Examining Tenure for College Professors

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), August 8, 2011 | Go to article overview
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Examining Tenure for College Professors


Naomi Schaefer Riley's The Faculty Lounges has generated a healthy amount of buzz in and out of academe. The focus of this compact and cogently written book is on the institution of tenure.

Ms. Riley thinks tenure is preventing institutions from living up to their highest potential, by stifling the most innovative professors and preventing students from getting the education they deserve. Further, she contends that the incentives of tenured faculty have been skewed .. so that the people who should have the most concern about the economic and educational sustainability of the institution . actually have the least.

Yet Ms. Riley recognizes that her subject is not simple, that there may not be a one-size-fits-all solution. She skillfully presents detailed evidence, acknowledging that much of it does not point in a single direction.She reflects that throughout her many interviews, she was surprised at who is willing to question tenure and who is not.

Addressing the central defense of tenure, academic freedom, Ms. Riley smiles at the Ford Foundation's funding of Difficult Dialogues on such topics as sexual orientation, observing that these discussions are not difficult at all on campuses because the outcomes are agreed upon. Likewise, vocational courses and those with unabashed political agendas, and externally funded and directed research, do not implicate the interests sought in protecting the classic notion of academic freedom. Ms. Riley concludes that tenure in its current form is not essential to the protection of freedom of inquiry and expression.

Ms. Riley also notes that the percentage of college faculty who are tenured has declined significantly in recent decades. Nevertheless, in part because tenured professors under federal law are no longer subject to mandatory retirement, a large cohort of baby-boomer faculty leaves little room for upward mobility by younger academics.

As institutions confront economic pressures and seek to staff the teaching of introductory courses shunned by the tenured professoriate, they turn increasingly to the hiring of adjunct or contingent faculty. These migrant workers of academia suffer extremely poor compensation, an almost total absence of job security, and working conditions that seldom include adequate office space for interaction with students. Not only the adjuncts, but also the students are shortchanged.

At some schools, unions have sought to organize adjunct faculty and graduate students used as teaching assistants. While ill-considered policies may invite organization campaigns, Ms. Riley underscores that the unionization of faculty is virtually always bad for students. Like tenure, it brings protection for the incompetent, accompanied by staunch opposition to merit pay and other means of recognizing teaching effectiveness.

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