Friday, August 13, 2010

The Tenure Itch

Just when this article had almost convinced me that we don't need tenure, along comes this story showing that we do.

The case against tenure is basically that it doesn't work. Only something like 37% of college professors in the US have tenure (which makes me feel a bit better about my job, but bad about the state of the profession as a whole), so the system seems to be dying out. And anyone who is outspoken can be removed by having their position closed anyway. So what is tenure except a stick to beat academia with and an especially tough hurdle for women to get over?

The system is far from perfect, but it isn't as bad as people think it is, or in the ways they think it is. Tenure does not mean you can't be fired for not doing your job properly. It means you can't be fired for publishing research that supports unpopular conclusions. That's a good thing, even if there are sometimes ways round it for the determinedly unscrupulous.

It probably will die out anyway, but my fear is that faculty members will too frequently be replaced by cheaper, younger people fresh from graduate school. The hell of the academic job market will then be imported into the academic job itself: no security and constant pressure to conform to the expectations of others. There will be famous names at famous places who are kept around for their whole working lives to provide prestige, but everyone else teaching will be kicked out sooner or later and have to start another career. How bad this will be for students I don't know, but it will be very bad for the vast majority of academics. It might mean that people try even harder to publish in order to become a famous enough name and focus less on teaching well, knowing that their teaching days are numbered anyway unless they publish well and often. Maybe I'm being unduly pessimistic, but I don't have much faith in the humanity of the market (the invisible foot gets mentioned far less often than the invisible hand), of politicians, or of university administrators as a class.

The title of this post is a two-thirds gratuitous reference to this:

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