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Tenure, Again

25 Aug Posted by in Academics, Faculty, Policies | 8 comments
Tenure, Again

Recent developments make it clear that some renewed discussion of tenure is desirable—but the same developments point in dramatically different directions.

A challenging Bloomberg View blog (Mark Bauerlein, August 5, 2013) really lays out the case against old fart faculty. Data do suggest that a large number of tenured faculty are continuing to work, and intend to continue to work, into their 70s and even 80s. This can have a number of bad results. It affects pay scales, as the individuals involved are often on the higher end of faculty salaries and expect some continued increments as a matter of pride if not necessity. It blocks younger folks. It may distort the system in other ways, when older tenured faculty represent fields that are no longer popular—French was the example given—but tenured persistence blocks appropriate adjustments. Of course it can simply extend the professional life of individuals who, by any standard, are not or at least have stopped being particularly effective teachers or researchers.

The blog ends by challenging US News to have colleges post their percentage of faculty over 65.

I do take issue with some of this rather blanket gerontophobia; at my advanced age this is hardly surprising. The blog fails to note that many faculty over 70 continue to perform really well, and may bring a wealth of experience and yes, to revive a no-longer fashionable term that used to favor older folks, wisdom to their work. Systematic efforts to ban the elderly—as still occurs in Asia and Europe—would not only be individually unfair, but institutionally disadvantageous.

But I actually agree that we need some adjustments. Having tenure cease at a certain age should have been considered when mandatory retirement ended. I think older faculty should be willing to be periodically reevaluated—every 3 years or so—as part of a contract renewal process. It is in fact too difficult and painful, under the current system, to make some necessary adjustments, and I personally believe we should discuss alternatives.

Yet—and here’s the other recent development—I think we’re also reminded of how important tenure can be for the purpose for which it was installed: protecting freedom in teaching and research. We’re at one of those periodic moments when what some faculty want to teach, speak, and write about annoys a powerful segment of the public, because the result raises political or racial issues that some would rather ignore. The role of the academy in generating ideas that may prove useful, may stimulate constructive debate even when ultimately rejected, continues to be vital. And let’s face it, there are always segments of the public that simply do not understand this value, and want ideas quashed and their bearers disciplined. This is a side of the tenure discussion that needs attention as well.

Finally, there are the actual trends, caused by budget constraints but also the systematic efforts of tenured folks to keep teaching loads low or lower, in which a growing majority of actual faculties are not on tenure track at all.

There’s a rich mix to discuss here, beyond the confines of any single institution, and it may be timely to haul out the issues once more.