My last post on this subject was prompted by an anti-tenure article that I thought was silly and poorly argued. As a result, I think it made me seem like a stronger proponent of the current tenure system than I really am.
(In case anyone doesn’t know, let me stipulate a couple of things: 1. I have tenure. 2. As someone who places a high value on security, I like having tenure.)
The traditional argument for tenure is that professors need to be able to advance controversial ideas that attack the power structure without fear of reprisal. That idea isn’t wholly without merit, but I have to admit that I don’t see it as such a pressing need that we should structure the entire academic employment system around it.
No doubt my perspective is influenced by the fact that the work I do has no political implications. If I worked in a more controversial field, I’d probably see things differently.
Certainly an alternative to the tenure system would certainly have to have strong protections against ideological firing of faculty members for espousing controversial ideas, but it seems likely to me that infinite job security is an overreaction to this threat.
For most faculty members, I suspect, tenure’s not really about academic freedom. It’s just a job benefit, like a dental plan or a day-care center. And like those other benefits, if employers got rid of it they’d have to offer either higher salaries or other benefits, in order to compete for the same pool of potential employees.
I don’t know if anyone’s tried to estimate the economic value of tenure to typical faculty members and hence how much it would cost to eliminate it. Academic salaries are not high, compared to other jobs with similar levels of training, and I suspect that the job security of tenure is quite valuable to many people who have it. I doubt the cost of eliminating tenure would be trivial.
The most often mentioned cost of the current tenure system is the dead-weight, lazy, unproductive, incompetent tenured professor. Such people no doubt exist, although I don’t think that they’re terribly common for reasons I mentioned before. Still, I think it’d be possible to design a system with strong protections against ideological firing but that still allowed universities to get rid of people for actual incompetence.
To me, the biggest disadvantage of the current tenure system is its rigidity. People’s lives are complicated, for all sorts of personal and family reasons, and the current system makes it hard for anyone who can’t conveniently follow the specific tenure-track career timeline.