It's Time for Tenure to Lose Tenure

Tim Goral's picture
Thursday, March 14, 2013

At no other time in history has the American higher education system been in greater need of radical change. The place to start: abolishing tenure.

Originally established in the late 1700s to protect academic freedom at religious schools (which are less than a fifth of the 4,703 U.S. colleges today), tenure has morphed into a guaranteed "job for life," a benefit no longer enjoyed by any other segment of the U.S. workforce. Even the United Kingdom did away with tenure in the late 1980s when then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher implored the nation's colleges to become more productive. (Tenure does exist in some form in other European universities, as well as Chinese and Indian schools.) While not all of academia's problems can be laid at tenure's doorstep, tenure has hamstrung colleges' ability to fulfill their two fundamental missions of advancing knowledge and disseminating it. Here's why.

The impact on knowledge
U.S. colleges' once-undisputed superiority is under siege. Fifty-one of 76 U.S. universities lost ground in the UK magazine Times Higher Education 2012 list of the world's top 200 universities. The country's bragging rights in science and engineering are especially in doubt. A 2012 National Science Foundation report notes that U.S. colleges are losing ground in two key of measures of research quality: the percentage of the world's science and engineering articles published, and article citations. U.S. professors published 26% of the world's total science and engineering articles in 2009, a decline from 31% only 10 years earlier and from 37% in 1989. China's share is 9%, and rising quickly.

In the U.S., research is a primary prerequisite for tenure, meaning that professors of all disciplines feel pressured to research — even if their subject area is static and less critical. Without tenure, it would be easier to shift research efforts toward emerging, fast-changing, and vital fields.

The impact on teaching
Tenure locks in big costs and makes it difficult for universities to explore more productive teaching techniques. Mark C. Taylor, chair of Columbia University's Department of Religion and author of a book critical of tenure, estimates that a college ties up between $10 million and $12 million of its endowment to support a single tenured professor for a 35-year career. A 2011 study of teaching practices at the University of Texas at Austin indicated that UT Austin alone potentially could save $266 million a year if it could get half its professors to be as productive in teaching as the top 20%, fire its least productive faculty, and shift their small workload to other professors.

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