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The End of Tenure? (Or the Collapse of Our Safety Nets–Part 1)

A questionable (but honest and penetrating) part of HIGHER EDUCATION? by Hacker and Dreifus is its assertive case against TENURE for professors.

I have little doubt that tenure is toast.  Its disappearance will be chronciled as part of the movement from DEFINED BENEFITS to DEFINED CONTRIBUTION that’s at the heart of the current transformation of our various safety nets.  RISK, as I’ve said before, is being transferred from employer to employee.  The argument for tenure has always been a combination of academic freedom and job security.  And increasingly we believe that claim for freedom is really an excuse for self-indulgence, and that sort of security is incompatible with the requirements of the increasingly competitive or productivity-oriented global marketplace. 

The academic world is hardly exempt from the general pressure to become a meritocracy based on productivity.  Productivity, of course, has to be measured.  And so profesors, like everyone else, have to be held accountable.  Tenured professors, the thought is, can’t be held accountable.  They can do what they please and not be fired.

As literally a grandfather, the end of tenure–like the transformation of Medicare into a defined contribution plan–won’t affect me.  In both cases, my safety nets are grandfathered in.  The taxpayers will be stuck with my old-fashioned Medicare payments, and if my college ends tenure, it very likely won’t do it for me. A combination of self-interest and facing up to our inevitable future probably should cause me to yawn when thinking about tenure’s end.

Still, it’s not clear to me that doing away with tenure will actually be an effective response to the authors’ fairly just indictment of higher education in America today.  “Our principal premise,” they write, “is that higher education has lost track of its original and enduring purpose:  to challenge the minds and imaginations of this nation’s young people….[O]ur campuses have become preserves for adult careers…professors, administrators, and yes, presidents have used ostensible centers of learning to pursue their own interests and enjoyments.”

I certainly agree that at too many colleges and universities undergraduate education has been sacrificed to pointless and idiosyncratic “research.”  And the research agendas of vain and mediocre scholars have too often driven what’s taught even in introductory courses.  Faculty members are too often evaluated by the quantity of publications, and the result is the silly and shameful proliferation of specialized journals nobody reads. Our authors challenge the dogma that research enhances teaching.  In most cases, they show, the research imperative is at the expense of  the attention and direction students most need.  Both faculty members and administrators have used the support of research–and other questionable institutional amenities–to enjoy themselves at the expense of what should be the core eductional mission.

Undergraduate teaching–teaching students what they really need to flourish as educated persons–needs to become the priority again.  Why would doing away with tenure serve that goal?

The faculty member who devotes him- or herself to teaching at an “unelite” place with a large teaching load is already sort of a sucker.  Our authors admit that the market value of that faculty member declines over time.  Such genuinely exemplary teaching is about impossible to measure. (Student evaluations don’t really measure much.)  The result, our authors admit, is that such dedicated senior professors are pretty much stuck where they are.  They are, from a market view, overpaid, even as they also suffer from “salary compression.”  What they do well other places don’t really prize.  Those who want to move on have to publish–even at the expense of teaching. 

But, you might say, at least these suckers can say they’re appreciated where they are.  Sometimes they are, of course.  We have to add, though, that they’re  evaluated by administrators who so often are clueless about what good teaching is, by careerists quite willing to take shortcuts to pad their resumes to get ahead. (Our authors are really tough on the bloated salaries and general shortsightedness of our administrators.) They want a program they can sell, and that approach, to say the least, might not include a proper appreciation for a professor of philosophy known for his or her “tough love” and small but exciting and elevating classes.

It might well be true that doing tenure will give some lazy teachers the incentive to do better by causing them not to think of their jobs as entitlements.  It would certainly inspire some senior professors to do more research.  But my final thought is it would hardly support the freedom and dignity of the many devoted teachers we still have, despite it all.


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