Thursday, January 6, 2011

The problem with tenure

I've been giving some thought to the tenure system in academia, and I've come to the conclusion that it's a bad idea. One of the reasons for tenure is that it allows the faculty member to teach and research ideas that the administration and community might find disagreeable without fear of job-loss. It should encourage creativity and intellectual independence and open up the marketplace of ideas.

It fails. Academia is notoriously inhospitable to some political philosophies (Keith Olbermann isn't likely to incite the passionate opposition that a visit from Anne Coulter will often ignite), and it's prone to intellectual fads. Why?

Well, first you spend four years as an undergrad regurgitating ideas back to your professors. In graduate school you apprentice yourself to a faculty member and explore ideas that he or she approves of in an approved-of way. You take your comps and qualifiers, defend your dissertation, and after eight or more years of combined undergraduate and graduate study, you get a job. In that job you spend six years not upsetting any of your colleagues or the people who review your articles. In other words, to get along you go along with prevailing wisdom and dogmas.

Sixteen years after you started at the university, you're tenured and ready to speak your mind and follow your research path. If you need funding, don't follow a path or say anything that's too controversial; even a Harvard President can lose his job for suggesting that there are differences between male and femal academics. That's no likely to be a problem - you've spent so long not rocking the boat that you're not likely to start now.

I think that the actual chase for tenure is the best way to destroy all those positive traits that it's supposed to encourage. I think that senior academics should have a little uncertainty in their lives, and junior academics should have less reason to not rock the boat. It's when you're young that you need protection for having wild ideas, not when you're old.

I don't think I'd like to patronize a business where some employees can't be fired and hold the power to grant that same security to other employees. I don't think that sort of business is likely to produce innovative products, good customer service or carefull attention to much but the wants of the permanent employees. If those employees value good service and innovation, then the enterprise might do well, but anyone who's worked in a real business understands that that isn't often the case. Self-interest will ruin a business run like a university.

Of course, now that I have tenure I'd really prefer to keep it. Seeing the solution to the problem, I'm sadly forced to conclude that I'm also part of the problem. We need a revolution, but only after I'm gone.

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