The Myths about Tenure

Ron Lipsman, a former senior associate dean at the University of Maryland, writes at Minding the Campus attacking tenure: “In effect, the only tenured professors who get the sack are those who have robbed a bank, raped a co-ed or pistol-whipped a colleague.” This is nonsense. Plenty of tenured professors do get fired every year for legitimate reasons. And many other tenured professors get fired for illegitimate causes.

But Lipsman’s understanding of tenure is quite strange: “while many professors (perhaps most) do fine work, the vast majority are not engaged in research that could expose them to firing without cause.”

Of course, virtually all professors at American universities do some research. The notion that only “research” leads to firing without cause displays a breathtaking ignorance of the history of academic freedom. The overwhelming majority of violations of academic freedom have absolutely nothing to do with research. Instead, professors are fired for their public comments on controversial issues, or for publicly criticizing administrators. How does Lipsman propose to protect these professors?

Lipsman argues, “Tenure serves as a poor role model. Tenure-like systems now extend (beyond federal judgeships and academic professorial faculty) to public school teachers, many government workers, certain unionized positions and even to corners of the corporate world.”

Academic tenure didn’t create judicial tenure or union job security, and has nothing to do with these systems. Indeed, academic tenure is a great role model for improving quality in other fields. Most public school teachers receive tenure after three years in the job, often with little peer evaluation. Few places in the corporate world can imagine doing a thorough evaluation of an employee after six years and then dismissing them simply for failing to meet the highest standards. And if tenure in academia is ever abolished, the most likely result would be unionization and the replacement of tenure with an inferior system of job security.

According to Lipsman, “Tenure contributes to the ossification of academia. The number of sexagenarian, septuagenarian and even octogenarian faculty on American campuses is startling.”

Tenure has nothing to do with the aging of academia. Laws prohibiting job discrimination based on age are the reason. Apparently Lipsman thinks that without tenure, older professors would be secretly fired due to their age.

Lipsman claims, “Perhaps counter-intuitively, tenure reinforces groupthink….those just starting in the system and hoping for tenure themselves have little motivation to rock the boat by challenging prevailing ‘wisdom.'”

This makes no sense. If there really is a vast conspiracy to suppress conservative thinkers, then the right-wing should defend tenure as the best protection they have. After all, with a tenure system you would have the opportunity to think and speak freely after only six years on the job. Without a tenure system (if this conspiracy against conservatives actually existed), then no professor would ever be free to speak out against the liberal establishment without fearing retaliation.

Lipsman argues, “The dynamic nature of American business includes the freedom to fail. The number of successful businesses built on the wreckage of previous, failed endeavors is astounding. Tenured professors have no freedom to fail.”

Anyone who imagines that higher education is like a business is delusional. Prominent colleges essentially never go out of business, and never will. But the tenure system creates the freedom to fail that Lipsman thinks is so essential to creative work. Thousands of professors every year fail to get tenure and are fired. Without tenure, professors would have little incentive to do controversial work or question administrators. Instead, they would spend their time cozying up to those in power in order to keep their jobs. Tenure is the only system in academia that allows for the freedom to fail. And since most colleges have a steady stream of students seeking education, without tenure there would be little reason to ever fire professors who are mediocre but quietly keep their heads down and avoid attention.

The only real problem with the system of tenure is that so few faculty in American colleges are part of it. Tenure is one of the most brilliant innovations in higher education. No other aspect of higher education has done so much to promote intellectual freedom while increasing intellectual standards.



3 thoughts on “The Myths about Tenure

  1. The other reason so much of the faculty complement across the country has aged so much is that they can’t bloody afford to retire. I have had colleagues who worked into the their 80s, including one who died within minutes of walking out of class one day, because state budget hawks were already slashing up retirement and insurance packages.

    • Good point, Seth. As one who started in an academic career in his fifties, I suspect I’ll be one of those, of necessity, who drop with chalk in hand. For me, it’s my own fault; for many others it’s an imposed necessity.

  2. I am a tenured faculty member who was targeted for dismissal because I criticized administrators at Washington State University and presented a plan for restructuring my department. I sued (Demers v. Austin, et al.). The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals will issue a ruling very shortly (before February 2013). But it is highly unlikely the appeals court will grant First Amendment protection to my speech, even though our university embraces shared governance. The Supreme Court has not recognized the principle that shared governance is meaningless unless faculty can speak without fear of reprisal.
    -Dave Demers, associate professor of communication, Washington State University
    (Note: The views expressed in this comment are my own and do not reflect the views of WSU or its administrators)

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