Imagine you ran a restaurant. A very prestigious, exclusive restaurant. To attract top talent, you guarantee all cooks and waiters job security for life. Not only that, because you value honesty and candor, you allow them to say anything they want about you and your cuisine, publicly and without fear of retribution. The only catch is that all cooks or waiters would have to start out as dishwashers or busboys, for at least 10 years, when none of these protections would apply.
It sounds absurd in the context of the food-service industry—for both you and your staff. But this system has governed academia for decades. Tenure—the ability to teach and conduct research without fear of being fired—is still the holy grail of higher education, to which all junior professors aspire. Yet fewer and fewer professors are attaining it. The proportion of full-time college professors with tenure has fallen from 57 percent in 1975 to 31 percent in 2007. The numbers for 2009, soon to be released by the Department of Education, are expected to dip even lower.
To which some educators are saying: good riddance. Tenure is a bad deal not just for universities, which are saddled with its costs, but also for professors, who are constrained by its conventions. Cathy Trower, a researcher at Harvard University who has studied tenure for the last decade, says the current system may actually be scaring talented young people away from academia. "This one-size-fits-all, rigid six-year up-and-out tenure system isn't working well," she says.
The case against tenure has been around as long as tenure itself. (The American Association of University Professors first declared the principles of academic freedom and tenure in 1915 and then revised them in 1940.) But the argument becomes only stronger over time. As tuition climbs and universities struggle to pay their bills, tenure is starting to look unaffordable. Keeping a professor around indefinitely—tenure means they can't be forced to retire—simply costs a lot. Mark C. Taylor, chair of the Columbia University department of religion and author of the forthcoming Crisis on Campus: A Bold Plan for Reforming Our Colleges and Universities, calculates that someone who serves as an associate professor with tenure for five years and then becomes a full professor for 30 years costs a private university $12.2 million.* Public universities pay $10 million over the same period. And because most universities pay tenured professors out of their endowments, each professor freezes up tens of millions in otherwise-liquid endowment money for a generation. University debt jumped 54 percent last year, with an average debt of $168 million. If the average university tenured about 15 fewer professors, they'd be in the black.
Then there's the effect of tenure on students. "Publish or perish" is the maxim of tenure-track professors. The corollary, of course, would be "teach and perish." Tenure committees claim to weigh publishing and teaching equally, but in practice publishing counts most. Taylor recalls a colleague winning a teaching award early in his career. Mentors urged him not to put it on his résumé. When the best young teachers focus their energies on writing rather than teaching, students pay the price.
The most common pro-tenure argument is that it protects academic freedom. Once a professor gains tenure, the thinking goes, he or she can say anything without fear of being fired. Academia thrives on the circulation of dangerous ideas. The problem is, for every tenured professor who's liberated at age 40 to speak his mind, there are dozens of junior professors terrified to say anything the least bit controversial, lest they lose their one shot at job security for life. Academia relies on young scholars to shake things up. Yet tenure incentivizes them not to. Instead, it rewards students who follow in the footsteps of the elders whose favor they will require when the day of judgment arrives.
Besides, says Taylor, the idea that a tenured professor can finally "speak out" is absurd. . . .
Read the rest here: http://www.slate.com/id/2263348/pagenum/all/.