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Shhh, he's talking about tenure...

There was an odd Op-Ed piece in this morning’s New York Times by John M. McCardell, Jr., former President of Middlebury College, where he claims to say what most serving college presidents dare not say. And, of course, the first thing is—three guesses? And the first two don’t count unless they begin with ‘ten’ and end in ‘ure’. Yes, it seems that tenure is an outdated policy, which served its purpose in the 40s and 50s, but is not now necessary. Yes, the most undiscussed secret of higher education is tenure. You will never, ever, ever hear a college president with the temerity to knock tenure. Nope.

Oh, come on.

Look, Your Humble Blogger takes a back seat to no-one in his bewildered contempt for the economics of higher education. Further, I admit that tenure is probably every bit as justified in factories as it is in universities; I’ll go along with that, too. But the tenure debate is raging free and easy across the land, and for President Emeritus McCardell to suggest that this is some new, daring thing is preposterous. I will say that he does present some newish arguments, if that’s what they are. He claims that academic freedom is no longer at risk (good to know, Mr. President), and therefore the tenure protections are unimportant (although it’s entertaining that he does that in the context of claiming there were things about higher education that college president’s don’t dare say, but now that he’s retired, he can say them). He hints that, in fact, it might be better for young professors if tenure was not the norm, as it would relieve the publish-or-perish pressure. He even, I think, attempts to imply that abolition of tenure would help even up the gender imbalance, but I may be reading too much into that. He doesn’t say anything at all about money.

What tenure does is prevent the employer from firing the employee. That’s what it is. If you want to lift that, presumably it’s because you want to fire some employees. It seems pretty simple. Every serious argument for getting rid of tenure that I’ve ever heard comes down to ‘we want to fire a bunch of expensive useless profs’. Well, and use the threat of layoffs to hold down salaries. Either there are a lot of profs who have tenure but who aren’t very good at their jobs, which is possible but I have not seen any evidence of it, or this is about money.

I know that the tenure system has given rise to a system of adjuncts and part-timers that screws everybody. I suspect the answer to that would be to have collective bargaining, and have the employer insist that the bargaining unit include part-timers and adjuncts. There are other suggestions, some of which are probably implementable. But the answer could be removing tenure only if the problem, at its heart, is in the old, useless, well-paid profs. And I don’t think it is. I’ll need to see that argument, and I’ll need to see some data. President Emeritus McCardell just murmurs some nice phrases about secondary and tertiary aspects of the issue, ignoring the primary one. Oh, and his next point is that student/faculty ratio is overrated. Which it is, of course, but ... hm ... how would that ratio be affected by getting rid of tenure again? Oh, yes, you are thinking about (but not talking about) firing people.

No real point, just that if you are going to talk to YHB about abolishing tenure, you’d better start talking about layoffs and pay cuts, because that’s the real issue. I agree with him about the drinking age, though.



Well, good job for Middlebury College that a man of his attitudes is retired and no longer in a position to influence university policy.

I'd say more, but, as I am an as-yet-untenured academic . . .

Well, I can say a couple things:

(1) If a faculty goes the collective bargaining route, having the part-timers and adjuncts in the same unit as the full-time, long-term faculty is not necessarily a good arrangement. In faculties with this very arrangement at present, the interests of the pt & st employees are often sacrificed to the interests of the lt employees, who generally have more influence in the union. That's not universally true, but it does happen. There are problems also with having separate bargaining units for long-term employees and adjunct employees, in that the administration may play them off against each other, but I think it's better for the long-term folks not to be able to take the short-term folks for granted.

(2) As to student/faculty ratios being overrated, I would refer P.E. McCardell to our discussion of assessment in education. I'd also note that student/faculty ratio is surely a strong _selling point_ for elite schools like Middlebury; if this is so overrated why aren't the top schools cutting back on faculty, lowering tuition and touting their superior educational efficiency?

Well, and he does say that a nice ratio can be illusory, and a prospective student should look at average class size as well. Of course, average class size, like any average, is most likely misleading, but I don't think the Princeton Review gives class size quintiles, which would probably be the best indicator of personal attention.

As for the bargaining unit, I assume that the places where the abuse is worst, the adjuncts comprise a sizeable minority of the unit, if not a majority (counting noses, rather than class assignments), and couldn't be taken for granted. Now, they might not vote, and the long-termers could well schedule elections to discourage short-termers from voting, but surely profs wouldn't actively work to fatten themselves at the expense of oh dear I think I should go lie down.


Aside from firing people and lowering salaries, the other typical effect of competition (which is what tenure removes for those who have it) is increased quality. You don't have to be incompetent to say "I would do better work if my job depended on it". That may not be true in academia, for one reason or another, but in the general case, being able to fire people can have useful effects even if you don't actually fire anyone (or lower anyone's salaries).

(This is also one way in which some voucher proponents say they're not against public schools: They claim that public schools will improve much more in the face of competition than in the face of easily manipulated accountability standards, and that the net result won't be a mass exodus from public schools, but a massive increase in the quality of public education.)

In my (admittedly pretty brief) working life, I've never seen any actual evidence of this above the level of gross incompetence. That is, I’ve seen a few people who did the minimum they could without getting fired, and if there weren’t any danger of that, they would do less. There were also a very few people who weren’t in any danger of being fired who really did nothing. On the whole, though, the people who I thought were ‘safe’ for one reason or another (union protection among ’em ) were as good workers as anybody. So I think it was only the incompetent people who worked harder because their jobs depended on it. The situation may well be different in a real sink-or-swim venture like a start-up, but in a college, I can’t imagine that the threat of layoffs would encourage increased ‘productivity’ (whaddevah dot means). Plus, in my (again, very limited) experience, the skill of not-getting-fired is an entirely different one from the skill of doing-the-job.
I understand that, in theory, what you say makes sense, although it doesn’t seem to model the universe I perceive.


OK. Tenure removes one kind of "competition" from the life of a tenured professor, but there are so many other kinds of competition that remain that removing the threat of being fired doesn't lead to slacking off, except in rare cases.

Let me enumerate:

There's competition for pay increases. Most universities have a substantial "merit pay" system, whereby pay increases are targeted to rewarding success (usually in publication, sometimes in teaching). In the sciences, there's also competition for grant money, which may make up a substantial part of the faculty member's salary.

There's competition for professional status. This includes achieving the rank of full professor or winning an endowed chair, both of which come after tenure is granted, both of which typically come with salary increases, but it also includes getting recognition for one's ideas and one's work from one's scholarly profession.

There's competition for popularity with students. Faculty members have to stand up and perform before a group of students all the time. Faculty members, by and large, prefer to be liked, prefer to have reputations as good teachers, and prefer that their students learn, so they are again motivated to do well.

It's always possible that someone with tenure will stop caring about making more money or about being promoted or about receiving the recognition of his or her peers or about his or her students. It's possible, and perhaps one or two percent of faculty members "go to seed," as it were, after tenure, but even in these cases, usually the faculty member stays productive in some aspect of his or her work but becomes less so in others. He or she will stop publishing, but teach well. He or she will be a notable scholar, but a bad teacher.

The tenure system gets attacked because it's a) unusual, so people see it as some special privilege (it is) b) because few people outside of academia have a good idea of what professors actually do so they think that being a professor is some really cushy job (it isn't) c) it interferes with the ability of academic administrators and boards of trustees and state legislatures to have a free hand it doing what they want with institutions of higher learning (it does, thank goodness) and d) right now there's a punitive spirit in America that leads people prefer to gut systems that generally work very well because a tiny minority of people may be able to abuse them and be comfortable without working very hard. This last is most disturbing to me; it's sort of the inverse of Christ's parable of the shepherd who leaves the flock to find the one sheep who is lost. Rather than let one slacker go unpunished, people would like to abolish a system that generally enables the nation's teacher-scholars to be free of improper coercion from political and institutional authorities that would have a chilling effect on teaching and on scholarship, an effect that would be of great detriment to a free society.

Hmm. I wasn't going to go into all that. I'll never learn . . .

Just to clarify, I'm not particularly opposed to tenure, or long-term contracts, or job guarantees in general. I just wanted to point out why someone might be opposed to them without their main motivation being to fire teachers and cut their pay.


You mentioned in your initial post on this subject that you have bewildered contempt for the economics of higher education.

What do you see as the problems with the economics of higher ed?

Oh, dear. Well. The short form is just to look at where the money comes from, and where it goes, and the system of incentives (if you'll pardon the MBA language) that is set up by that.

Jere7my posted last week about going to an incredibly opulent shindig for donors (not that he is potentially one, but, well, you know) which was probably most directly responsible for the phrase bewildered contempt.

But in addition to that, there's the whole PhD supply-and-demand business, the whole bit where most universities don't seem to know what business they are in (except BU, which knows that it is a real estate business, and arranges its subsidiary units such as entertainment, financial services, and, education to serve that main business accordingly). Oh, I should write a whole entry about it, except the entry would most likely just reveal my shocking ignorance of just how screwed up the whole business really is.


Maybe write a whole entry just of your questions about it, then. I have the same "bewildered contempt" when I hear my husband talk about the luncheons given by pharmaceutical companies to folks at the hospital where he works. It does, however, generally boil down to, how come they have so much money and I don't? Not, perhaps, a useful point to start from, but true...

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