"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Eliminate University Tenure

The tenure system at both public and private universities is finally coming to an end. Jordan Weissmann writing in The Atlantic (4.11.13), has illustrated the current trends which show the significant decline in tenured and tenure-track positions, and the more dramatic rise of part-time, adjunct professors. As importantly, the proportion of non-tenure track faculty has risen slightly since 1975.


As Weissman’s article states, the actual numbers in all categories have gone up because there has been an expansion of higher educational institutions throughout the country.

The good news is that universities are finally opening up to the realities of the competitive marketplace. There is no reason why professors should be different from any other professional in the workplace and subject to the same standards of performance. It is unconscionable that tenured college professors cannot be removed from their position except for egregious non-academic behavior; or that the university maintains a system which discourages the best and the brightest by insisting on a long process of apprenticeship, servitude, and scrutiny rewarded only by a poorly-paid lifelong position.

The arguments in favor of tenure are familiar and hold as little water as they did 50 years ago.  Tenured professors, advocates say, must be protected from political interference from non-academic administrators.  A university must always be a unique place where freedom of speech and thought are not only protected but honored and encouraged.

What speech, exactly, are we talking about? Every tenure track has been carefully devised by existing faculty, and ever candidate vetted for his/her adherence to the party line.  A very neo-Marxist, ‘progressive’, post-modern Literature faculty, for example, will be sure to select only those candidates for tenure that pass their particular muster.  They will encourage candidates who believe, like they do, that literature is no more than text; there are no such things as great works, and that all works, whether Shakespeare or American slave journals, are only temporal expressions of the social, cultural, and economic influences of history.  Othello, for example, has little to do with the nature of jealousy and evil and a reflection on human nature; but only a study of race (Othello), gender (Desdemona), and class (Venetian society).  Any other reading would be considered déclassé. 

In other words, it would be had to imagine that a tenure-track professor at the Duke Literature Department would wander into apostasy, biting the hand that feeds her.  There is no issue of freedom of speech or thought because the Department’s academic philosophy has been established and amply defended; the university administration has approved the vision and structure of the Department; and recent PhD graduates who apply for positions not only know exactly what they are getting into, but desperately want the community of like-minded colleagues.  There is an equilibrium established, a reasonable balance between supply and demand, and no tenure is required.

The same would be true of a conservative Christian college whose literature courses might well focus on the great books, and very likely would look into the spiritual dimensions of creativity.  No bright, motivated, Hegelian daughter of Sixties Liberals would set foot within 100 miles of the place, let alone apply. The faculty would be encouraged to express their opinions as freely as possible, because the Literature Department and the Administration would both know that these opinions would be in honor of Jesus Christ.

What happens, say advocates of tenure, if a tenured professor has an epiphany, suddenly comes to his senses, and says that all this post-modernist cant is bullshit, that God is present in the pages of Shakespeare and Moliere, and the task of literary exegesis is to find Him?  The Duke faculty would find a way to assign him a closet for a classroom, turn down every proposal for publication, and force the apostate out of the university.  Under the better market system, if such a spiritual transformation did occur, no one would sign up for his classes.

So much for tenure, and good riddance; but what about the rise in part-time faculty positions, and why should we care?

For one, it's damn tough making a living as a freelance professor (full disclosure: my mother was one for many years). The AAUP reports that the median pay for teaching a single course was $3,200 at a public research university, and just $2,250 at a community college.

While partly true, this statement is disingenuous. ‘Freelance’ is not quite the right term for a professor who may, teach a number of classes at different universities.  He would be more of a private, independent consultant than a piece-work jobber.  And, given the evolving nature of higher education, moving quickly to online accredited courses, he might have a lucrative income crafting and supervising courses taught via the Internet.

No one has the obligation to assure the employment of college professors any more than they do lawyers or landscapers – not the university or the state.  If a teacher is good, both academically and in the classroom, then his salary would reflect that high level of competence.  He would be no different from a baseball free agent who negotiates contracts and whose compensation package is commensurate with his talent and potential.  What is wrong with a university comprised of academic players who attract the best students, who successfully compete for government contracts, and who participate in cutting-edge research?

If the entire higher educational system were ‘privatized’ – i.e. radically restricted support for state schools, elimination of tenure, performance evaluations, and a more diverse landscape of market-driven technical institutions, online universities, community colleges, and art schools – tenure and academic protection would be finally and irretrievably gone. The change is already underway, for few students are happy with their poor job prospects and high levels of debt after college. Taxpayers are unhappy with the miserable academic quality of their state schools.  State universities feast on government support and subsidy; focus on athletics, athletes, and mega-stadiums instead of learning; and offer courses which have little to do either with employment or civics, the foundations for responsible citizens.

‘Privatization’ of the educational system – opening it up to the marketplace – can only be a good thing. It will finally and inexorably force education to conform to the new realities of the 21st century.

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