Why Do we Have Academic Tenure?

In American universities, there is a system of tenure for professors. It may be difficult for young professors to earn their tenure, but once they get it, they cannot be fired. Normally, an enterprise wants to hire employees when it has opportunities and revenue growth, and fire employees who lose their motivation, become careless, don’t grow their knowledge, or when the market changes. Tenure works adversely to this universal need to remain profitable. Why would anyone support it?

The theory is that tenure protects a professor’s academic freedom. A tenured professor cannot be fired except for just cause, so he is free to disagree with prevailing opinion. It’s an interesting theory, but how is it working out in practice?

Fact is, in many academic fields the exact opposite is occurring. All too often, there is a stifling monoculture, in which the politically correct view rules utterly. Some fields could almost be described as being locked in stasis. For example, in economics departments in prestigious universities, they may criticize this Fed decision or that policy, but who dares to write against the orthodoxy of central banking and legal tender laws? Or in climate science, for a long time there was a manufactured consensus, enforced by numerous means. There are many other disciplines in which political correctness does not permit dissenting opinions.

In any case, tenure may seem like a great idea to academics. It’s tempting to seek a blank check, such as a promise of job security for life. There is a reason why it does not exist in the more competitive world of corporate employment. Customers in the markets do not make promises to continue to buy the products of a particular company for the indefinite future. They continually reevaluate their purchasing decisions based on price, quality, and changing market conditions.

With their customers giving them no guarantees of future revenues, competitive companies are in no position to give wage guarantees to their employees. Every day, a company must earn its customers, and therefore every day its employees must earn their paychecks.

Tenure is an attempt to short-circuit these market mechanisms. Perhaps a corporate employee may become lazy, allow his skills to grow stale, become less motivated, or for any other reason no longer contribute to the profitability of the company. No corporation therefore can offer tenure as a general policy.

This stark difference between corporations and universities is a damning indictment of the lack of competitiveness of the university system. And what is competitiveness? It is an enterprise’s responsiveness to the demands of its customers, including products offered, quality, price, service, and all other things that affect the offer to the customer.

The price of a conventional university education has been skyrocketing for a long time. The result is that many students are obliged to go so deeply into debt to pay for school that they cannot hope to attain a good return on investment with the salaries they are likely to obtain upon graduation. Without even counting the degraded quality of courses in subjects where political correctness rules, many universities are sluggish to respond to changing technology with updated course offerings.

Tenure is an attempt to make promises to professors outside the market.

So, if the tenure system does not allow professors to say what they think, what force can affect them, despite the protections of tenure? The greatest pressure on academics to roll over for political correctness is government funding. Some professors get funding and some do not. Even if a scholar retains his integrity under this pressure, the lack of funding will slow down or interrupt his work and reduce his ability to be heard. For example, a lack of funding may make it more difficult to get published, and certainly cuts down on travel to present at conferences. There is no such thing as government paid research without government controlled research.

Tenure utterly fails to deliver what it promises. Professors are forced to toe the line.

Genuine advocates of academic freedom, who want diversity of opinion, ought to demand an end to tenure along with government funding of education and grants.

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