Why I Have a Big Problem With Academic Tenure

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What’s wrong with guaranteed-job-for-life tenure?

James C. Wetherbe

In business, adding competitive value is key to ensuring jobs and customers. Lifetime job security is the antithesis of competition. The ultimate benefactor of competition is the customer. Without competition, organizations devolve into the equivalent of the local department of motor vehicles, where a “socialistic monopoly” on issuing licenses creates painful inefficiencies.

After nearly 40 years in and out of academia, I have discovered that tenure can have the same kind of debilitating effect on professors. I came to disdain tenure and the way it protects subpar, complacent performance by the few who make the majority look bad. It was more about job security—guaranteed-for-life unless you do something really heinous. During the 13 years I had tenure, I grew weary of the sarcasm and wisecracks about it from business people with whom I consulted.

So I resigned tenure 20 years ago from the University of Minnesota. In 2000, I returned to my alma mater, Texas Tech University,  as a chaired professor who had voluntarily rejected tenure. A dozen years later, I was a finalist to become the next dean of Texas Tech’s Rawls College of Business. Simultaneously, a committee reviewed my work and proposed that my name be sent to the Board of Regents to receive a Horn professorship, the highest faculty award at the school. I was ultimately rejected for both positions, I have strong reason to believe, because of my views on tenure—decisions that led me, reluctantly, to sue the university. (The school’s lawyer says only that it “hired the best candidate” for the dean’s job.) I hope my lawsuit serves as a test case for the notion that the First Amendment—not faculty tenure—can do a better job of protecting academic freedom. If successful, I’ll donate any financial gain from the outcome of this case to Texas Tech to fund student scholarships.

Tenure is not viewed well by business leaders, taxpayers, and legislators as it leaves little disciplinary or removal remedy for ineffective teaching or research. A recent Wall Street Journal online survey shows responders oppose tenure 3 to 1. Subpar faculty are often used minimally in the classroom in an effort to reduce student complaints.

Many things can and need to be done to increase the quality and reduce the cost of education. Addressing tenure in a constructive way is one of the major ones.

Academic freedom is the esteemed argument made for tenure. This rationale dates back to the late 18th century, when professors at religious schools needed protection from trustees and donors who might demand termination of those faculty who taught outside the accepted doctrine. Does that argument still hold water in the 21st century? Mark Taylor, a religion professor at Columbia University, acknowledges tenure is really about job security (Crisis on Campus: A Bold Plan for Reforming Our Colleges and Universities, 2010). Many of my colleagues agree with Taylor—though admittedly, some do so only behind closed doors. For the record, I have never heard a newly tenured professor celebrate: “Now it is safe to express all those controversial ideas I have been repressing.”

What is the alternative to tenure? First, rolling contracts of three to five years could be offered. When an assistant professor is promoted to associate, usually after seven years, the normal vetting should take place to ensure the candidate is worthy, and at that point perhaps a three-year rolling contract could be awarded. At promotion to full professor, perhaps that could be upgraded to five years. With this approach, a professor still enjoys reasonable job security for spending additional years investing in a specialized field of study, but if teaching and research are not high-performance, there is an economically viable solution—a contract buyout.

Second, for public universities at least, academic freedom is protected by the First Amendment. My belief is that my constitutional protections are all I need for the kind of free-speech protections that professors demand. But it’s important to note that tenure and First Amendment protections are not identical. With tenure, the burden of proof is on the university to terminate the faculty member. With freedom of speech, the university can terminate and the burden of proof is on the faculty member to prove wrongdoing by the university. It is a tradeoff. One provides greater job security for the professor, while the other provides a better remedy for disciplining or eliminating a nonperforming professor.

If my lawsuit is successful, it will prove that tenure is, ultimately, an unnecessary burden on higher education. Professors, tenured or not, should always be able to speak truth to power, thanks to the First Amendment. We don’t need lifetime job security to do that.

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