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Tenure: Yes or No?

This time I have my friend Gregory Kaplan, an honorary research fellow at the University of Hong Kong, to thank for alerting me to a special report on higher education in the Wall Street Journal (and a massive power outage in Ohio for preventing me from getting to it sooner!). The special report focuses on three key issues, and each of them deserves its own post. I’ll deal first with the question “Should Tenure for College Professors be Abolished?” The discussions of all three issues are framed as debates, the first between Naomi Schaefer Riley, author of The Faculty Lounges and Other Reasons Why You Won’t Get the College Education You Paid For (2011), and Cary Nelson, professor of English at the University of Illinois, outgoing president of the American Association of University Professors, and also the author of a spirited defense of academic freedom and tenure, No University Is an Island (2010).

The “debate” is something of a mismatch. Ms. Riley makes the case that “In pursuit of tenure . . . professors have become experts at churning out research of questionable value while neglecting their teaching duties.” That is, “tenure, by giving professors permanent jobs largely on the basis of the work they have published, has created and enforced a system that rewards research over teaching.” This is far too sweeping a claim: At a significant majority of colleges and universities in the U.S., tenure is awarded on the basis of teaching and service, not research. Even at research-intensive universities, the teaching profiles of tenure candidates are rigorously assessed, and those who do not measure up are, at my institution (and I assume at many like it) not promoted.

Ms. Riley then goes on to make some reasonable observations about the college teaching landscape, but mistakenly ties them to tenure. She notes that more and more college teaching is done by adjuncts, and conjectures that this may lead to grade inflation (because the renewal of adjunct contracts is influenced by student evaluations, hence the incentive to inflate grades) and attrition (since adjuncts lack the time to spend with students). Her solution to this problem is logical, given her overall argument: Change the reward system and give professors credit for teaching rather than research, denying them the right to tenure, since teaching is a “dynamic profession.” But the specifics are highly unrealistic. She suggests that, “to evaluate grading you might try looking at the substance of comments that students receive. Many professors simply write things like ‘great’ or ‘unclear’ on a paper or exam, rather than writing more-enlightening comments, much less correcting students’ prose.” Who is the “you” in this recommendation? “Evaluations of professors’ teaching should be done by their colleagues as well as administrators and even young alumni in addition to students—and they should be conducted regularly.” Well, students do write discursive evaluations and professors’ colleagues do read and assess them.  Anyone who has summarized years’ worth of discursive evaluations knows how challenging a task it is, and how hard it is to do that job fairly. I can’t imagine imposing that task on administrators and alumni; In addition, Ms. Riley implies, asking all of these groups to scrutinize comments on student papers and exams as well? Who would volunteer to plow through these mountains of writing? Or where would the money come to compensate them for doing so? She ends with the shopworn complaint that professors will win out in the end and preserve tenure because they control the university. Anyone who has ever been a professor can only laugh.

Cary Nelson’s contribution is far more persuasive. He makes a clear connection, as he’s done in the past, between the job market in the humanities and tenure. As jobs in the humanities came to be very scarce (from the early 1970s to the present), hiring committees have been in a position to be extremely selective. Once they hire, they then get to revisit their selection six or seven years later when the person they hire comes up for tenure. At that point, they can and usually are still extremely rigorous. As Nelson puts it, “tenure . . . compels the committees to take a close look at every case they consider, because they are probably going to have to live with the decision they make for a very long time. That level of commitment, and the weight it brings to the tenure decision, wouldn’t be there in a system that relied on contracts that came up for renewal every few years. I know that I have not been a terribly kind tenure decider. If a candidate is just good, not excellent, I vote “no.”

He swiftly dismisses the notion that research is the key determinant in salary (a point of emphasis in Riley’s argument), noting that salary differences vary widely by division rather than by amount of research: business professors make considerably more than English professors because of their field not because of what they publish. His final point, though, is the most troubling: The whole debate about tenure is quickly becoming moot. It’s highly unlikely that tenure will be abolished by some dramatic decree, but for decades now, it has been gradually eroding, with tenured professors being replaced by adjuncts. At present, only 25 percent of all post-secondary teachers are tenured or eligible for tenure. Nelson offers a sad conclusion: “Faculty consequently may lose control of the curriculum and the hiring of teachers. They are already losing the support for academic freedom and spirited teaching that tenure protects. We will eventually see a resulting decline in the quality of what has been the best higher-education system in the world, as the people capable of designing a college curriculum and staffing it lose authority over the areas of their professional expertise.”

This is unfortunately, as I see it, the most important takeaway from this debate. Tenure served American colleges and universities very well during its post-World War II glory years. It’s now slowly but surely disappearing.

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