Wednesday, July 28, 2010

What if College Tenure Dies?

That is the question recently asked by The NY Times in its Room for Debate forum. Richard Vedder was among the panel of experts asked to opine.
My academic department recently granted tenure to a young assistant professor. In so doing, it created a financial liability of over two million dollars, because it committed the institution to providing the individual lifetime employment. With nearly double digit unemployment and universities furloughing and laying off personnel, is tenure a luxury we can still afford?

There are two reasonable arguments for tenure. First is that it protects academic freedom, shielding professors with unpopular views from retribution. Supposedly, this increases intellectual diversity, promoting universities as a marketplace of ideas. Secondly, tenure is a fringe benefit that makes academia more attractive to the best scholars, in so doing reducing the salaries needed to lure them.

While tenure has undoubtedly protected some good people from losing their jobs, it actually may on balance reduce intellectual diversity. Many ideologically driven tenured professors use their job security to aggressively thwart efforts to increase alternative viewpoints being taught. Hence conservatives often feel that they are frozen out of good academic jobs simply because the tenured faculty dominating departments simply do not want alternative perspectives given academic prominence. And, given competition for good talent, really good scholars have little fear for job security if harassed because of their academic viewpoints.

The fact is that tenured faculty members often use their power to stifle innovation and change. Because of the enormous fixed costs that tenure imposes, colleges cannot quickly reallocate resources to meet new teaching and research needs. Tenure contributes to the inefficient and expensive system of shared governance, where decision-making is by committee, and compromise and deal-making trump sound policy-making, including introducing cost-saving innovations. Is it no wonder that university administrations are gradually eliminating tenure by stealth, simply by hiring non-tenure track people for most new jobs?

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