Academic tenure


in Economics, Geek stuff, Politics

We have previously discussed the value of graduate school and the issue of seniority in unions. Academic tenure is certainly a related issue, which came up improbably in a thread on climate and capitalism, and which probably deserves a discussion of its own.

Is tenure a good thing? Does it serve universities well? Professors? Students? The general cause of academic advancement? Clearly, tenure track professors obsessed with publishing have less energy to focus on teaching students. That said, what really distinguishes universities from other educational institutions is that they are live centres for real research. This Slate article does a good job of pointing out the flaws with tenure, while debunking a few of the purported benefits.

What kind of alternative tenure systems exist out there? The Slate article suggests that renewable contracts of 7-10 years are a superior alternative, along with offering breaks in the tenure track, and allowing for part-time tenure. Would society or students benefit if any of these (or other) ideas were more widely copied?

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Alison August 12, 2010 at 4:28 pm

“Renewable tenure” contracts that reward a balance of teaching and research. Renewal would be political, but then so is granting tenure. It would certainly make academia less of a ponzi scheme.

Milan August 12, 2010 at 5:17 pm

Public school teachers – especially unionized ones – also have a status similar to tenure. This Slate article asks whether getting rid of it would be beneficial.

Sarah August 12, 2010 at 6:32 pm

On balance, I think we’d be better off without the tenure system. After people get tenure their productivity usually declines, so there’s a decade of publishing madly often followed by years of inactivity as Professors age. I don’t know a single academic in their 30s or 40s who isn’t overworked, but many of the guys in their 50s & 60s seem to do sweet FA. The fact that people can get tenure despite being lousy teachers creates all sorts of problems, & I think some people choose to teach badly so as to keep their class sizes down & reduce the departmental pressure on them to teach. Having old guys with wholly outdated research interests who teach poorly & infrequently is an astonishing waste of money, & it’s unfair to the students, to their colleagues who are paid the same but actually make an effort to teach well, and to the sessional instructors who are paid a pittance to pick up the extra teaching.

A system of 10 year renewable contracts based on both teaching & research would change the incentives around teaching & keep up pressure to publish after getting tenure, but I don’t see it dealing with the childcare & gender issues.

Milan August 12, 2010 at 6:35 pm

Parental leave is a bit of a tricky issue. I think it makes sense to allow either partner to take it, but I wonder whether people should be allowed to use it an unlimited number of times.

Of course, any policy to grant it a maximum number of times (say 2-3) would probably produce legal challenges.

Alison August 12, 2010 at 7:33 pm

@ Milan Re: public schools

I think a serious problem with public schools is the mandatory professionalization (e.g. when you need a B.Ed to teach).

A B.Ed. probably helps a lot of teachers, but it also probably prevents otherwise talented teachers from entering the public system. If someone has the qualifications and experience teaching, why not allow them to teach?

R.K. August 16, 2010 at 2:27 pm

One problem with reforming tenure is that you risk being unfair to people who are currently ‘in the pipeline’.

People making sacrifices in the tenure track now are doing so because they hope to eventually earn tenure in its current form. If they get something watered down, they could rightfully feel somewhat cheated.

susan August 16, 2010 at 3:15 pm

I first posted this to the other thread, then saw that the discussion had been redirected.
susan August 16, 2010 at 2:09 pm
“Arguably, the tenure system is meant to serve different purposes before and after the threshold. Before, it makes you publish like a fiend. After, it prevents you from getting fired even if you become annoying to the university administration. This is a bit like appointing judges for life.”

Sometimes when people get too annoying, a way is found to dismiss them.

Milan August 16, 2010 at 3:44 pm

It can happen, in situations of considerable excess. The same goes for judges.

As my father found out a while ago, firing teachers at elementary and secondary schools is also highly difficult, and rarely done.

oleh August 17, 2010 at 4:46 am

I am also concerned that tenured positions at universities reduce productivity. Extended contracts of 7 years seem attractive alternatives.

I would also encourage the student body and in particular the ability to teach as considered by the student body important factors in granting the extended contracts. I feel the ability to teach and the priority on teaching well are more important considerations than what someone has published.

Regarding Allison’s comment, I would maintain the B.Ed requirement as a one year specific training to help people teach well. That does not seem a big commitment to require of potential teachers who would then be entrusted with such an important occupation.

susan August 17, 2010 at 1:21 pm

“It can happen, in situations of considerable excess”

I did not mean at all to imply that Prof. Rancourt was excessive in his behaviour. The University was “annoyed” with him and they fired him and he was a tenured professor. Is annoyance a reason to fire someone anyway? The important issue here is that of academic freedom. Was Rancourt denied academic freedom? The wiki page is a synopsis of Rancourt’s situation. The other site talks about other tenured professors who have been fired and questions whether their rights to academic freedom were violated. I don’t think that because a tenured professor is dismissed it automatically would mean that they had done something to deserve that dismissal.

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