By Bryan O’Keefe
In a follow-up to Rich’s earlier post about the Zogby poll – I have my own hypothesis as to why those results came out the way that they did. The results, especially about the public’s feelings on tenure, do not surprise me in the least bit. I think that the masses feel this way because the very idea of tenure is completely foreign to nearly everybody else in the workforce. Almost everyone else has a boss to answer to and goals to reach and if they fail to obey their superiors or reach those goals, they are kindly (and sometimes not so kindly) shown the exit. It’s a tough world out there and people get fired, demoted, and downsized all the time. It’s just the way the world works these days for most people, right or wrong. The idea that after only working somewhere for five or six years and then you have a job for the rest of your life is a complete mirage outside of the Ivory Tower. People are going to be contemptuous of others who have this type of job security, especially if the job involves only working nine months out of the year and the work is perceived as being rather easy. (I actually give professors a lot of credit for what they do, but I don’t think everyone else feels the same way)
I think that the public backlash over tenure is only growing to grow too. As tuition continues to go through the roof, more Average Joe’s are going to become upset that their hard earned money is going to support faculty members that they believe have easier jobs than their own.
The conventional wisdom is that even though people complain about tenure a lot, not much is going to change about it anytime soon. It’s a sweet system and the people on the inside have an incentive to keep it going. That might be true, but I am not entirely convinced.
I say that because just last week I was reading a story in the Wall Street Journal about partners at law firms. In the old days, making partner was akin to getting tenure – once you were a member of the firm, you were basically a member for life. But that’s not the case at all with law firms these days. As the WSJ story pointed out, it’s not uncommon at all now for unproductive partners to be fired, demoted, or bought out. I have heard this same sentiment from some partners at law firms – partners are expected to work longer and harder now than ever before and without the type of job security that partners had years ago.
What changed? Competitive pressures. For better or worse, (and a lot of attorneys say it’s for the worse, but I am not trying to answer that question right now) firms are more like businesses now, not country clubs. They have their own version of US News and World Reports with the annual profit per partner rankings that the American Lawyer magazine releases. Firms can see exactly where they stack up against their peers.
Looking at universities in the same context, maybe some day a college or two will look at their faculty and think that trying to rid themselves of the unproductive professors and hiring fresh blood could help improve their USNWR rankings. The tenure train might be slowly derailed and university professors are not going to find any sympathy from the rest of the working world if that does in fact happen.