Last week, Christopher Beam published an article in Slate called The case for getting rid of tenure.  Tenure at US universities is a pretty strange system.  The rest of the workforce gets regular performance evaluations, which if unsatisfactory can lead to the worker being fired.  For college professors, there is in effect just one such performance evaluation.  Since it happens just once, the stakes are extremely high when it does come.

I think there’s a sensible case to be made against the tenure system, but at least some of Beam’s points are frankly kind of silly, starting with his first substantive argument:

As tuition climbs and universities struggle to pay their bills, tenure is starting to look unaffordable. Keeping a professor around indefinitely€”tenure means they can’t be forced to retire€”simply costs a lot … University debt jumped 54 percent last year, with an average debt of $168 million. If the average university tenured about 15 fewer professors, they’d be in the black.

In short, if colleges paid fewer salaries, they’d have more money.  That’s certainly true, but of course it’s not all by itself an argument.  Those tenured folks teach classes, conduct research, and generally do the things that professors are supposed to do.  The above is only an argument against tenure if tenured people do this job, on average, worse than the people you could hire for the same amount of money in an alternative, tenure-free system.  Maybe that’s true, but it’s certainly not obvious. In particular, tenure is a non-monetary job benefit.  If you get rid of it, you’re going to have to offer other incentives, probably higher salaries, to compete for qualified workers.


Tenure committees claim to weigh publishing and teaching equally, but in practice publishing counts most.

There are two points in response to this: First, it’s all too true at some places but not at others.  I actually chose to look for jobs at small undergraduate colleges precisely because they value teaching as well as research.  In order to get tenure, I was evaluated on both, and both were regarded as comparably important.

Second, even to the extent that this is a problem, it’s not directly related to the tenure system.  Whether tenure exists  or not, there’ll still be some system by which faculty are evaluated and rewarded.  If that system doesn’t value teaching, then faculty will not have an incentive to put effort into teaching.  That’s true whether the reward system is tenure, or renewal of fixed-term contracts (one of the main alternatives to tenure people talk about), or something else.

After a while, Beam gets to what most people regard as the main point of tenure: the academic freedom argument.

Once a professor gains tenure, the thinking goes, he or she can say anything without fear of being fired. Academia thrives on the circulation of dangerous ideas. The problem is, for every tenured professor who’s liberated at age 40 to speak his mind, there are dozens of junior professors terrified to say anything the least bit controversial, lest they lose their one shot at job security for life. Academia relies on young scholars to shake things up. Yet tenure incentivizes them not to. Instead, it rewards students who follow in the footsteps of the elders whose favor they will require when the day of judgment arrives.

I’m not sure what I think of this.  The meme that academics need to be free to express heretical new ideas is much more resonant, I think, in the humanities than in the natural sciences.  In my own field, I don’t see a big problem with people being scared to publish or speak about their work because it’s radically different from what the old folks are doing.  But maybe it is a problem in other fields.

Here, too, it’s not clear that tenure is the problem, though.  Whatever system you have, young folks are going to be evaluated by old folks.  If the old folks really are hostile to the radical innovations of the young folks, then those innovations are going to be disincentivized by whatever system of rewards is set up.

Here’s another instance of the same error:

Tenure can also discourage interdisciplinary studies, since professors are rewarded for plumbing deep into an established subject area rather than connecting two different ones.

Once again, this is a (possibly valid) critique of what universities value, but not of the specific system they use to reward the things they value.  You can imagine systems with tenure that reward interdisciplinarity, and systems without tenure that don’t.

He does make a couple of points that I think are valid in principle:

Just as tenure creates economic inflexibility, it also creates intellectual inflexibility. By hiring someone for life, a school gambles that his or her ideas are going to be just as relevant in 35 years.

Critics say that tenure hurts students by making professors lazy … If you can’t be fired, what’s to stop you from refusing to teach an extra course?

The second one, in particular, is the one that sounds the most persuasive to a lot of people: “Those lazy tenured professors, they never do any work!”  There certainly are people in that category (no, I won’t name names), but in my experience they’re actually not all that common.  For one thing, universities usually have a variety of ways (salary increases and other perks, etc.) to incentivize people to do good work.  For another thing, most academics are primarily motivated by some combination of a genuine love of their work and a desire for respect from their peers, both of which keep them working after tenure.

Although I think Beam’s article is largely silly, I actually do think that the current system would benefit from a significant reworking, mostly to make it more flexible.  At the moment, the system for a junior faculty member involves a rigidly set up “clock” leading to tenure at a specific time, usually at an age in the late 30s.  In a world with many two-career couples trying to start families, the rigidity of this system is a big problem (more for women than for men, but it’s not great for either sex).

At the end of his article, Beam actually recommends a system with tenure but with more flexibility. I think he’s right about that, even though I don’t think that it would have any effect on most of the “problems” he discusses in the rest of the article.

Published by

Ted Bunn

I am chair of the physics department at the University of Richmond. In addition to teaching a variety of undergraduate physics courses, I work on a variety of research projects in cosmology, the study of the origin, structure, and evolution of the Universe. University of Richmond undergraduates are involved in all aspects of this research. If you want to know more about my research, ask me!

9 thoughts on “Tenure”

  1. Having once taken a course with a tenured professor who was allowed to still teach undergraduates despite being clinically insane (that is not an exaggeration), I can certainly understand the point of Beam’s critique. But I do think you’re a bit to quick to dismiss the economic points of his argument. It’s a fact that many universities are cutting down on the number of tenured positions to save money, thus making the job prospects for newly minted Ph.D.s more tenuous.

    I have a very radical solution — eliminate Ph.D.s for everything but the hard sciences. There’s no reason why a person can’t teach with a Master’s degree. If you want to write and do research, the university provides you with the facilities to do so, but if you just want to concentrate on being a good teacher, you don’t have to waste 8 years of your youth slugging about in poverty trying to finish a dissertation that no one outside your committee is ever going to read. And then the jobs would presumably go to those people who are the most effective teachers, rather than those who most closely parrot the beliefs of whatever faction happens to control the department they’re applying to.

    I realize all the reasons why this would never happen, but honestly, does anyone think we’d be worse off if no one anywhere held a Ph.D. in English literature?

  2. “I realize all the reasons why this would never happen, but honestly, does anyone think we'd be worse off if no one anywhere held a Ph.D. in English literature?”

    well, yes, I do. Just as in any other field, the opportunity to delve deeply into a subject advances knowledge and sharpens the mind. There’s a value to specializing in English just as in History, Physics, or any other field where someone reasonably bright with a master’s can teach high school or community college.

    But I’m not arguing with you, Ted. I just couldn’t resist responding to your commenter.

  3. OK, having just read (skimmed) the Slate article, I’m steamed. In addition to the excellent points you make, I have to say: starting with the analogy to food service put me off right away. The academy is not food service and has no business being compared to it. This is not to say food service isn’t important–it’s just very different. (For one thing, our “customers” hang around for four years.) Second, the guy is just misinformed. Women are preferring part-time positions and that’s why we should get rid of tenure? Says who?

    OK, rant over. Thanks for alerting me to the piece, though.

  4. Sure, there’s a value to specializing in it, but does specializing require spending 8 to 10 years of apprenticeship with no guarantee of employment at the end of it? What other field requires more preparation with less prospect of success than a Ph.D. in the humanities or social sciences? For every future tenured professor who had his or her mind “sharpened” by the process, there are 5 who were simply impoverished and embittered by it. Of the people I went to grad school with, I can think of only one who has a tenured position at a university. Everyone else eventually moved on to another field, and the only difference is the longer they stayed in the more embittered they were when they left.

  5. I want to be clear that, although Beam’s article irritated me, I’m not all that big an apologist for the tenure system as currently constituted. I have tenure, and as someone who greatly values security, I’m glad to have it, but of course that doesn’t imply it’s a good system. I may try to write a bit more about what I really think of it tomorrow.

    I’m not completely convinced by Tim’s example of the insane professor. I don’t know anything about that specific case, of course, but in other similar cases I do know about, the root of the problem is not tenure, it’s that universities have chosen to reward the wrong behaviors. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Tim’s professor was already insane, an incompetent teacher, etc., when he was granted tenure, and the university didn’t care. (Knowing what I do of Tim’s alma mater makes this even more plausible!) Not having tenure would in principle make it easier to fix a mistake like this, but as long as some universities take a narrow view of what they’re looking for in a faculty member, and things like competently teaching classes and behaving sanely aren’t part of it, problems like this will remain, tenure or no.

  6. Tim, there’s a big difference between saying there aren’t jobs for PhDs in English (which I’ve been saying for years) and saying “no one anywhere [should hold] a Ph.D. in English literature.” Yes, PhD programs in English and other humanities areas are too big, and take too long, but that’s an argument for reforming them, not for abolishing them. And, Ted, I agree that there are problems with tenure, but I think you’re also right that it’s open for reform, not abolition.

  7. People going into academia are financially a lot worse off than people with similar qualifications going elsewhere. While no-one goes into academia to become rich, a reasonable income, and reasonable job security, are important if one wants to attract reasonably good people. Tenure is by far the cheapest of these alternatives. For every person who burns out after getting tenure, there are probably 10 who would no longer be in academia at all were there no tenure.

    People with tenure have obligations, especially teaching obligations. The popular perception that they can just lean back and refuse to do anything is wrong. I’m sure that at least at most places such gross negligence of duties does allow one to be dismissed, despite tenure.

  8. What's the point in teleporting folks to the ship if it can't liberate from the holes gravity? They're doomed I show you, DOOOOOOOMED! – If my films make one more person miserable, I’ll feel I have done my job. Woody Allen Born 1935

Comments are closed.