Anywhere else it would have been grounds for dismissal. But when J. Michael Bailey, Professor of Psychology at Northwestern University, allowed demonstrations with sex toys as a part of a course, he was immune to firing, let alone outside pressure, because he had tenure.
That was just one of the examples author and former Wall Street Journal editor Naomi Schaefer Riley gave while discussing the problems of university tenure in her talk “The Faculty Lounges and Other Reasons Why You Won’t Get the College Education You Paid For,” held Wednesday at The Heritage Foundation.
“The most pernicious aspects of university tenure,” she said, “do not make headlines at all.” Though the system may protect those whom The New Criterion’s Roger Kimball infamously deemed “tenured radicals,” its other flaws are worse.
“I am concerned less with the radical than I am with the lazy, the incompetent, or the merely distracted,” Riley said.
Riley contends that the tenure system wasn’t built with the interests of students in mind. It was built to provide economic security for a group of people who trained for years for jobs that carried little remuneration. It was, in fact, a de facto arrangement in many American workplaces; employees often worked for the same employer for the duration of their careers. Academic freedom was a distant, secondary concern during tenure’s early days.
In the 19th century, however, university benefactors and professors clashed more and more often.
“The faculty had their own ideas about what they wanted to study, and they didn’t much care for outside interference,” Riley said. They wanted the benefactors’ money, but not the benefactors. A modern version of this can be seen in the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation’s gift to Florida State University, the terms of which allow the foundation to ensure that its intent—promoting libertarian ideas on campus—remains intact.
Research universities typically used tenure to protect professors and their scholarship from benefactors’ influence; they were to become “public intellectuals” who would “add to the general pool of knowledge available to mankind.” This required shelter for their scholarship. Tenure became an assurance of academic freedom, but their role as experts in their field placed them above public criticism.
By the 1970s, this led to the job market in academia collapsing. Tenured professors held all of the jobs. This hurts Ph.D. holders looking for tenure-track positions, yet they still support the tenure system.
“It’s not so much that we absolutely insist on security,” Riley quoted a graduate student as saying, “but the reality is that academic life has so little going for it. There is only this one, absolutely gratuitous benefit, which is that you have this absurd amount of security, which almost no one else in the workforce has.”
An alternative system of multi-year, renewable contracts would provide a sensible alternative, reducing the stranglehold that faculty have over higher education. Thanks to tenure, they can play a waiting game and outlast their critics. With tenure in place, reform is impossible.
Sterling Beard is currently a member of the Young Leaders Program at The Heritage Foundation. For more information on interning at Heritage, please visit: http://www.heritage.org/about/departments/ylp.cfm