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Tenure needs fixing

There sits today at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock a bright young scholar. She obtained her doctorate from Harvard and produced a well received dissertation. Her research at UALR has been stellar and her teaching has been inspiring. She’s happy enough at UALR but sometimes wonders what it would be like to teach at an Ivy League or comparable institution. So far, they aren’t calling.

Another bright young Ph.D. is sitting at home, scanning the classifieds. His dissertation was fine and his graduate school was plenty respectable. But it’s tough to get a university job, and for the time being, his formidable credentials just aren’t enough. Meanwhile, here at Duke, an augustly proportioned professor toasts the arrival of spring. Time to get out in the yard and appease the old ball and chain. Time to strut around the Washington Duke jogging trail and shed those winter pounds. Time to cook up some of that North Carolina barbecue that he has been enjoying for, oh, the last 30 years. He might make a few forays into his office or the library, but there’s really no rush. He is, after all, a tenured professor, and he has every right to freeload for the rest of his life.

Not a bad situation for Contestant #3, eh? He takes it easy at the expense of the UALR professor, the unemployed scholar, his students, his fellow faculty members and the Duke administration. Few, if any, Duke professors resemble this bum. Duke has a number of protections against this sort of loafing—from hiring only serious scholars at the outset to subjecting all tenure candidates to a rigorous and multi-tiered promotion process. Even those with declining research or teaching quality can usually ascribe the letdown to a legitimate cause, like the birth of a child or an administrative appointment.

But to the extent that even one professor consistently abuses his tenure privileges and becomes a long-term drain on Duke and the academic job market, the administration should have the right to terminate him. It can currently do so in extraordinary cases but rarely does because of the threat of campus turmoil and lawsuits. Duke should work with its elite peer institutions to establish an annual “release allotment” of a few faculty members per university. Under this framework, a few freeloading professors per year could be released. The possibility would be a caveat to tenure and etched into all contracts, eliminating the specter of lawsuits. It is important to include other elite schools in the system so that Duke does not put itself at a competitive disadvantage.

Think about the vast positive implications of such a system. Motivated scholars would be unaffected, but those few with lagging efforts would suddenly feel a distant force impelling them to perform—an obligation felt in nearly every other American profession. The quality of Duke’s teaching and research could only improve, however imperceptibly.

When the unproductive outliers are thankfully fired, underemployed professors from other universities will be able to step in and immediately improve Duke’s faculty. Qualified-but-jobless scholars can fill the void at less prestigious universities. The university faculty job market, which currently offers too few positions for extremely able applicants, can enjoy a beneficial correction.

Who might object to such a system? Naturally, the faculty. Unchecked tenure exists for several reasons, one of which is the sense of relief it confers on the scholar who has been poor, insecure and overworked since time immemorial. Sorry, but this argument holds no water when you look at the plumbers, businessmen and waiters who work just as hard and nobly but will never enjoy perfect job security.

Another justification for tenure, this one more legitimate, is that it protects scholars from being canned due to personality clashes with capricious administrators or because they conduct controversial research. Academic freedom is indeed a critical commodity and must be protected. That’s why any release of a tenured professor should be subject to approval by the Academic Council as well as the appropriate deans. This will ensure that the firing is rare and only occurs in the most egregious cases of disregard for Duke’s standards.

Look, I’m not calling for the end of tenure. It’s one of the unique features necessary for the unique environment of a university. But by denying the administration an escape hatch, everyone but the freeloaders suffers. Let’s make it a better system.

Andrew Collins is a Trinity senior and former University Editor of The Chronicle. His column appears Tuesdays.

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