Academic journal article Journal of Higher Education

Contract Systems, Bureaucracies, and Faculty Motivation: The Probable Effects of a No-Tenure Policy

Academic journal article Journal of Higher Education

Contract Systems, Bureaucracies, and Faculty Motivation: The Probable Effects of a No-Tenure Policy

Article excerpt


As has been widely and hauntingly articulated in recent years, colleges and universities have come under increasing scrutiny from their various constituencies, who have been severely disappointed with a perceived less-than-satisfactory return on their investment in the institution of higher education. The finger-pointing from the outside overwhelmingly is directed at faculty who are allegedly underworked and overpaid. So vociferous have the external critics become that drastic measures to improve institutional efficiency are now being considered by state systems, boards of trustees, and top level administrators - the most serious of which is the replacement of the tenure system with short-term renewable contracts(1) that purport to force faculty to adhere to higher standards of accountability (Chronicle of Higher Education, 1996, pp. 21-22; Mingle, 1993). Although such proposals are not new (note the British precedents under the Thatcher/Major governments), the threat that there might now be adequate political power to institute them demands yet one more look - a fresh one - at the benefits and problems of tenure (Braverman, 1974; Winter, 1995; Trow, 1997).

The discussion that follows is set in the context of the more general problem of the increasing bureaucratization of professional activity in contemporary society (e.g., medicine), the effects of the substitution of bureaucratic rules for professional norms, and the more general social movement toward legalization (Stewart & Cantor, 1982; Van Maanen & Barley, 1984; Lieberman, 1983; Sitkin & Bies, 1994a).(2) The arguments should be viewed as considered judgments. The article is not supported by a meta-analysis of published empirical data, because the latter are generally not available for higher education. Where possible, however, references to related phenomena observed and reported in the general social science literature are cited.

Past discussions of tenure in higher education generally have focused on two central domains: the relationship of tenure to academic freedom (Finkin, 1996; Menand, 1996; Benjamin & Wagner, 1994) and the impact of faculty beliefs about the likelihood of permanent employment on their motivation and productivity. The first issue is a critical one, but for reasons of space limitations it is not considered here. It should be clear, however, that contracts as potential weapons of management power, affect not only worker motivation, but, in higher education, the autonomy of thought, action, and expression that is protected by academic freedom.

This article addresses the second issue - the impact of contracts on faculty incentives to produce at high levels of quality and quantity. The focus here is on the organizational structural conditions that accompany tenure (versus contract) systems in academic organizations, on the associated motivational "climate" (i.e., norms and values) that inevitably is produced by either tenure or contract systems, and on the effect of alternative climates on faculty motivation and productivity.

What Are Contracts?

In the conceptualization of Chester Barnard (1938), employment constitutes a quid pro quo between inducements offered by the employer and contributions by the employee. It is highly "calculative" - one of the terms that Etzioni (1961) uses to describe employer-employee relationships in certain kinds of organizations. Tony Watson (1995) notes, furthermore, that employment always carries with it an element of uncertainty. It is, he says,

an agreement between unequal parties in which the employee, in the light of his or her particular motives, expectations and interests, attempts to make the best deal possible, given his or her personal resources (skill, knowledge, physique, wealth, etc.). The bargain which is struck involves a certain relationship (in part explicit but largely, owing to its indeterminacy, implicit) between the employee inputs of effort, impairment and surrender of autonomy and employer rewards of cash payment and fringe benefits, job satisfactions, social rewards, security, power status, career potential. …

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