The End of Tenure?

Advocates for granting tenure to university professors usually base their arguments on the principle of academic freedom. Cary Nelson, president of the American Association of University Professors, defends tenure as necessary to shield faculty from capricious complaints. What if a parent complained that her child was being taught about evolution? Surely we value the spirit of free exchange in higher education enough to protect it.

When university presidents discuss tenure, they frame it through a different lens. In a poll of 30 U.S. college presidents published in the Atlantic, only 4 said the abolition of tenure would stifle academic freedom. In fact, 17 of them–the largest block of respondents–said that eliminating tenure would have no effect at all.

Without tenure, all faculty would be put on limited-term contracts, requiring an intensive system of review. At least with tenure systems, universities are forced to make a choice of promoting or releasing a faculty member rather than keeping on a mediocre professor year after year. Still, in a competitive academic market, no university wants to be the first to end tenure. Only if a large group of institutions coordinated their decision could widespread defection be avoided.

Nelson’s point about tenure freeing up academics to publish unpopular views does not have much relevance on a medical campus. I see that faculty receive validation for their work from their peers or students, not from politics. If tenure promotes institutional loyalty and allows for long-term planning, than its benefits outweigh its downsides.


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