Reconsidering Tenure

Its time has come

by Victor Davis Hanson

Tribune Media Services

Tenure in our universities is simply unlike any other institution in American society. Take the case of Ward Churchill at the University of Colorado. Because of his inflammatory slander of the September 11 victims, the public turned its attention to his status. We discovered that he did not have a Ph.D., created a Native-American identity, and appropriated the intellectual property of others – but was promoted to a tenured full professorship, protected by a lifetime contract.

No equivalent for CEOs or for dishwashers exists. Journalists, politicians, lawyers and others who take unpopular stands also lack guaranteed jobs. Doctors do no not enjoy them. They can lose their posts, despite 30 years of reputable work, because of a single missed diagnosis.

Professors, however, after an initial probationary period of six years, win the equivalent of lifelong employment from their peers. Why does this strange practice linger on?

The standard rationale is that the stuff of higher education is unfettered inquiry. Only by enjoying shelter from the storm of politics can professors be bold enough to take up the tough task of challenging young minds to question orthodoxy.

McCarthyism is evoked as the only bleak alternative to tenure. Once untenured professors find themselves on the wrong side of popular majority opinions, politicized firings will supposedly follow.

Why then does uniformity of belief characterize the current tenured faculty? Contemporary universities are among the most homogeneous of all American institutions, at least in attitudes toward controversial issues of race, gender, class and culture. Faculty senate votes aren’t just at odds with American popular opinion; they often resemble more the 90 percent majorities that we see in illiberal Third-World stacked plebiscites.

Sometime in the 1960s, many faculties felt the proper role of the university was to gravitate away from the Socratic method of disinterested inquiry, and instead to press for a preordained and “correct” worldview. Since America was supposedly guilty of being oppressive to those not white, conservative, male, capitalist, Christian and heterosexual, the university offered a rare counterpoint. The hope was that for four years the nation’s next generation would be offered an antidote to Middle America before assuming the tainted reins of power.

Tenure became part of protecting this strange culture in which the ends justified the means: Bias in the classroom was passed off as “balance” to an inherently prejudiced society. Academia came to resemble the medieval church that likewise believed its archaic protocols were free from review, given its vaunted mission of saving souls.

Our universities are also two-tiered institutions of winners and losers. Despite the populist rhetoric of professors, exploitation occurs daily under their noses. Perennial part-time lecturers, many with the requisite Ph.D.s, often teach the same classes as their tenured counterparts. Yet they receive about 25 percent of the compensation per course and without benefits.

Universities cannot remove expensive tenured “mistakes” or public embarrassments, but they can turn to cheaper and more fluid part-time teaching. Orwellian moments thus follow at annual department reviews of faculty and student appraisals. Untenured lecturers often outscore full professors in their evaluations, but they lack any institutional remedy to address that paradox.

The weird disconnect extends within the careers of professors. For six years, stressed younger faculty pounce on every committee assignment possible. They try to publish anything they can think up, and defer daily to a tenured hierarchy.

These untenured scramble to pass muster from entrenched peers, whose evaluations can extend indefinitely their careers — on the promise that, if successful, they will never again have to submit to such scrutiny or to exhibit such zeal. “Post-tenure review” is an oxymoron, not a real audit.

Administrators are supposed to be diabolically punitive. Yet what we have seen from Harvard’s contrite Larry Summers suggests the very opposite. College presidents follow faculty consensus and apologize for rare deviation from it. A requirement to run a contemporary American university is to be Janus-like — skillfully reassuring outraged alumni donors that what they suspect is going on at their alma mater is not really going on.

Reasonable people can debate what would be lost with the abolition of tenure. But the warning that, in our litigious society, professors would lack fair job protection is implausible. Renewable five-year agreements — outlining in detail teaching and scholarly expectations – would still protect free speech, without creating lifelong sinecures for those who fail their contractual obligations.

The cost of university tuition continues to creep higher than the rate of inflation. The percentage of cheaper classes taught by adjunct instructors is increasing as well. Yet the competence of recently graduated students is ever more in question.

What is not scrutinized in this disturbing calculus is a mandarin class that says it is radically egalitarian, but in fact insists on an unusual privilege that most other Americans do not enjoy. In recompense, the university has not delivered a better-educated student, or a more intellectually diverse and independent-thinking faculty.

Instead it has accomplished precisely the opposite.

©2005 Victor Davis Hanson

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