Tenure proves beneficial to higher education

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.

I am a non-tenure-track faculty member teaching in liberal arts. As such, it would seem that I would be likely to endorse higher education reform that includes abolishing tenure for senior faculty. In fact, many of the education reforms being kicked around, including the “Breakthrough Solutions” promoted by the governor’s higher education summit, would be to my advantage. As a lecturer who taught approximately 600 students last year, it would be in my financial interests to support one of the recommendations that endorses paying teaching faculty based on the numbers of students taught. I presume this is an effort to increase efficiency and control the cost of education, as well as to reward teachers for their contributions. However, as a supporter of the mission of higher education in general and public higher education in particular, I am willing to forgo the personal benefits of such a recommendation in exchange for a higher quality classroom experience at UT. These sorts of incentives could reasonably be expected to yield larger and larger class sizes, and, as any classroom teacher knows, this is not a recipe for improved educational quality.

Similarly, abolishing tenure would place teachers like me in a more favorable position with respect to formerly tenured colleagues. We could all, presumably, be evaluated continuously based on our contributions, with non-tenured lecturers losing their unenviable status as most easily downsized. However, the costs would not be worth the benefits, even from my perspective. I cannot quantify the value to me and to my students of teaching among an active research faculty of the first class. The tenure system is intended to support faculty-driven independent research, and while this is obviously beneficial to society at large and to the disciplines the faculty serve, it is also clearly beneficial to the mission of undergraduate teaching. I know the “live problems” of my discipline (philosophy), and I can pass this information along to my students. In addition, my TAs are attracted by our highly ranked department, and both my students and I are better for the opportunity to work with these burgeoning philosophers. Although I am not required to do so, I maintain active research interests myself, and this is a positive benefit to my students. All of this is a direct result of the tenured faculty who are my colleagues.

Is there a better way to promote independent research and attract first-class faculty? Possibly. What problem would abolishing the tenure system solve? Would it make it easier to get rid of or to prod senior faculty who seem to be unproductive? On paper, the answer seems to be in the affirmative. However, as someone who has experience in the private sector (10 years experience in software engineering, a spouse who is a small business owner), the problems associated with evaluating a senior employee’s contributions and then, if the evaluation is more negative than positive, dismissing said employee, do not disappear simply because there is not tenure in private enterprise.

Perhaps a critic of my position could claim that I have been co-opted by a system that exploits me. In much the same way that a member of the electorate can be convinced to cast her vote against her own interests in favor of a policy that in the end makes her worse off, I may have been blinded by the image of the ivory tower into thinking that the tenure system is the best alternative available. I admit this possibility. However, unlike, say, the voter who ends up voting against public services designed to benefit her in the perhaps-mistaken belief that she will be better off without these services, I am aware that I am giving voice to a view that does not directly benefit me. I am willing to do so in the interests of the mission of quality public higher education for the citizens of Texas and all who choose to attend our university.

Jeffrey C. Leon is a philosophy lecturer.