Tenure is as tenure does

In the Washington Post last week, Francis Fukuyama made the case for abolishing tenure at American universities. Thanks to Ilya Somin for the pointer.

Abolishing tenure is a radical, thought-provoking idea, but sadly, I can’t say I am closer to having an opinion one way or another for having read his piece. The problems Fukuyama attributes to the tenure system seem to me to result not from the idea of tenure in the abstract, but either from US universities’ particular instantiation of tenure, or the intersection of their tenure policy with other policies.

One problem is that as things currently stand, “tenure-track” assistant professors, in general, either get tenure, or are fired. Most new professors work for a fixed term in their field, often around six years, after which they receive an up-or-down vote from the university administration on whether they can stay forever or are out of a job. But you could slice the cake many other ways and still call it “tenure”. For example, what if the length of the pre-tenure term was not fixed? Maybe university administrations or senior faculty could privately decide each year which 10 assistant professors (or 20 or whatever) among the schools’ entire ranks most merited tenure, and surprise these 10 with tenure, regardless of the time they’d spent at the university. “Not getting tenure” would thus not be synonymous with firing, and people could remain assistant professors for decades, if they and the university so chose. If they became superfluous or unproductive, the university could fire them.

Another problem: Fukuyama argues that the academe is too conservative and new ideas are too slow to take hold. But this isn’t purely the fault of tenure. As he himself notes, the lack of effective retirement incentives for senior faculty encourage them to stay around longer. This isn’t necessarily the fault of tenure, it’s the fault of the intersection of tenure and retirement policies (and laws). “At the root, there is a conflict between tenure and no mandatory retirement age for faculty,” is how former MIT President Paul Gray put it to me when I wrote on the topic for MIT’s student newspaper in 2006. Maybe tenure need not be given for life. It would still protect academic freedom, and still be tenure, I think, if it was for a fixed 30-year period.

Universities could also do more to help senior faculty retire. If schools ensure that emeriti get library access, perhaps a shared office or administrator, and a sense that they will still belong to the university community, retirement may be lot easier than when it seems like severing all your ties to a scholarly field to which you have devoted your entire life. The fact is that older faculty have a wisdom and valuable perspective that should be shared, even if they do not remain productive in research or teaching. More universities and more disciplines should be doing stuff like this.

The tenure system also intersects schools’ hiring practices. Tenure is a very long-term, expensive commitment for a school to make. As a result schools’ incentive is to push back the hiring age for as long as possible. In science, this trend leads to spending longer times in temporary post-doctoral assignments, and for would-be candidates to be willing to move to a new position or new city every few years, before landing a faculty position. The commenters at the Volokh Conspiracy had an interesting point awhile back about how this career pattern systemically discriminates against women. I think they might be right. But even here, abolishing tenure entirely doesn’t seem necessary to fix the problem. Rolling tenure or a tenure system without a fixed clock seems like they would have just as good a chance.

There’s a lot of wiggle room between the tenure system we have now and abolishing tenure altogether that Fukuyama seems to miss. Maybe complete abolition would be a good thing – but I haven’t seen any convincing arguments yet.

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