Tenure–The Interminable Debate

Brian Tamanaha at St. John’s Law School has kicked off yet another round of the never-ending debate on the desirability of tenure in academic institutions, instigated by the proposal of a number of law school deans to loosen accrediting authorities’ rules. Tamanaha’s argument rests on the unassailable claim that tenure redistributes enormous resources to the unproductive and often professionally irresponsible. The costs of tenure are obvious and, I think, large.

I think many of the costs of tenure are associated with the fact that it is combined with the (in my mind unjustifiable) elimination of mandatory retirement for professors. So, in essence, tenure protects professors even after they have reached normal retirement age. If the law could be adjusted to permit it, one easy fix would be to bring back mandatory retirement, and then allow professors (who are still productive and good teachers) over 65 to continue teaching on bi-annual contracts. Those who were not productive would simply get the ordinary retirement package, and (perhaps) given a library card and permission to use the university gym.

But what of the benefits of tenure? Most of these can reasonably be placed in the “old chestnut” category: allowing professors to engage in long-term research projects and protecting individuals against retribution for politically unpopular positions. Add to this the fact that eliminating tenure would inevitably lead to higher salaries, since tenure is, in effect, a very valuable form of income insurance, available in almost no other profession.

I think there is one other very large benefit of tenure that is almost never discussed—faculty comity. Anyone who has taught in a university knows how damaging tenure decisions are to the ability of faculty to get along—in many cases they leave wounds that take decades, if ever, to heal. Now imagine if everyone on the faculty were on, say, five year contracts. There is no one who can really make the evaluations of faculty quality other than the faculty themselves. No one would want to give this power over to their dean or department chairman. So the faculty would, every year, be judging twenty percent of their colleagues every year. The opportunity to get payback for various slights and insults would be enormous. The amount of scheming that this would open up would be titanic in scale, and substantially distract from scholarship. On the other hand, the knowledge that one’s colleagues would be able to retaliate for your criticisms of their work the next time you were up for reappointment would in all likelihood lead to considerable reticence in serious internal debate—which is one of the great benefits of serious academic institutions. Finally, those who sought to push their school or department in a particular direction—ideologically, methodologically, etc.—would be able to pursue this goal not just in the fairly infrequent instances of tenure decisions, but every single year with twenty percent of the faculty. That sounds like a rough approximation of hell.

If we did not have faculty self-governance, this would not be a problem. But we do, and there’s not much of an alternative to it. It may be that the costs of tenure are so large that they justify the loss of the very real benefits of faculty comity. But—and I accept the critics’ assessment of the costs, and a, skeptical of many of the usually suggested benefits of tenure—the effect of eliminating tenure on the relationship between the faculty themselves seems so large that I am loath to eliminate it. Better, I think, to try to trim away the worst abuses of tenure (as suggested above), without opening up the Pandora’s box of total elimination.

Author: Steven M. Teles

Steven Teles is a Visiting Fellow at the Yale Center for the Study of American Politics. He is the author of Whose Welfare? AFDC and Elite Politics (University Press of Kansas), and co-editor of Ethnicity, Social Mobility and Public Policy (Cambridge). He is currently completing a book on the evolution of the conservative legal movement, co-editing a book on conservatism and American Political Development, and beginning a project on integrating political analysis into policy analysis. He has also written journal articles and book chapters on international free market think tanks, normative issues in policy analysis, pensions and affirmative action policy in Britain, US-China policy and federalism. He has taught at Brandeis, Boston University, Holy Cross, and Hamilton colleges, and been a research fellow at Harvard, Princeton and the University of London.