A distributist argument for tenure

Academic tenure is a matter of debate again, most recently at First Things.  To my mind, these discussions fail to get to the heart of the matter because both sides assume that the purpose of tenure is to protect academic freedom, to promote independent thinking.  The argument is supposed to be that if we don’t give professors tenure, they might be fired for offending the establishment with their bold new ideas.  (And, of course, authorities never have good reasons for resisting bold new ideas, do they?)  Now, I agree that, if that’s the argument, then we should abolish tenure yesterday.  For guaranteeing independent thought, it’s worse than useless.  Independent thought will positively harm one’s ability to perform two of the key requirements for securing tenure:

  1. getting grants
  2. buttering up to the senior faculty

The thing is, tenure is not primarily about academic freedom.  Let’s try and be scientific and do an experiment with one variable:  what’s the difference between a tenured professor and an untenured research faculty member?  Does the former have more research freedom?  Not really.  The two are both free to work on whatever they can get funding for.  There are really two differences.  First, the tenured professor has more non-research duties.  He must teach classes, directly mentor students, and serve on committees.  All of the business of keeping the department operating is ultimately the responsibility of the tenured faculty.  On the other hand, the tenured professor can’t be fired, even if he loses his funding.  Of course, he’s still out of a job if the university closes the department itself, which, in the current financial climate has become a live possibility.

How are these two things connected?  This gets to the “unwritten constitution”, as Burke and de Maistre might put it, of the university.  It’s not what’s on the books, but it’s what people implicitly assume.  In this case, the unwritten constitution is that, if a university department is like a business, the tenured faculty are more like owners than like employees.  How dare I say such a thing?!  I’m sure that if one were to ask who officially owns, say, the English department of the University of Illinois, answers might be “the university”, “the state of Illinois”, or “the tuition-paying students”.  But really, these are more like clients or partners or customers.  The faculty own the department in the only morally significant sense of the word:  they are responsible for it.  When we think of ownership in terms of responsibility, we realize that fostering it can be a good thing.  We want the faculty to feel that they have this relationship of responsibility to their department.  They are not employees who just have to do their jobs and meet the expectations of some higher authority who is ultimately responsible for making the enterprise run.  If an academic department is being mismanaged into the ground, it might be reasonable for the students and postdocs to think “What’s that to me?  I’m doing my job and publishing papers.  I’ll be out of here in a few years anyway.”  But we mustn’t have everyone thinking this way.  In the unwritten constitution of the university, the faculty feel (or at least should feel, if they are properly socialized) that the common good of their department is distinctly theirs.  Given this understanding, it makes sense that tenured faculty can’t be fired.  If they could, they would see themselves as employees.

I call this a “distributist” defense of tenure, because the key idea of distributism is that we need more people with a sense of ownership as opposed to people who feel like the business they work for isn’t theirs.  University professors are notorious for imagining that they are rulers of their own little kingdoms.  This is an attitude for which the distributist will have some sympathy.

6 Responses

  1. I think that harkens back to the origins of the university system, when they were established by colleges of professors. The administration/bureaucracy was hired by and for the faculty peers.

    The idea of administrators “firing” faculty would seem queer to them. Like we would think of the idea of the office staff in a law firm firing the lawyers. It just wouldn’t make sense, being backwards.

    I guess we see a similar process happening in health care, as the system is wrested out of the hands of the doctors, and given to the bureaucracy. Seems to have happened long ago in education.

  2. Modern tenure does not make sense – especially in the USA where colleges have been run by a central administration for a long time.

    It survives, for the moment, due to powerful vested interests – and will probably be eliminated by the Schumpeterian (creative destruction) market force of widespread collapse of traditional universities and colleges and their replacement by some new ‘model.

    In British universities the Fellows of colleges were like trustees and did indeed run the place (although at an earlier period the Master/ Principal was vastly more important that the young and temporary Fellows who were expected to move on to being clergy after a few years) – although Fellows could and did ‘sack’ each other especially for religious transgressions – non-conformism, Catholicism, atheism etc. And for moral transgressions.

  3. Tenure is best viewed simply as a long-term contract, and so as part of the overall compensation package. It has nothing to do with academic freedom, which is usually guaranteed elsewhere in the university constitution. Assistant professors in my department have just as much academic freedom as I do (I’m a full professor). Properly understood, academic freedom extends to the lowliest freshman. All it means (in theory) is that one can’t be punished for seeking or speaking the truth.

    One thing outsiders and aspiring assistant professors often fail to see is that the tenure system (as opposed to tenure for this or that professor) ensures that there is no labor market for the vast majority of senior academics. Tenure is not, for most academics, a ticket to freedom; it is a sentence to work at the same job, with the same colleagues, in the same town, until you retire or die. It is true that a senior academic can’t be “fired,” but it is equally true that ninety percent of senior academics can never quit and find another job. A tenured professor “owns” his position for life, but his position also “owns” him.

    Like any long-term contract, faculty tenure has advantages and risks for both buyer and seller. Basically mobility is exchanged for stability. The big beneficiaries on the faculty side are the small percentage of underperforming faculty. The big win for administration is that they will never get into bidding wars over eighty-five percent of their tenured faculty, seventy percent of whom are good to very good.

    If tenure were abolished, faculty salaries would rise, and with it the already high price of a university education. The first reason for this is that an open labor market for senior faculty would mean far more frequent “counter offers.” Secondly, there would need to be a much larger potential salary at the end of the road to justify the risk of spending five to ten years in graduate school acquiring skills with no value outside the university.

    So here’s what it comes down to. Tenure has its greatest value the instant it is granted, since it assures the young academic that his investment in graduate school, postdocs, and the probationary period, will in fact “pay off.” From that point forward, unless one is a superstar, the tenure system will depress your wages and take away all freedom of movement. I do not, by the way, know of a better way to manage the peculiarities of the academic labor market.

  4. The discipline-specific differences revealed by Bonald’s answer, JMsmith’s answer, and what would be my answer are interesting.

    In my discipline, most of the things people study can be studied with little to no funding, so getting money is not the big limiter on academic freedom. There is, of course, no academic freedom in any discipline where federal funding is a de facto requirement—how could there be? Also, there is an active senior market in my discipline, so that the only people who are immobile are the low producers. In fact, “he’s immobile” is an insulting gossip against a fellow academic.

    I agree that tenure is about governance, though. A tenured professor can’t be fired for getting into a fight over some decision regarding hiring or university governance, no matter whom he pisses off. Also, it’s about credible threats. Any tenured professor has in his pocket the implicit threat that, if he gets pissed off enough, he will simply do nothing beyond showing up to teach. A department with enough people retired on the job will produce nothing and will humiliate the relevant administrators. Also, administrators are typically also tenured professors, so, although you can “fire” an administrator from his administrative position, you can’t fire him simpliciter. Again, this gives administrators a credible response when a higher level administrator asks them to do something untoward. Tenure also protects the local crank professor who has set, as his purpose in life, making the university administration’s life difficult. These guys are like the nosy neighbor, profoundly annoying but probably invaluable.

    It also has malign consequences, though. The promise of perfect insurance attracts the profoundly risk-averse. The need to butter up your own senior faculty as well as the senior faculty (i.e. letter writers) at a bunch of other institutions attracts anodyne, unctuous, conformist personalities. I doubt these selection mechanisms are for the best.

  5. Hi JMSmith,

    Your analysis of the advantages and risks of both parties does a good job of making sense of how tenure functions. I agree with Bill that the upper, say, 25% aren’t stuck in any one place by tenure. In my field, at least, they often do get better offers and move up. Maybe that’s a bad thing, since it seems to go against the sense of responsibility I said tenure should promote.

  6. I’m sure that mobility will vary somewhat from field to field, since where there is more vacating of positions in the upper ranks, there will necessarily be more vacancies. But, as you say, most of this is moving “up” to a more highly-ranked department. From what I’ve seen, these are mainly academics who were undervalued in the “draft” that took place the year they finished their dissertation or postdoc. They’ve kept up a relatively high research output despite being employed in non-research departments, and so they’re sometimes picked up by research departments as associate professors. This probably accounts for some of the variability from field to field, since some sorts of research can be pursued at teaching colleges and others cannot. These “hungry” associate professors are very often a good bet, since, unlike the fresh Ph.D., one hires them more on the basis of proof than promise. But their indignation at not having been a first round draft choice, and the resentments built up over the years of proving themselves better than everyone else at first thought, leave lasting scars. They’re often mean and aggressive.

    The great beneficiaries of the tenure system are the “brilliant” graduate students who are overvalued in the “draft” that occurs after their dissertation or postdoc and then manage to more or less sustain the illusion for another five years.

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