Tenure: What is it Good For?

Our readers seem divided, or at least concerned, over this academic institution's future.

By | September 1, 2007

Today's employment market is a turbulent affair. Employers create churn by minimizing their commitment to workers, keeping costs low and flexibility high. Employees respond by becoming increasingly mobile, and by aggressively seeking advancement and remuneration. It's not all bad: the opportunities are there to find the ideal career and the perfect position. But loyalty, on both sides, is wasting away. Job security is minimal. Pressure is high, with relaxation time at a premium and opportunities to put down roots few and far between.

In short, the post-training job market is beginning to resemble a giant, endless postdoc circuit.

If that's true, perhaps there is also a role for that Shangri-la of academia, tenure. Is tenure still valid for academia and, if so, might it offer something to other professions?

For outsiders like me, there are more basic questions: What exactly is tenure? Who is eligible for it, and why? What rights and obligations does it carry? Who assesses and administers these, and how forcefully? The answers, it turns out, are not completely straightforward. One beacon of clarity, though, is a University of Michigan report from 1994, available at www.umich.edu/~aaupum/tenure05.htm. I borrow loosely from it here:

What is tenure? Essentially it is a series of guarantees to a professor that may include (1) continuous employment until retirement or resignation; (2) economic security, in terms of salary and benefits; (3) support for teaching and scholarship; and (4) involvement in the academic mission of the institution.

Sounds pretty nice to me. Not many of us have this level of security, so why do professors need it? To get a sense of the current status of tenure and its future, we opened up our Web site to the thoughts and suggestions of readers. The result was more than 100 thoughtful and challenging responses, which can be found at www.the-scientist.com/news/display/53370/. These have been distilled by senior editor Alison McCook into a spirited feature on how tenure should change, (see "Does tenure need to change?").

Two reasons for tenure are commonly offered, one practical and one lofty. The practical argument is that academia needs to compete with industry for talent, and the security of tenure has great appeal. This seems reasonable to me, but some contributors to our web discussion felt that bestowing tenure removed the imperative to excel. "In the business world," one wrote, "the most talented and successful drive toward a day when they can live free of the need to work, and can instead work as it suits them.... The current tenure system sets up a similar risk -reward scheme." So you have to slave until you get to tenure, then you're on the gravy train.

The lofty goal is to secure freedom to pursue one's chosen path, in both teaching and research. There are likely some life sciences researchers who pursue ideas so unpopular that they need to be protected from retaliation. And tenure gives breathing room to pursue some long-term goal that could be well off the beaten track. It's a buttress for novelty, creativity and chance-taking - assuming a grant can be secured - and that's the currency of academia.

But those are the exceptions. In reality, the tenure selection process seems not so much about safeguarding unfettered inquiry as it is about enforcing an orthodoxy. Research papers, impact factors, grants, and income are the criteria on which judgments are made, and to do well by these measurements almost demands that a researcher engages in a mainstream field.

Reading the frustrations that poured forth in our web discussion provoked me to paraphrase Churchill: Tenure, it seems, is the worst form of employment of academics apart from all the others that have been thought up.

Unfortunately the argument for full-blown tenure doesn't translate easily to the non-academic arena. Creativity and chance-taking are not an ends in themselves, businesses need to be financially viable. However, fixed-term tenure might be worth considering, providing the opportunity for employees to develop themselves and the business over a longer term. As with academic tenure, this may attract high-level candidates.



Avatar of: John Toradze

John Toradze

Posts: 9

September 5, 2007

Speaking as someone older in academia who is unlikely to ever get tenure, I think that something like it needs to be there. Universities are just too venal, too populated with self-serving third-raters in their administrations who create self-perpetuating cronyism to be trustable. Planaria have more backbone than they. \n\nAcademia has a crucial role in an open society, as large as (if not larger than) that of "the fourth estate" (the news media.) Academia should be called the fifth estate. It is in charge of training and honest discovery for the society. So it is not an "academic matter" whether it survives as a beacon of truth and honesty. \n\nAnyone who is in academia knows that lying is rampant, mutual promotion societies that get papers published most definitely exist, and data is falsified more often than it gets caught. So what should we do? Removing tenure without replacing it with another control mechanism that is as good or better, we do at our peril. I'm not joking about that. It is a critical national security matter and should be approached with that kind of gravitas. \n\nSeveral major corporations have systems of appointing time limited fellows (for instance 5 years) and lifetime fellows. People as diverse as Benoit Mandelbrot and Stanley Schuster have been IBM lifetime fellows. Perhaps that could be done. Note, however, that these are not handed out based on a formula of publications, or even usefulness. (Tenure has become increasingly stupid-headed in its decision making.) \n\nAnother option is legal protections applicable to all in academia. I don't know how to structure that though. \n\nWhich brings us back to tenure. Perhaps tenure could be modified. But it is also worth noting that all systems have inefficiency. Just as there is no perfect investment that has no risk and gives huge returns, there cannot be a management system that will always make the right decision. I think much of the discussion about tenure is implicitly based on an unexamined presumption that it is possible to have a perfect system. We must be cautious about that.

September 7, 2007

I think it is definitely a great idea to have a fixed term tenure instead of having it for life. The minute one has permanency in position such as in tenure positions, complacency sets in. A good number of tenure professors take teaching for granted and they somehow have to be made accountable for this.

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