As most college students can attest, America’s system of higher education has serious flaws. At the top of the list are unmanageable debt and poor job prospects for recent graduates. Former students with college loans owe an average of $29,400, and almost half of all graduates hold jobs that do not require a college degree. But while the financial hardships of university students have received plenty of media coverage, there is another lesser-known issue facing universities that deserves attention: tenure.
Most college professors aspire to achieve tenure at a respected university, since it basically means a guaranteed job. After gaining this protection, professors can only be fired for gross incompetence or inappropriate behavior. In fairness to academics, professors endure a grueling several years of “publish or perish” at the beginning of their careers, with slim hopes of obtaining a permanent position. But there are plenty of professions that demand hard work throughout a career and do not offer an opportunity for tenure. Professorship should no longer be an exception.
Recent research illuminates tenure’s flaws. First, some evidence suggests that professors are less productive after achieving tenure. A 2009 study, “Job Security and Productivity: Evidence from Academics,” found that “the number of papers produced drops immediately after tenure,” leading the author to conclude that “tenure causes [a] decrease in productivity.”
Second, there is evidence that tenured or tenure-track professors are worse teachers than adjunct instructors. A 2013 study, titled “Are Tenure-Track Professors Better Teachers,” compared the teaching quality of tenure and tenure-track faculty against the teaching quality of adjunct staff. Using transcripts of freshmen at Northwestern University between 2001 and 2008, the study recorded both how likely a student was to continue taking classes in a subject and how well the student did in a class when taught by an adjunct staff member as opposed to a tenured or tenure-track professor. The study concluded: “We find consistent evidence that students learn relatively more from non-tenure-line professors in their introductory courses. These differences are present across a wide variety of subject areas and are particularly pronounced for Northwestern’s average students and less-qualified students.” Lower productivity and worse teaching are hard for tenure apologists to ignore.
Apart from the authors of these studies, some professors themselves believe tenure is a vice. Steven Levitt, economist at the University of Chicago and co-author of Freakonomics, has argued that tenure creates an incentive for professors to work less as their careers progress. He goes on to say, “If there was ever a time when it made sense for economics professors to be given tenure, that time has surely passed.”
However, the aforementioned evidence is by no means unanimously accepted. Other studies suggest that tenure benefits universities, but perhaps these studies should be taken with a grain of salt. Teaching quality and research quality are difficult to measure, whereas student performance and engagement, as in the studies presented above, are relatively easier to measurable (e.g., by grade point average).
The National Education Association defends tenure, arguing that tenure does not lead to a loss of productivity. According to their survey data, they claim that professors work on average 52 hours per week. The NEA also argues that tenure protects academic freedom; professors are able to speak and write about controversial subjects as well as criticize university administration without fear of reprimand or termination.
When comparing the current evidence and arguments on either side, those against tenure hold more water. First, several studies have established that professors’ productivity decreases due to tenure. Considering the importance of research in scientific, medical, and engineering advances, the existence of tenure over many decades could have a significant impact on the standard of living in society. It may turn out that there is no correlation between tenure and productivity, but the risk that there is makes the case for scrapping tenure.
Second, the argument that tenure gives professors the academic freedom to investigate controversial matters and criticize the administration is a joke. When did you last hear of a professor publicly criticizing or confronting the administration? It almost never happens. The idea that the culture of universities is one of intellectual debate over even the most controversial subjects is a fantasy. The argument for tenure as a protection of “academic freedom” is an argument for something that doesn’t exist with or without tenure. It also implies that, during the time before tenure review, professors are not conscientious figures with on-campus presence. This is blatantly false and insults their profession. For example, when prominent historian Norman Gary Finkelstein probed the most controversial of issues—scrutiny of Israel’s human rights abuses—and challenged claims made by tenured Harvard Law School Professor Alan Dershowitz, Dershowitz used his clout to petition that Finkelstein be denied tenure at DePaul University. Despite Finkelstein’s scrupulous and intelligent research, his reputation was damaged, and he left DePaul after being denied tenure. It seems that tenure headhunts a club of “team players” that the university uses to sustain a politically correct and popular credibility rather than a roster of truth-seeking, unbiased academics.
Furthermore, it is problematic to argue that tenure protects academic freedom since university faculties currently demonstrate little interest in such liberty. This is the byproduct of their scramble to take funding from organizations with agendas. In fiscal year 2008, 60 percent of research funding at academic institutions came from the government. Accordingly, professors have a strong incentive to gear their research toward what will draw government funding. This is a serious case of undermining the academic freedom of colleges and universities; “academic freedom” does not mean that one large, powerful organization controlled by politicians pushing various agendas decides 60 percent of university research. If academic freedom were really the issue, the debate about tenure would include discussion of federal research funding and the shaping of research. That it doesn’t indicates that the defense of tenure is more about protecting professors’ lifestyles and lining university coffers than it is about “academic freedom.”
A third blow to the case for tenure is the extra cost tenure imposes on colleges and universities. A 2011 study at the University of Texas at Austin found that the university could save $266 million each year by raising the productivity of half of its professors up to the level of the top 20 percent of professors, firing its least productive professors, and giving these lighter workloads to other professors. These savings could be transformed into better teaching, better research, or lower tuition.
There is neither certainty nor consensus about the effects of tenure. Given the difficulties in measurement and the contentious nature of the issue, the debate will probably persist for a long time. However, that does not mean we should accept the policy. Given that tenure at colleges and universities appears to promote lower productivity, does little to nothing for “academic freedom,” and increases the operating cost of college, we have reasons enough to scrap it. When business models fail to deliver, they need to be reformulated. The University of Texas at Austin’s proposal is a good place to start, but almost any plan would be better. However, before we can formulate a plan, we need to acknowledge the problem. It will go a long way to improving America’s higher education as a whole.