"It is indeed ironic that tenured economics professors lecture students about the wondrous efficiencies of a free market, but function in a closed ecosystem of their own. When the time comes to discuss oligopolies and cartels, what better example to use than themselves?" - TQC
When the Quintessential Centrist published a piece on the student loan crisis, it touched on some ancillary topics which deserved greater attention. Tenured positions for college and university professors was amongst the drivers to which we alluded that were unnecessarily driving up the cost of a college education and thus, leaving a generation of young Americans bogged down by student debt. For the purposes of this discussion, we provide a brief history of tenure, assess some of its pros & cons, and ultimately delve into whether it makes sense to maintain what many see as an arcane system.
Tenure, which essentially is lifelong guaranteed employment, first emerged in the US in the post-Civil War era as a means of emphasizing the importance of higher education. At the time, the tenure model adopted by German universities was favored by American educators and that model has remained fundamentally unchanged to this day. In the US, the practice of tenure was institutionalized with the founding of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) in 1915. At inception, freedom of thought and speech without the threat of persecution was one of the central tenets of the AAUP. Faculty members were protected from termination should their academic research and resultant conclusions not be met favorably. In other words, this was the academic equivalent of First Amendment rights.
Not to bore our readers with exhaustive history, but this is a salient and fundamental piece of the story. By 1940 the AAUP formalized a Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure. The Statement defined tenure as “(1) freedom of teaching and research and of extramural activities, and (2) a sufficient degree of economic security to make the profession attractive to men and women of ability. Freedom and economic security, hence, tenure, are indispensable to the success of an institution in fulfilling its obligations to its students and to society.” Proponents of tenure point to the wording of this statement as it emphasized both academic freedom as well as economic security.
Furthermore, tenure can add to the cache of institutions of higher education. The process by which to obtain tenure is rigorous. It typically requires in-depth and meticulous independent research and approval through a peer review process, which hopefully leads to a candidate being awarded a PhD. As more published, recognized experts in their respective field add value to a college’s reputation, a positive feedback loop ignites, which leads to the most qualified students vying for admission, driving benefactors to write big checks, and the school to build even more comprehensive research facilities. This attracts the best and the brightest in academia looking for a place to hang their hat and more prospective students to apply.
While we agree that professors should be able to engage in research, unencumbered by the threat of termination for unpopular or unsettling arguments (and tenure indeed helps to facilitate this), the system is due for an overhaul. In specific cases, offering tenured professorship still makes good economic and academic sense. Usually, however, it does not. There is a chasm between reality and perception. Situations like the one described in the paragraph above are rare. They represent a miniscule percentile of schools and the overall number of tenured educators.
In the private sector, also referred to as the “real world,” if a person seeking employment can perform a given job function in an equal or superior way and be satisfied with a lower wage, the individual currently occupying the job gets terminated and replaced by that given job seeker. This incentive is part of what keeps workers motivated, engaged and continuously adding to their skillsets and keeps companies relentlessly pursuing cost efficiencies. This process ultimately benefits consumers. Tenure disrupts this - though not conflict free – effective process. Tenure equates to guaranteed lifetime employment for professors who then have less economic incentive to prepare students for “real life” and more incentive to produce research, some of which has almost zero practical value and that hardly anybody outside the bubble of academia will ever read. To boot, many tenured professors are compensated hundreds of thousands of dollars for the privilege of doing so. This is a material factor that drives up the costs of education for students.
Faculty salaries absorb up to 40% of most college’s and university’s operating budgets. Often, tenured professors earn many multiples of what a perfectly capable adjunct would command. Furthermore, tenured professors enjoy a litany of lifelong benefits including reduced or free tuition for their offspring, paid sabbaticals, and subsidized housing. These salaries represent expensive fixed costs. Some of this is paid for by endowments, true, but most is funded by tuition. It can be reasonably argued that if tenure were to be reserved for only the most unique value creating professors or eliminated outright, tuitions would drop significantly (or at least wouldn’t rise as rapidly). The reduced financial burden and potentially superior and more relevant instruction would certainly be welcomed by students.
Indeed, students’ disappointment with the inattentiveness of certain professors is well documented. This is one of the arguments against tenure. Might tenured professors be lulled into complacence once their position has been secured? Why be motivated when there is a job for life? Of course, this is not true in all cases. There are many tenured professors who are beloved by their students and have a genuine, vested interest in seeing them succeed. That said, it is an open secret that for many tenured (and non-tenured) professors, instructing students is the devil of academia. After all, teaching, grading papers and counseling students do not get you published in prestigious academic journals. Research does.
Tenured professors cannot be replaced with cheaper alternatives regardless if those replacements would do an equal or even superior job instructing students. In part, as a result, colleges must raise their tuitions to satisfy a bloated payroll that cannot be pruned. It is indeed ironic that tenured economics professors lecture students about the wondrous efficiencies of a free market, but function in a closed ecosystem of their own. When the time comes to discuss oligopolies and cartels, what better example to use than themselves?
We can understand and appreciate an argument why a university might offer a generous salary or even tenure for exceptional PhDs in fields such as biomedical research, engineering, computer aided design or artificial intelligence. Students armed with a degree in these subjects can often secure well-paying jobs after graduation. Now, let’s take an example of somebody who teaches 19th century French literature. This professor teaches two classes a semester and allocates the rest of her time researching and publishing on the aforementioned discipline. At TQC, we aren't saying that 19th century French literature isn't intellectually stimulating; it could be. Nor are we saying that some people might not find it very interesting; they might. What we are saying is that 99.99% of the people who read published papers on French literature are other tenured professors or career academics. Students armed with degrees in French lit might find it particularly challenging landing a job commensurate with their skillsets. There is not much room for discriminatory tactics when grappling with this issue; but we find it unfair that students from less privileged families must incur tens of thousands of dollars in debt in part to fund a 19th century French classics professor’s salary in perpetuity, not to mention that of their school’s economics department!
Protection for free and open views as well as innovation is justified when those findings threaten certain interest groups. In political times such as these, where the current administration questions the proven science behind issues such as global warming, this makes sense. But the indirect financial burden – levied in part because of tenure -- on the shoulders of students, does not. The benefit of lifetime employment regardless of how poorly (or well) they teach students is sub-optimal. Tenure terms should be limited to renewable terms based on performance from peers and students and perhaps even companies where their former students are employed.
The economic realities of the times in which we live are far different than those over a century ago. As with most things in history, there is a moment when a changing of the guard is necessary. There are enough safe spaces on college and university campuses already. Tenured professors should no longer be allowed one of their own so long as students from low income families are forced to make what’s increasingly become a “heads they lose, tails somebody else wins” choice when it comes to their education. The alternative these students are faced with is to either take on a massive amount of debt for college or not enroll in college at all.