Thoughts on Tenure
I love this recent article by Stanley Fish on the abuse of tenure:
Last week we came to the section on academic freedom in my course on the law of higher education and I posed this hypothetical to the students: Suppose you were a member of a law firm or a mid-level executive in a corporation and you skipped meetings or came late, blew off assignments or altered them according to your whims, abused your colleagues and were habitually rude to clients. What would happen to you? The chorus of answers cascaded immediately: “I’d be fired.” Now, I continued, imagine the same scenario and the same set of behaviors, but this time you’re a tenured professor in a North American university. What then? I answered this one myself: “You’d be celebrated as a brave nonconformist, a tilter against orthodoxies, a pedagogical visionary and an exemplar of academic freedom.”
Three quick thoughts: First, what is a law school dean to do in the face of such irresponsibility? I know of one prominent dean at a Catholic law school who shows the tenure contract to his dilatory tenured faculty member and then makes it quite clear that if the faculty member does not live up to the contract the school will (and does) bring disciplinary action against him. This school has made great strides in recent years under his leadership.
Then there is the story of an extraordinarily productive faculty member who is at the top of his game as a torts scholar at a mid-30s law school who refuses tenure on principle. He figures if he is good enough he will be invited to stick around. He is now nearing retirement.
Finally, if tenure is so important, what about all of those great clinical professors who are on short term contracts and yet manage to remain valuable members of a law school community for decades? If you are good enough you will inevitably thrive. I have no doubt that many of these clinical professors are more valuable to the law school community than some dilatory tenured faculty members. Even in a down economy there is no thought of eliminating these wonderful colleagues.
So what exactly is the point of tenure? I am a tenured full professor, but I share Stanley Fish’s skepticism of the system.