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Tenure and the University: The Sins of the Past and Present Will Not Be Quickly Absolved

The old tenure topic comes up in the pages of the august journal Science. (Actually it is from the May issue of the august journal...)

OurLeader and OurProvost, especially, should take note.

Just as the tenure wars gave us a continuing black-eye, the abuse of due process, lack of required faculty consultation, and general cowboy behavior by the administration is going to further damage our university.

From Science:

The fundamental rationale for the tenure system has been to promote the long-term development of new ideas and to challenge students' thinking. Proponents argued more than 60 years ago that tenure is needed to provide faculty the freedom to pursue long-term risky research agendas and to challenge conventional wisdom (1). Those arguments are still being made today (2) and are still valid. However, a 30-year trend toward privatization is creating a pseudo–market environment within public universities that marginalizes the tenure system. A pseudo–market environment is one in which no actual market is possible, but market-like mechanisms (such as benchmarking and rankings based on research dollars, student evaluations, or similar attributes) are used to approximate a market.

The arguments against tenure are compelling to those who support a world where university "presidents have become CEOs" and "the administration has become management," as described by Richard Chait, professor of higher education at Harvard University (9). He was an adviser to Minnesota's Board of Regents in what Chait reports was "widely construed as an initiative to eliminate tenure" (9) ...

The top-down business model of the university presents the need to cut costs as the primary reason to hire part-time and non–tenure-track faculty. This is, however, misplaced: The dramatic increase in tuition and fees is not driven by an increase in the costs of full-time faculty. Since 1970, after adjusting for inflation, real full-time faculty salaries have increased by 5.0%, almost all of that rise due to the aging of the faculty (salaries went down for assistant and associate professors, and went up only 2.8% for full professors, but there are now more full professors). Tuition and fees, however, rose by 125% at public institutions and 253% at private institutions, in real (inflation-adjusted) dollars (13). Tenure is not what is driving rising costs.

The average tenure of a provost is 5.2 years and of a president 8.5 years (18), but many faculty stay at one institution through their entire careers. Just as the business model of recent years focused on short-term profits and stock prices and just as executives made huge bonuses based on illusory success, so too administrators may be concerned with being able to show a short-run accomplishment that will help them get the next job at some other institution, even if their actions undermine the long-run values and strengths of the university.

... a university is not supposed to be a business; viewing it as one shows not hard-headed realism but a failure to understand what gives the university its strength and potential. Tenure-system faculty are a problem to administrators and trustees precisely because tenure-system faculty have an alternative vision of the university and the power to act on that vision.

When administrators respond to trustee and larger societal pressures to cut costs, it typically involves a model in which most faculty engage in "content delivery," not education. If faculty are teaching to the test, delivering a standard curriculum determined from above, with little or no ability to explore alternatives or to respond to student interests, then a de-skilled and vulnerable workforce has important advantages. This may help to explain why tenure is weakest at community colleges and virtually nonexistent at for-profit institutions (9, 19). A market-style model works less well if a university's goals are free speech, creativity, research, and student exploration of alternatives.

Tenure-system faculty produce better outcomes: A study, based on 30,000 student transcripts, found that first-year students were less likely to return for their sophomore year if their large introductory classes were taught by part-time faculty (20). A study of community colleges found that students were 4% more likely to transfer to a 4-year institution for each 10% increase in the share of tenured faculty (21). Although contingent faculty may be excellent teachers, typically they do not have the continuity and institutional supports that enable them to provide mentoring. If contingent faculty do not have offices, it is hard for them to hold office hours; if they are gone a year later, students have trouble getting letters of recommendation.

Certainly the situation is a complex one, and it would be naïve to say that the current tenure system is perfect in all ways. However, despite the best efforts of administrators and trustees, tenure remains a crucial part of any attempt to have a first-rate college or university.

The decision about tenure is also a decision about two visions of a university. A university can be seen as a business with a "product" whose offerings should be driven by student "demand," a business that should rely on contingent faculty combined with highly paid administrators committed to "the bottom line." Alternatively, it can be seen as a center of knowledge where students are educated (not just trained), that should be governed in significant part by tenure-system faculty with a long-term commitment to the institution and to knowledge.

Amen.

President Bruininks? Provost Sullivan?


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