« Openness and Transparency at the University? In Your Dreams.... | Main | The U still can't explain the waste »

Francis Fukuyama: "Let's get rid of tenure."

UD posts on FF's suggestion. A little while back, some administrators at the U of M were saying the same thing. People like William Brody, Leo Furcht, and some on the Board of Regents. For the back story look up Tenure Wars and the University of Minnesota. We are still suffering aftershock from this brilliant idea…

From University Diaries.

[FF's comments are in bold and UD's response is highlighted.]

Francis Fukuyama…

… says get rid of tenure.

I’m a tenured professor. But I’d get rid of tenure.

At first glance, a pithy, hard-hitting opening. Yet if Fukuyama's opposed to tenure, he's always free to turn it down, as a number of professors in this country have done. They negotiate various forms of non-tenured contracts with their institutions. It can be done -- perhaps not at all schools, but at many. So from the outset, Fukuyama looks cowardly or hypocritical. If tenure should be abolished, be an example.

Tenure was created to protect academic freedom after a series of 19th-century cases when university donors or legislators tried to remove professors whose views they disliked. One famous instance in the late 1800s involved progressive movement leader Richard Ely, whose critics accused him of socialism and tried to remove him as an economics professor at the University of Wisconsin.

The rationale for tenure is still valid. But the system has turned the academy into one of the most conservative and costly institutions in the country. Yes, conservative: Economists joke that their discipline advances one funeral at a time, but many fields must wait for wholesale generational turnover before new approaches take hold.

As with his first point, his second has an internal unsteadiness to it. Fukuyama both concedes the link between tenure and intellectual freedom, and attacks tenure as the cause of intellectual sclerosis. Presumably, with the abolition of tenure a host of intellectual freedom problems will arise. Why should we get rid of one flawed system in order to introduce another?

The system also hamstrings younger untenured professors, making them fearful of taking intellectual risks and causing them to write in jargon aimed only at those in their narrow subdiscipline: Thus in economics, people have “utility functions” instead of needs and wants.

Wow. Try being an English professor. Utility functions sounds like a breath of fresh air... But put that aside. Fukuyama is about to defend think tanks as a model of non-tenuring intellectual institutions, but almost all think tanks are ideologically driven in a very obvious way, so I don't see how they would respond to this problem. And as for the problem itself: The numbers don't lie. Most universities tenure most of the people who come up for it. At some universities, the figure is almost one hundred percent. Junior faculty should check the figures, calm down, and write what they want to write....  And really - on the matter of jargon -  let us recall Ecclesiastes:  Of the making of much jargon there is no end. I doubt people write this way because they're afraid they won't get tenure.  I think they write this way because most conform, and this is the way many other people are writing.  Professors who use jargon don't suddenly become fresh and pellucid after they get tenure.  As Fukuyama points out, tenure has always been about protecting the intellectual freedom of the few people who don't conform.

These problems are made worse by a federal employment law that bars universities from instituting mandatory retirement. Deans and provosts can’t remove elderly professors who take up slots that could fund two or three younger colleagues. Two developments are about to exacerbate this problem: a decline in university enrollments as the baby echo generation passes through college, reducing overall demand for professors; and the financial crisis, which has decimated professors’ retirement savings, giving them incentive to hold on to their sinecures even longer.

Actually, there are many things that universities can do to deal with this admittedly significant problem. Buy-outs, offers of gradually reduced teaching and hence gradually reduced salary ...

Things don’t have to be this way. Academic freedom can thrive in think tanks and research institutes.

Let me say again what I say above. Think of almost any think tank - Brookings, Heritage, CATO. They're wonderful places for strengthening the visibility of liberal or conservative or libertarian thought, but they lack the non-ideological atmosphere of universities. And yes, UD's aware that some university departments are themselves very ideological. But that's not a permanent, definitive characteristic of them, and things can and do change.

U.S.-style tenure doesn’t exist in Britain or Australia.

I'd hesitate to point to Britain's faltering university system as a model.

Japan grants tenure but forces professors to retire at a relatively early age (60 at Tokyo University).

Is Fukuyama endorsing state-mandated retirement? Seems out of step with his other political positions.

The freedom guaranteed by tenure is precious. But it’s time to abolish this institution before it becomes too costly, both financially and intellectually.

Post a comment

(If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.)