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NYT tenure discussion

July 21, 2010, 5:07 am

There’s a not-very-interesting discussion of tenure at the NYT. Mark Taylor (religion, Columbia) makes this odd point against it:

To those who say that the abolition of tenure will make faculty reluctant to be demanding with students or express controversial views, I respond that in almost 40 years of teaching, I have not known a single person who has been more willing to speak out after tenure than before. In fact, nothing represses the free expression of ideas more than the long and usually fruitless quest for tenure.

That’s difficult for me to believe. (I note in passing the oddity of claiming that the job insecurity of the tenure track represses free expression but the job insecurity of a post-tenure employment system will not.) Here’s a short musing.

Consider institutional service first. In my anecdata, the faculty who are willing to call out administrators are all tenured. Sometimes this is annoying, sometimes it’s extremely beneficial, but it will be hard to convince me that an adjunct is just as likely as a full professor to tell the President or Provost that the admin is screwing things up. If faculty are going to play a large role in governance, they need job protection.

When it comes to research, the point is not so much “protect crazy ideas.” That makes it sound like its benefits are to give us more Ward Churchills: how appealing. Instead the rationale is to allow research avenues that might or might not pay off in either the short or long term. Let’s start with an example. A junior colleague sent me a draft of a paper recently. I suggested waiting on the project until after tenure. My thinking: it’s an ambitious but inchoate research program that doesn’t connect up in tidy ways with current literature, so it will be easy for a referee to reject. Spelling it out fully will require a book or several interrelated journal articles. If he puts his chips on this project, it’s quite possible that he won’t have enough things in print to get tenure, even if the work is good. But it’s an interesting idea! No way to know if it pans out in a big way or doesn’t. The only way to find out is to invest a few years in it, a risk that doesn’t make any sense without tenure. Short version: there’s a lot of value in giving researchers room to fail.

With teaching the case is even more obvious. Everyone in the bidness has seen what happens when instructors teach to the student evaluations. In some ways good, in many ways terrible. If you want innovative, creative, novel teaching (both in terms of content and pedagogy) you have to accept that there will be failed efforts. If you reduce the penalty for these failed efforts, you likewise allow space for innovation.

None of these are cases for tenure. (And I suspect I’m in the last generation or two to enjoy it, anyway.) But they’re better defenses of the broad idea than “protect our weirdos.” It’s disappointing to see such ineffective discussion of the idea from people who should know better.

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