Replace tenure with multiyear renewable contracts

Editor’s note: Among the many proposed reforms to Texas higher education are some that would modify or eliminate the current tenure system employed by colleges and universities. We asked UT philosophy lecturer Jeffrey C. Leon and former Wall Street Journal editor Naomi Riley for their views on the tenure system and asked, “Should Texas universities continue to employ the tenure system? Why or why not?”

Send a firing line to [email protected] and let us know what you think about the tenure system.

Last month, UT-Dallas President David Daniel appeared on a panel lamenting the state of research universities in Texas. Daniel said the “biggest disappointment” of his lifetime was that people consider higher education an individual benefit rather than a public good. If this is the case, the universities have only themselves to blame. And the system of tenure has done more than anything else to devalue undergraduate education and promote trivial research.

While Daniel and his fellow panelists wondered why there wasn’t support for some new Sputnik-like project, watchers of higher education were wondering how we ended up with universities producing works such as these by UT scholars: “An Archive of Feelings: Trauma Sexuality and Lesbian Public Cultures” or “Indian-Made: Navajo Culture in the Marketplace.” Or this one, which received $300,000 in funding from the National Science Foundation: “Blue Highways: Evaluating Middle Stone Age Riverine Based Foraging, Mobility and Technology Along the Trunk Tributaries of the Blue Nile.” Even if there is an argument for studying the anthropology of ancient Ethiopia, how do you explain to taxpayers or tuition-paying students and parents the most recent study touted on the UT website: “Chocolate Milk Gives Athletes Leg-up After Exercise.” Sputnik this ain’t.

Higher education has become a game of prestige and the only thing that brings prestige is publication. A 2005 report in the Journal of Higher Education found that college professors actually get paid less for every additional hour they spend in a classroom. This finding was true not only at large research universities but at state “teaching universities” and small liberal arts colleges. The institution of tenure encourages this problem. Tenure should be replaced by a system of multiyear renewable contracts for all instructors instead of shifting the burden of teaching to lesser-paid adjunct professors.

Some professors claim the reason we reward publication is that there’s no objective measure for good teaching. We simply know it when we see it. This is plainly false. Good teaching is more than just entertaining in the classroom. It involves preparation for lectures and discussions, extensive work in grading and contact with students. It is something that students as well as faculty and administrators can recognize and reward if they chose, and it requires consistent evaluation. Tenure is a static system of promotion that gives people a permanent job for what they’ve already accomplished. Teaching is a dynamic profession. As any good teacher will tell you, there is no resting on your laurels.

Defenders of tenure claim that it protects academic freedom, but a look at any university campus suggests that’s not true. The system of “departmental majoritarianism” encourages professors to hire and train clones of themselves. To get a job, graduate students keep their mouths shut. Adjuncts who want a tenure-track position keep their mouths shut. The assistant professors who want tenure keep their mouths shut. And after all those years, people are simply not inclined to open their mouths once they get tenure.

A tenured professor at Ohio University recently wrote in the Chronicle of Higher Education about how he has resolved to act, now that he has a job for life: “I must try to be less bold in expressing unpopular opinions about campus policies, curriculum goals or the use of increasingly limited resources. … Against instinct and training, I must try to avoid rocking the boat in a workplace that is hostile toward dissent.” The suggestion that tenure protects dissent doesn’t even pass the smell test. Academic institutions are some of the most intellectually uniform institutions in our entire social landscape.

Ultimately, though, eliminating tenure is vital because it will reduce the faculty stranglehold on universities. Faculty have far too much control over what subject they teach (usually the obscure ones they want to write a book about), who they will teach (only small classes of advanced students, please. Don’t we have adjuncts to take care of the rest?) and when they will teach (Does 11:30 to 1 on Tuesdays and Thursdays sound familiar?). Every battle in higher education — whether it’s over the curriculum, money or politics — is a battle of attrition, and the faculty, thanks to tenure, will always win. They will outlast any president, governor, trustee, regent, parent or student. They are why reform is not possible.

When I asked Ed Larson, former associate counsel for the House of Representatives Committee on Education and Labor, about eliminating tenure, he told me, “Tenure affects the very nature of higher education. Removing it would be like changing the pitching mound or the distance to the bases.” To which I would say, “Great!” Higher education has so many problems right now that it’s time to change the pitching mound and the distance to the bases, not to mention the strike zone, the number of players on each team and the cost of hot dogs and beer.

Naomi Schaefer Riley is a former editor of The Wall Street Journal and is the author of “The Faculty Lounges: And Other Reasons Why You Won’t Get the College Education You Paid For.”