It's Time for Tenure to Lose Tenure

Harvard Business Review

At no other time in history has the American higher education system been in greater need of radical change. The place to start: abolishing tenure.

Originally established in the late 1700s to protect academic freedom at religious schools (which are less than a fifth of the 4,703 U.S. colleges today), tenure has morphed into a guaranteed "job for life," a benefit no longer enjoyed by any other segment of the U.S. workforce. Even the United Kingdom did away with tenure in the late 1980s when then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher implored the nation's colleges to become more productive. (Tenure does exist in some form in other European universities, as well as Chinese and Indian schools.) While not all of academia's problems can be laid at tenure's doorstep, tenure has hamstrung colleges' ability to fulfill their two fundamental missions of advancing knowledge and disseminating it. Here's why.

The impact on knowledge

U.S. colleges' once-undisputed superiority is under siege. Fifty-one of 76 U.S. universities lost ground in the UK magazine Times Higher Education 2012 list of the world's top 200 universities. The country's bragging rights in science and engineering are especially in doubt. A 2012 National Science Foundation report notes that U.S. colleges are losing ground in two key measures of research quality: the percentage of the world's science and engineering articles published, and article citations. U.S. professors published 26% of the world's total science and engineering articles in 2009, a decline from 31% only 10 years earlier and from 37% in 1989. China's share is 9%, and rising quickly.

In the U.S., research is a primary prerequisite for tenure, meaning that professors of all disciplines feel pressured to research — even if their subject area is static and less critical. Without tenure, it would be easier to shift research efforts toward emerging, fast-changing, and vital fields.

The impact on teaching

Tenure locks in big costs and makes it difficult for universities to explore more productive teaching techniques. Mark C. Taylor, chair of Columbia University's Department of Religion and author of a book critical of tenure, estimates that a college ties up between $10 million and $12 million of its endowment to support a single tenured professor for a 35-year career. A 2011 study of teaching practices at the University of Texas at Austin indicated that UT Austin alone potentially could save $266 million a year if it could get half its professors to be as productive in teaching as the top 20%, fire its least productive faculty, and shift their small workload to other professors.

Tenure also limits how nimble colleges can be in deploying their staff to subject areas that will better equip students for employment. As a 2010 study by the Center for College Affordability, a non-profit research center, expressed it: "With a tenure system, colleges are not able to reduce the number of medieval history professors in order to increase the number of information technology and business professors."

Academic teaching techniques remain calcified, despite a technological revolution in the last 20 years that enables professors to impart their knowledge in more effective and efficient ways. For example, a 2011 UCLA study of 6,768 U.S. undergraduate male teachers of science, technology, engineering and math subjects (so-called STEM) found 70% still relied on lectures while only 33% used student inquiry-type methods.

Professors' reluctance to use technology to revamp the way they teach is understandable; tenured professors, of course, don't have to. However, it's to the detriment of students, especially those who are anesthetized by auditorium lectures that offer less opportunity for interchange than an online course. The knowledge that professors teach is as easily digitized and disseminated around the world as are magazine articles, rock music, and TV shows. However, just as union work rules once prevented a railroad engineer from changing a light bulb in his locomotive, tenure protects professors from having to revamp the way they teach.

While tenure's proponents argue that it can always be revoked, in fact only 50 to 75 professors out of 280,000 lose it annually, said a study published in 1994 in the Chronicle of Higher Education. The number has likely not changed, according to Harvard University researcher Cathy A. Trower.

From tenure to contracts

Tenure could be replaced with contracts similar to those in the business world. Merit-worthy professors could be offered multiyear contracts that give them time to prove themselves; full professors could enjoy rolling contracts that provide reasonable amounts of job security. As in business, the contract can be bought out if the professor does not perform. Since resigning tenure 20 years ago at the University of Minnesota, I've been on one-year rolling contracts.

In a recent Gallup poll, nearly two-thirds of 1,081 college and university provosts said they preferred long-term contracts to tenure. This would free up resources to staff according to what the outside world needs, both in graduates and in innovative ideas.

Another, related, change is that colleges and universities should require research professors to rely more heavily on outside funding for their research. The NSF report mentioned above concluded that colleges have been paying for an increasing share of their science and engineering research, about 36% in 2009. Most faculties don't try hard enough to attract other outside funding, even at business schools. External funding would improve the quality of research by requiring professors to pass the "sniff test" of those who would fund it. Some 77% of faculty at UT Austin, a premier research school, receives no external research grant funding.

U.S. colleges need to tap their cutting-edge research, best teachers and the growing array of technological tools to make education more cost-efficient, exciting and accessible. For traditional students, this might mean replacing large lectures with online courses, freeing up resources for smaller, more stimulating classes. Universities could develop and sell online classes that educate people beyond their ivy-covered walls and attract new revenue. And as a 2012 Babson Survey Research Group/Inside Higher Ed study noted, students can evaluate online classes more easily. And the classes can be more easily fine-tuned because of the online feedback they generate.

To make such changes possible, colleges need to make use of the same tools used in the business world such as employment contracts instead of jobs for life, process innovation, better allocation of resources, and more careful scrutiny of how research gets funded. Every college's business school has taught how restrictive work rules and high labor costs for many years made American automotive, electronics, and other industries less competitive. Now universities need to adopt their own teachings and end tenure.

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