without. And trusteeship where any and all faculty members can be dismissed for talking to a member of the board of trustees is impossible.

Tenure is a way to give the faculty an ownership interest in the institution and bind them to it. A 35-year-old tenured professor who is tempted to give out easy A's because it will make the dean happy and the students happy knows that if he gives the place a reputation as a blow-off school then he is going to be living with the consequences of that for the rest of his career. As a solution, yeah, it's pretty weak beer. But #1 weak as it is, it is about the strongest thing that these institutions have come up with to give incentives to protect the intellectual institutional integrity of these places. And #2, intellectual integrity is one of the core products that a college/university produces -- there is a reason why my University of Chicago BA is worth more money than any degree which I could purchase off of the internet (I get several offers each day for those.) As an alumna, I personally have a huge financial interest in the reputation of my alma mater, and the only way to protect my interest is if current students suffer as much agony earning their degrees as I suffered earning mine -- and I'm pretty sure that would end in pretty short order without tenure.

I have watched several small liberal arts colleges cycle through presidents over the years. Forget tenure -- the real problem is that small places act as an extraordinary magnifier to both the strengths and weaknesses of their presidents. Good (but not great) president equals fantastic institution, while a bad (but not terrible) president puts the place in danger of closing. And as the place goes from president to president (remember that 5-year average) it see-saws wildly. Tenure is probably the most important stabalizing and moderating force that these colleges have. Take it away, and I would expect that many colleges would simply not survive their bad-but-not-terrible presidents.
4.21.2009 2:30pm
rosetta's stones:

Perhaps in some cases tenure protections go too far beyond normal just cause principles.


ya' think?
4.21.2009 2:35pm
Joseph Slater (mail):
OK, I'm going to have to wait 'til I'm off work to play the song R.S. linked, but I have to say, as a fan of Dylan's "Senor," I'm intrigued.
4.21.2009 2:45pm
rosetta's stones:
4.21.2009 2:52pm
Curt Fischer:
Let's grant that "many fields must wait for wholesale generational turnover before new ideas take hold".

First, I am not sure that is a problem. From my perspective in the sciences and engineering, the fundamentally conservative pace at which a field's core ideas develop is a feature, not a bug. Standing on the shoulders of giants doesn't work if people are always knocking the giants over, telling them to go home, or ignoring them.

Second, even if it is a problem to some degree, the problem seems to stem from the intersection of tenure policies with retirement policies, not from just one or the other. Not many of the commenters here have recognized this fact, or suggested focusing on retirement policies. Indeed, the the American academe are aging fast. See this article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, or an old MIT-centric article I wrote for MIT's student paper a few years ago.

One idea is to make tenure a very long but temporary condition, for example, 30 years. That is a radical reform, but other, smaller steps are possible too. Sometimes professors don't retire because schools don't provide very much their emeriti. If schools ensure that emeriti get library access, perhaps a shared office or administrator, and a sense that they will still belong to the university community, retirement may be lot easier than when it seems like severing all your ties to a scholarly field to which you have devoted your entire life.

More universities and more disciplines should be doing stuff like this.
4.21.2009 3:17pm
Richard Aubrey (mail):
Tenure is a hamfisted response to dishonest, biased, repressive, corrupt employment practices. Getting rid of tenure is a hamfisted response to dishonest, biased repressive, corrupt professors.
Dumb laws like tenure are always the result of something that should have been handled by men and women of honor and discernment.
And when you simply dump the dumb laws, you're back to the reason you got them in the first place.
4.21.2009 4:23pm
visiting texas lawyer (mail):

The system also hamstrings younger untenured professors, making them fearful of taking intellectual risks and causing them to write in jargon aimed only at those in their narrow subdiscipline...


I've been thinking and I suspect that abolishing tenure would just mean that this particular problem would last forever rather than just until tenure is granted.
4.22.2009 6:30pm

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Comment Policy: We reserve the right to edit or delete comments, and in extreme cases to ban commenters, at our discretion. Comments must be relevant and civil (and, especially, free of name-calling). We think of comment threads like dinner parties at our homes. If you make the party unpleasant for us or for others, we'd rather you went elsewhere. We're happy to see a wide range of viewpoints, but we want all of them to be expressed as politely as possible.

We realize that such a comment policy can never be evenly enforced, because we can't possibly monitor every comment equally well. Hundreds of comments are posted every day here, and we don't read them all. Those we read, we read with different degrees of attention, and in different moods. We try to be fair, but we make no promises.

And remember, it's a big Internet. If you think we were mistaken in removing your post (or, in extreme cases, in removing you) -- or if you prefer a more free-for-all approach -- there are surely plenty of ways you can still get your views out.