Saturday, March 04, 2006

To Tenure or Not to Tenure...

More often than not, John Tierney and I don't quite see eye to eye. In his current column (see below), however, he raises some cogent sticking points to revolutionizing our educational system--at both the University and secondary levels. It's definitely food for thought.

My personal views will most likely inspire enmity from the majority of academics: I strongly oppose tenure. It encourges mediocrity, laziness, and the staus quo while precluding educational institutions from 'cleaning house' and replacing weak educators with strong ones. It's a system soley designed to provide job security for the educator--a job security which doesn't exist in any other profession--for good reason: anywhere else, if you don't perform up to expectations, you eventually, and rightfully, lose you job. Why strive for excellence if you are guaranteed a paycheck for mediocrity?

We sit and ponder why our educational system has been going south. It's no wonder. We have built a system around retaining educators who, having 'paid their dues', may no longer be fully committed to educating, a system where mediocrity and excellence are equally rewarded with lifetime job security. Under such a system, where's the motivation to do your best?

The pressures on University and College instructors and professors to publish and do research is a difficult dilemma that often puts the educator at odds with doing his primary job--the one he's being paid to do by his students--to teach. I've heard many a college student complain that their professors are so busy researching for their next journal article, under pressure to meet their administration's academic publishing requirments, they have no time for the students. Some professors have openly shared this frustration with their classes.

A solution would perhaps be that publishing and research requirements be relegated to paid sabaticals reserved for that purpose and time at the university be relegated to teaching. It is perhaps unlikely to expect one to do both well at the same time.

The question of who should run the university, the President or the faculty, poses a false dichotomy. As in business, there needs to be one leader at the top with a vision, supported by lower tiers of "managers" committed to realizing that vision. If the guy at the top is not doing his job satisfactorily, the board of directors can remove him. And if the middle managers are not holding up their end, the President can remove them. While an imperfect system, we've found no better.

Department heads who fail to hire the very best talent for fear that someone "better" than them will make them look bad, should be fired--just as would a business executive who hires inferior talent. In my many years working in corporate America, the best management advise I ever received was to always surround myself with the absolute best talent I could find. They would make me look good. And I would reciprocate by giving them their credit due. What I discovered was that the more I supported good talent, the more they supported me, and the more top management--and clients--appreciated all of us--because, by doing top quality work, we made them look good.

The advantage of instituting a corporate structure in academia is that every faculty member would have to perform up to expectations--or better--or face termination. Those who perform well, by virtue of the quality of their teaching, research and/or the quality of their hires, would be rewarded and motivated to continually upgrade the caliber of the education offered by the institution--rather than, as in the current tenured system, rest on past laurels.

Free Harvard! (Or Not)
By John Tierney
The New York Times
After the faculty's coup d'etat at Harvard, I asked some contrarian academics if there was any way to wrest control of universities from the faculty. I started off with one possible reform: how about eliminating tenure for professors?

Forget it, most of the academics said, and not entirely because they liked that perk of their jobs. One of them pointed to a practical problem: "As long as the classics department has the right to choose the next generation of professors, you'd better give them tenure, because otherwise they'll never choose someone better than they are."

He wasn't arguing that professors are particularly petty, just that they work in a world with peculiar incentives. Authority is so diffuse that no one's accountable. Lawrence Summers was ostensibly in charge of Harvard, but he had little power to fire or hire anyone. The candidates are picked after a vote in each department. Summers could veto new hires and try to push departments in new directions — but once the faculty got annoyed, he was out of a job.

If newspapers were run like this, by committees of tenured journalists unconcerned with circulation and ad revenue, we wouldn't spend much time trying to improve the weather map or the news summaries or movie listings. We'd all be too busy writing 27-part series to be submitted for peer review by the Pulitzer board.

After a while, as we hired more reporters like ourselves, we'd be surprised when outsiders complained. We'd be as genuinely puzzled as the Harvard professors who wrote to me after I mentioned an issue that arose under Summers: the complaint that the history department didn't offer a traditional survey course on the American Revolution and the writing of the Constitution.

The letter writers defended the history department as being more student-friendly than other departments, which may well be true. They noted, correctly, that there are courses in various departments and programs dealing with the American Revolution and the Constitution. But those are not the nuts-and-bolts survey courses traditionalists want.

Humanities survey courses are out of favor now, partly because they're too concerned with dead white males, and partly because professors can save time by teaching their own specialized work. The system rewards professors for not focusing on teaching. The incentive is to devote yourself to research — at least until you get tenure, at which point even the research becomes optional.

One way to fix this would be to give university presidents the hiring and firing authority that most executives have. That way, they could insist on more attention to teaching. They could require tenured professors to keep doing productive research. They could hire a more intellectually and politically diverse faculty.

They could do all those things — but would they? University presidents don't face the same market pressures as C.E.O.'s. If it's a school with a good reputation, the president can count on income from tuition, alumni gifts and the endowment. If it's a state school, the president can also count on public money.

Without outside pressure, the president's chief concern would be the same as it today: to avoid any unpleasant public battles with the faculty. As the incumbents with the most direct stake in the institution, they'd still be a power. Roger Meiners, the co-author of "Faulty Towers," a critique of academia, doesn't think that eliminating tenure would make much difference in how university administrators behaved.

"Any dean who would fire anyone would have a reputation as a nasty person and could never advance in academic administration," said Meiners, an economist at the University of Texas. "You get ahead by massaging the system as it is, not attempting so-called radical reform by dumping academic dolts."

In some cases, a brave board might stand by a reformer like Summers. But most academics I talked to — the contrarians who supported Summers — figure that giving university presidents more power would only make things worse.

"Abolishing tenure could just turn the decision making over to deans who come out of today's orthodox academic world," said Fred Siegel, a historian at Cooper Union. "That would mean that the few remaining non-leftists would get pushed out."

So is there any way to change academia? "The Achilles heel of academics is their status anxiety," Siegel said. "The only way to attack them is with mockery."

Photo credits:
• John Tierney. (Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times);
• Harvard Divinity School Graduates (Staff photo Kris Snibbe/Harvard News Office)

For Further Reading:

"Faulty Towers: Tenure and the Structure of Higher Education," by Ryan C. Amacher and Roger E. Meiners (Independent Institute, 2004).

"The Antidote to Academic Orthodoxy," by Stephen H. Balch, Chronicle of Higher Education, April 23, 2004.

"Going Broke By Degree: Why College Costs Too Much," by Richard Vedder (American Enterprise Institute, 2004)

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