Retaining academic freedom

The tenure system was established to ensure the protection of academic freedom. Tenured professors need not fear reprisals for holding unpopular or controversial views. Tenure also provides a de facto guarantee of lifetime employment, as many critics are eager to point out. There is a widespread perception of many tenured professors as lazy parasites who conduct esoteric, if not worthless, research rather than bothering to teach undergraduates. These are certainly serious charges, but other facts must be kept in mind as well. Tenure may be a flawed system, but it is significantly better than any alternative.

American higher education is admired the world over. Every year, thousands of foreign students compete for the chance to study here. Clearly academic “deadwood” is not as pervasive a problem as critics of tenure claim. The vast majority of professors are either skilled instructors, conducting important research, or both. Research drives numerous scientific, technological and other innovations and is an essential part of the university system.

Though some professors may concentrate on rather inane work, this is by no means representative of the majority. It would be far better to reform the current system rather than discard it in favor of some as yet untested approach.

The implementation of some form of real, binding post-tenure review would allow the firing of truly incompetent, unproductive professors while also ensuring continued academic freedom. Complaints about current review procedures, which can almost never amount to anything more than a slap on the wrist, are valid.

Tenure should not be a shield behind which the worst professors hide, so instituting review boards that could realistically lead to dismissal for unsatisfactory performance would be a logical step. It is important, though, to ensure that it is the professor’s performance, rather than his or her views, being questioned.

Some claim that tenure is not necessary to protect academic freedom, but this is simply not the case. It is true that even an untenured professor would not be openly fired for his or her views. However, without the guarantees of tenure, a professor with whom the administration did not see eye to eye could simply be summarily dismissed at the conclusion of his or her contract.

This is why a system of multi-year, limited contracts is not a satisfactory alternative to the current situation. Under the contract arrangement, the concept of academic freedom would become an unenforceable platitude at best.

Tenure is the strongest bulwark against administration censorship of the faculty.

Academic freedom is the foundation upon which higher education rests. If it were not protected, very few intellectual advancements could be made within the university system. If unpopular or unorthodox views were stifled, new ideas could never compete on their own merits, and many fields of study would stagnate. Few would argue that this would be a step in the right direction for higher education.

Critics of tenure also charge that it significantly raises the cost of a college or university education, thus effectively preventing children from low and moderate income families from continuing their education past the secondary level. It is not clear, however, that abolishing tenure would actually lower costs.

The promise of job security is one reason that many Ph.D.-holders pursue careers in academia rather than far more lucrative work in the private sector. Without tenure, professors would either have to be paid more or the quality of higher education as a whole would decline, as the most talented candidates would be attracted by significantly higher salaries in other fields.

It is true that costs could be kept down by paying individual professors more but also having them teach more courses, thus allowing the downsizing of an institution’s faculty as a whole. This, however, would have serious consequences. A significant percentage of productive research would be rendered impossible simply because professors would not have time to perform it.

Many anti-tenure arguments see professors as the enemy, as people who are the problem, and who could not possibly be part of the solution. Reform without the assent of the faculty, though, would likely be impossible.

It is not realistic to expect that the administration of an institution would be able to force through its agenda without regard to the wishes of the faculty. Tenure is an entrenched system, and it will not be possible to reform through brute force. For any change to come about, the administration must begin to work with, rather than against, the faculty.