Friday, February 04, 2005

Tenure: Its Use and Abuse

That moron Ward Churchill (the 'Professor' -- with no Ph.D., I might add -- who called WTC office workers "Little Eichmanns") may be fired from his university if the tea-leaf-reading by some is correct (for background, here are a few links: Academic Bias 1, BAW 1, BAW 2, BAW 3, AcademicBias 2, Dennis the Peasant, several).

This has occasioned some talk about tenure and academic freedom, for example, by Eugene Volokh and see this entry and the comment thread at the brilliant Protein Wisdom.

Now I personally wouldn't mind seeing the guy fired on the principle that he is an obvious horse's ass and makes more money than I do, and I am obviously a better scholar, teacher and person than he is (ouch. Hurt my shoulder patting myself on the back there). If that hurts 'the tenure system,' then so much the worse for the tenure system.

Ok, that's how I feel, but I actually get paid to think, not feel, so here's some of that thinkin':

The Tenure System (whatever one thinks of it), is part of the business model for both colleges and professors. Although there are all kinds of problems with tenure, it saves colleges lots of money in the short term. Yes, you read that right. Think about it: people are likely to accept a lower salary if they get tenure as a perk (a very major perk). So instead of paying X, colleges can pay X-C, where C is the Tenure Constant. In the long run, colleges may lose money, as they are forced to keep employees who have become unproductive, etc., but in the short run, tenure saves money in the budget.

(Now it may be the case, as Tim Burke, I think, has argued, that there is now such a glut on the market that you could re-staff tenured departments with untenured people and still pay the same amount, but that's a speculation--there might be lot fewer people trying to enter the market if there wasn't the lure of tenure; we just don't know).

In any event, both the university and The Moron Ward Churchill entered into a contract. When they agreed to that contract, they both understood it as including tenure. That's why he can't be fired the way any other state employee theoretically could (and practically couldn't, do to union and civil service protections). It's analogous to a private-sector employee who signs a specific-duration contract but whose employer wants to terminate him before that contract is up. In this case, there is no termination date to the contract, but it's still a contract (Prof. Volokh, correct me if I'm wrong, please).

The case of That Moron Ward Churchill certainly points out the weakness of the system: once someone gets through the door, there's not much you can do about it. If a professor becomes useless and unproductive, you really can't get rid of him.

This problem is exaccerbated both by extreme specialization (because there ends up being very few people who think they can judge someone's work, and so there's not much judgment),and politics (of all kinds, from personal politics to ideologies and everything in between). But that's an argument for better tenure review more than it is an argument for the abolition of tenure. Although I guess one could make the argument that because the review system doesn't work well (probably in both ways: too many people who do deserve tenure don't get it, and too many who don't deserve tenure do get it), tenure is unworkable.

But let's assume that the tenure system should be abolished. How would you do it? As the That Moron Ward Churchill example shows, you can't get rid of the people who already have tenure. So if you abolish it, you end up empowering them even more, and when my scholarly generation tries to overthrow them, they (the dinosaurs) have even more power. In that case, the lesser evil might be to continue the tenure system until the dinosaurs are dead. But then, as my generation slumps towards the tar pit, we would have too much power in comparison to our students who need to push us in. And so the cycle continues.

My point in this post (beside the fact that Ward Churchill is a horse's ass) is that getting rid of the tenure system might be much worse than keeping it, even if the academic freedom, and freedom to pursue long-term projects arguments aren't convincing enough. In that sense, it's a variation of the argument I made about the current graduate and hiring system in English: indeed it is unfair and unlovely, but we may just be stuck with it.

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