1. Tenure is expensive.Here Beam:2. Tenure, because it forces professors to focus on their research, is bad for students.Mark C. Taylor, chair of the Columbia University department of religion and author of the forthcoming Crisis on Campus: A Bold Plan for Reforming our Colleges and Universities, calculates that someone who serves as an associate professor for five years and then gets tenure for 30 years costs a private university $12.2 million. Public universities pay $10 million over the same period.
I don't know about Taylor, who as an expert in Derridean deconstruction is perhaps seeking to overthrow the phallocentric hegemony of basic arithmetic, but Beam, as a putative journalist, ought at least to apply a little common sense to these numbers.
$12.2 million over 30 years would mean that an associate professor at the -- average! -- private university would be earning around $400,000 a year. Even if one includes benefits like health insurance, 401K, etc., I know of very few star professors at even the top universities who earn that much.
Furthermore, I don't understand the argument here. Even if there were no tenure, universities would still have to pay their faculty. Suppose we thought that a fair system of remuneration would reward experienced faculty on a non-tenure system an average of $120,000 per year, including benefits. If those faculty are doing well, the university would do well to retain them -- say, for 25 years or so. Over the course of those 25 years, the cost to the university would be $3 million.
According to Inside Higher Ed (here), the average salary for a full professor in 2008 was slightly over $100K -- with benefits, close to our figure of $120K per year. This means that right now, under the current system, the cost to the university is the same as it would be without tenure.
This, of course, assumes that we wish to retain good teachers, pay them for their skills adequately, offer salary increases that keep pace with inflation, etc. Note, however, that except for retention, tenure itself does not tie an institution's hands with respect to any other aspect of the contract between professor and institution.
So the cost argument is utterly bogus. It's embarrassing for Taylor to make it (he ought to know better); it's perhaps more embarrassing for others to parrot it unthinkingly.Again, Beam:3. Tenure promotes intellectual inflexibility.Then there's the effect of tenure on students. "Publish or perish" is the maxim of tenure-track professors. The corollary, of course, would be "teach and perish." Tenure committees claim to weigh publishing and teaching equally, but in practice publishing counts most. Taylor recalls a colleague winning a teaching award early in his career. Mentors urged him not to put it on his résumé. When the best young teachers focus their energies on writing rather than teaching, students pay the price.
This is one piece of fallacious reasoning after another.
First of all, as a factual matter, it is far from true that tenure committees at all schools weigh publishing and teaching equally; at many schools, teaching is weighted more heavily than publishing.
Second of all, even at those schools at which "publishing counts most," it does not follow from this that teaching is not valued.
I'll ignore Taylor's use of a single anecdote to prove a case as beneath contempt; for Beam to editorialize from this single case that "the best young teachers focus their energies on writing rather than teaching" is simply shoddiest journalism of the worst sort.
Finally, one ought to note that, again, this is NOT an argument against the tenure system. Even if it were the case that all schools did weight publishing inordinately (which -- again -- is not the case), this would at best be an argument for tenure reform, rather than abolition.
Since, as a matter of fact, there is a wide variation in the extent to which publishing plays a role in the tenure process, this would seem to be a situation in which prospective students can "vote with their feet" in choosing the extent to which they wish their school to value professors who publish.
The fact that many of those students are choosing schools like UC Berkeley, Wash U in St. Louis, Oberlin, and Yale, among many others, would suggest that many students at least don't object to professors who devote time to research.Beam, again channeling Taylor:4. Tenure makes professors lazy.Just as tenure creates economic inflexibility, it also creates intellectual inflexibility. By hiring someone for life, a school gambles that his or her ideas are going to be just as relevant in 35 years. Tenure can also discourage interdisciplinary studies, since professors are rewarded for plumbing deep into an established subject area rather than connecting two different ones.
The first criticism here incorrectly assumes that one's ideas are static. This is seldom the case, however. Few academics maintain their reputations merely because their early work remained relevant over the span of decades. (Note the "merely"! Many academics had big ideas whose early work remained relevant. For three examples off the top of my head: E. O. Wilson, Thomas Kuhn, Noam Chomsky.) However, many academics themselves remain relevant because they are founts of ideas over the span of decades -- many ideas, changing over time.
The second criticism here seems wrong on its face. The examples of academics who, post-tenure, use the increased security that tenure provides to stray outside of their more narrow disciplinary comfort zones are too numerous to mention, but would seem to include such public intellectuals as Richard Rorty, Stanley Fish, Stephen J. Gould ... and, yes, Mark C. Taylor, certainly no disciplinary expert on higher education policy.5. Tenure is bad for academics themselves.Critics say that tenure hurts students by making professors lazy. Course loads vary widely from school to school: At some public universities, professors teach nine or 10 courses. At smaller schools, they teach as few as one or two, totaling as few as 140 classroom hours a year. If you can't be fired, what's to stop you from refusing to teach an extra course? "I honestly don't know what a lot of academics do a lot of the time," says Taylor.
Again, course loads are separate from tenure -- as is evident from the fact that such loads, as stated in the quote, vary widely from school to school.
Thus, the only issue relating to tenure is that tenure protects professors from being forced to work unpaid overtime. Note that it does not protect them from teaching whatever course load is normal at their institution -- be it 5 courses per semester or less (or more).
In other words, this argument against tenure also reveals itself to be utterly specious.
But the clincher for the anti-tenure argument may come from the very people it is supposed to benefit: academics. Specifically, young academics. Consider the career path of an aspiring full-time tenured professor: Four years of college, six years getting a doctorate, four to six years as a post-doc, and then six years on the tenure track. By the time you come up for tenure, you're 40. For men, the timeline is inconvenient. But for women who want to have children, it's just about unworkable.
That's one reason the number of full-time tenured professors has dropped so much in the past few decades: Women have joined the academic work force, but some have opted to take a part-time role.
I don't even understand the argument in the first quoted paragraph. Since tenure takes a significant time investment in order to achieve, we ought to abolish it altogether? I can't begin to address this one, because I can't imbue it with even the semblance of rationality.
The second quoted paragraph is stunning because of the evidence it provides of Beam's complete lack of knowledge of the facts in the higher education landscape. The reason the number of full-time tenured professors has dropped so much is because the tenure system is being dismantled in favor of the hiring of poorly paid adjuncts and graduate teaching assistants -- often to the detriment of undergraduate education. (On this point, see, for example this 2008 article in Inside Higher Ed.)
To imply, to the contrary, that the shrinking numbers of tenure-line positions in higher education is due, to any significant degree, to a choice on the part of academic job-seekers would be like implying that the large number of child laborers in Victorian England was because unemployed adults preferred to let the little tykes have something to do with their time.