The independent news organization of Duke University

Breaking the tenure stalemate

Bill Gates once quipped “If you think your teacher is tough, wait until you get a boss—he doesn’t have tenure.”

I’ve yet to have a boss, so it’s a bit sad that I already know what he’s talking about. In fact, my introduction to the real-world effects of tenure came five minutes into my college career, when a smug professor announced before me and a class of over 400 students that, seeing as he’d already attained tenure, he’d be more than happy to give us all A’s.

For years, opponents of tenure have been putting forth horror (or happy, depending on how you look at it) stories like this. And for years, proponents have insisted that what amounts to guaranteed lifetime employment is the only way to protect academic freedom, or the right of faculty to research and teach what they want. It’s time to break the stalemate.

So let’s start with the premise that, if tenure were in fact to be a successful means of protecting academic freedom, it would be worth the occasional lazy professor or two. How effective is tenure at protecting academic freedom? Best to begin with the application process. At schools like Duke, new faculty must wait nearly a decade before applying, and the approval of colleagues from their department and other peer academics (the very same people from whom tenure is meant to protect them) is necessary to set the process in motion. So at the outset of their academic careers, faculty are incentivized to break their backs to commit themselves to research and teaching that existing faculty will find suitable. From the start, then, tenure provides obstacles rather than pathways to academic freedom. And even for the lucky 40 percent of professors who do are on the tenure track, the system has proven dubiously effective.

The Chronicle of Higher Education published a study of thousands of professors in 2007 seeking to establish a connection between tenure and a willingness to teach controversial ideas, confront colleagues and behave in other tenure-worthy ways. The study found no connection at all between having tenure and expressing controversial ideas. Instead, it found that tenured associate professors were strikingly similar to their untenured peers in relevant behavioral and research patterns.

My experience using JSTOR suggests that every study has a similarly formatted, similarly worded counterpart with the opposite conclusion—I just couldn’t find any this time. So I decided to check in with among the primary proponents of academic tenure, the American Association of University Professors, to see whether or not other research has demonstrated a verifiable connection between academic freedom and tenure.

Instead of presenting any counter studies, though, Gregory Scholtz, the AAUP’s associate secretary and director of academic freedom, tenure and governance, told me in an email he was “not aware of any other studies of this nature.” “What is the solution?” he asked me. “As far as I can tell, the authors do not offer any solutions.” This is wild stuff: If there’s no scientific evidence tying academic freedom to tenure, what have we been arguing about all these years? People who demand taxpayer subsidized lifetime employment should surely have a plethora of evidence at the ready to demonstrate its necessity.

Even more frustratingly, the authors of the Chronicle study actually did put forth a wholly sensible solution. They pointed out in their conclusion that Great Britain ended the practice of academic tenure through its Education Reform Act in 1988. In its stead, the government imposed a legal framework for “academic freedom,” making it an offense to fire faculty at universities for exercising their right to research or express controversial things.

This isn’t exactly a mind-blowing idea: America has already imposed hard prohibitions on firing people on the basis of race or sex, and no one suggests giving all minorities lifetime employment.

Unsurprisingly, data collected since Britain’s ERA suggests that it is working as well as tenure did at a far lower cost to universities. Indeed, a study published in the International Review of Law and Economics in 1999 found that as a result of the reforms, “U.K. universities could make academics redundant or otherwise replace them at lower cost,” but that research quality had not suffered as a result.

This is our chance to break the timeless stalemate. And since, by an estimate in The Wall Street Journal in 2005, just 0.0002 percent of tenured professors are fired for cause each year, one could say time is of the essence. Taxpayers—ever conscious of government wastefulness—should be up in arms over a system that has not been proven to foster academic freedom and undeniably drives up the cost of higher education. More to the point, while those of us stateside have wasted years debating the merits of a expensive and deleterious system, Great Britain has found what seems to be a far more efficient way to protect academic freedom.

We should follow suit.

Jeremy Ruch is a Trinity junior and is currently studying abroad in Brazil, South Africa and Vietnam. His column runs every other Monday.


Share and discuss “Breaking the tenure stalemate” on social media.