Tenure is as tenure does, part 2

Blogger excimer at Carbon-Based Curiosities had some things to say after he read Columbia religion professor Mark C. Taylor’s recent piece in the New York Times. Taylor’s op-ed, like Francis Fukuyama’s before it, call for the abolition of tenure.

I’ve written before that abolition seems a bit heavy-handed to me. Unlike Fukuyama, Taylor proposes an explicit policy to put in tenure’s place:

Impose mandatory retirement and abolish tenure. […] Tenure should be replaced with seven-year contracts, which, like the programs in which faculty teach, can be terminated or renewed. This policy would enable colleges and universities to reward researchers, scholars and teachers who continue to evolve and remain productive while also making room for young people with new ideas and skills.

My instinct is that Taylor’s proposed changes could well have the effect he says: universities could turn over their faculties faster and reward the effective sooner and more often as a result.

However, I fear that seven-year contract system Taylor advocates might insufficiently protect academic freedom. And academic freedom is (supposedly) the whole reason tenure exists in the first place. Sometimes people question the need for science and engineering faculty to have academic freedom (see discussion here, for example). The argument is usually that nothing a scientist or engineer says could be so politically controversial as to incite calls for their dismissal. But that is short-sighted. Academic freedom also means being able to assign a poor student the grade he deserves, without having to worry about whether the student’s father is a major donor to the university. Academic freedom might mean being able to pare down the number of funded grants a professor has for a short time, maybe to spend a year focusing on service work, or to focus on seeking funding in a totally new research area. Academic freedom might mean insisting on researching “unfundable” research areas with little or no funding, all the while being sure that eventually your results will speak for themselves and that everyone else’s view will come around.

So I am not convinced that a 7-year contract would be the best replacement for today’s tenure system. But nonetheless, I am happy to see Taylor’s op-ed, unlike Fukuyama’s, understand that the problem is not tenure per se, but the link between tenure, retirement, and hiring policies.

But, of course, since I am in the hunt for a tenure-track academic position myself, I suppose I might be biased.


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