Should Tenure Be Abolished?

Sharon Rieger's picture
Friday, July 1, 2011

These days tenure for teachers is such a brawl in America's elementary and secondary schools that it's easy to forget that it's more a cornerstone of higher education.  When Austan Goolsbee, Chairman of the President's Council of Economic Advisors, announced earlier this month that he was leaving the White House to return to the University of Chicago it was a reminder just how strong the ties — and inducements — of university tenure can be, and why it has recently come under fire.

At colleges and universities, tenure basically bestows a job for life unless an institution runs out of money. Originally intended to shield professors from meddling by college administrators, donors or politicians, tenure has evolved into one of the most coveted perks in higher education. It signals excellence and it confers employment stability.

Critics of tenure contend it has outlived its usefulness and is a poor fit for the modern university. Supporters counter that the intellectual independence it confers is essential to a culture of inquiry. Let's start with the main complaints:

Tenure creates bad incentives and is a drag on productivity. Critics argue that tenure does nothing to encourage academics to remain productive after they are tenured. And it's true that for many scholars, their most productive years are early in their careers.  Tenure also creates perverse incentives for administrators because they see little point in engaging people who are essentially immovable objects.  As a result, schools have been relying more on cheaper adjunct professors on contracts rather than full-time scholars.

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