By Richard Vedder
My friend Al Eckes pointed me to a story in the Sunday Washington Post by scholar Francis Fukuyama, now at Johns Hopkins, who once created a sensation with his "End of History" hypothesis. Prof. Fukuyama calls for the elimination of tenure, and makes some good arguments.
As he points out, the 18-22 year old population will be shrinking, and the federal law against compulsory retirement age means colleges could well be populated by lots of old fossils like me teaching in a few years, a possibility enormously aggravated by tenure. To provide opportunities for young scholars, we need to encourage faculty to retire at a reasonable age --and force them if necessary, or so Fukuyama claims. He could also add that tenure leads to stifling of innovation in teaching, a failure to reallocate resources to new scholarly needs, etc.
In part, Prof. Fukuyama is slowly getting his wish. Tenured faculty are becoming a minority in the academy, in part because of costs associated with the institution. Colleges are substituting lower cost, more flexible labor for high priced inflexible human resources.
I mentioned this article to my friend Lowell Gallaway and he asked a great question: "Do you suppose you and I would have taken the stand against the increase in the Ohio income tax that we took in 1983 if we did not have tenure?" Our university faced pressure from prominent politicians and alumni to have us fired for taking a stand that was perceived to potentially reduce university subsidies.
Fukuyama points out that in Europe and Japan where tenure in the American form does not exist, there seems to be no problem with the freedom of speech. I am not sure about that (and some prominent scholars in European universities do have permanent appointments). And I am not sure that the degree of intellectual vitality is as great in Europe as the U.S. Thus the "academic freedom" argument for tenure does have some validity. The question to me is: are the gains from tenure from the standpoint of promoting intellectual diversity and debate greater than the costs? Are there intermediate positions, such as fairly long term contracts (say 5-10 years) that could largely protect academic freedom while increasing flexibility with respect to staff?
Speaking of tenure and university staffing, my colleague Daniel Bennett has provided some good data (using governmental data sources) showing that there has been an explosion in staffing levels outside the faculty in modern times. His study is available on the CCAP website, and is discussed prominently in the Monday Chronicle of Higher Education and also mentioned by Inside Higher Education .