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The case against tenure in general: 4 reasons

Posted on 01 March 2013

Nothing against Cherian George’s bid for tenure, but quite a lot against the idea of tenure itself.

By Belmont Lay


About three years ago, I read a 2010 Slate article that made a strong case against tenure.

With the recent Cherian George saga playing out in the media, it is good to revisit the basic premises of those ideas against tenure in general — something about how it works against students and the universities that grant them, and also for knowledge production and synthesis.

4 reasons why tenure is a bad idea in general:

1. Tenure leads to self-censorship among professors

At first glance, this doesn’t make much sense.

This is because one of the explicit purposes of tenure is to ensure that professors have job security and they are, therefore, free to push the boundaries and put forth any ideas no matter how dangerous and controversial without fear of getting fired.

Therefore, by right, tenure is supposed to lead to academic freedom.

However, tenure-seeking professors — on their way to being tenured — might actually be discouraged from dabbling in anything too controversial.

Why? Precisely for fear of ending up like Cherian George.

In his case, he is not given tenure because he might be a reputational risk to the establishment for his studies in media, which of course, spills over to politics.

This is kind of like a Catch-22 situation right?

Furthermore, if a tenure-track professor is not going to speak out before, how safe is it to assume that a professor can do just that after gaining tenure?

2. Tenures are hugely expensive

This is a topic that strangely hasn’t been broached by any of the universities and media in Singapore.

Does anyone know how much a tenured professor gets paid? I don’t but I can safely assume that each professor who gains tenure will ultimately cost the university millions of dollars.

Job security is indeed very costly. Especially if the university is going to keep a professor on board for the next 20 to 30 years until retirement.

3. Tenure track professors must focus more on research than teaching

Whether this is a myth waiting to be busted, I’m not 100% sure.

But for those who have poked around the faculties and talked to people in the system, you would know that academia requires the publication of peer-reviewed papers.

Peer-reviewed papers is what holds a university up. This is similar to the reserves that back a country.

Universities are ranked according to the quantity and quality of research papers.

Teaching students, therefore, is one of those pesky things professors are required to do besides writing papers.

If there is a scale to weigh research vs. teaching, research wins. Period.

Students are most likely not ranked that highly up there among the other priorities.

4. Intellectual inflexibility

With tenures, what happens is that universities are actually taking a huge gamble by hiring somebody for life.

If a field is constantly evolving, and at a more rapid rate than before, for example, bio-tech or something, than how sure can the university be that the professor will keep up in that given field?

And there will be increasingly lesser incentive to merge disciplines as professors with tenure are more likely to delve deeper into one esoteric aspect of a given field to be deemed “an expert”.

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  • Ivan Dmitriev

    Completely misses the point of tenure.
    1. Tenure leads to self-censorship among professors – not unless it’s a social science or humanities field, where still a lot of factors ( increasingly less, thanks to the compulsory and comprehensive programs in statistics, data analysis and probability); will be left to the appreciation of the tenure committee or to agenda groups, otherwise, as a professor, you just publish and defend yourself in official and unofficial way – like post-conference talks and debates, friendly conversation and networking in the industry. Besides that – academic life is in no way separate from industry, scientific politics, governing policy and funding, no matter the field, so there will always be some amounts of unfair competition, which is still, much less than one can see in other fields.
    2. Tenures are hugely expensive
    Ok, I was a director of R&D in Russia, I mean, sure I could have hired engineers from Vietnam for just about 300$ a month, and dealt with the consequence of impossible intra- and inter-team communication, low productivity, no direct contact or provisioning of all the supplies and business trip expenses, or I could have chosen a relocation of the team – in any case, it would have cost the same amount of money and trouble, expressed in overspent money, for inferior quality work. A temp has much less incentive to apply himself to the task, especially if he’s underpayed in a high-standard-of-living, high-cost situation, like Singapore, Paris, Oslo or Saint Petersburg, Russia. “Does anyone know how much a tenured professor gets paid? – I don’t but I can safely assume that each professor who gains tenure will ultimately cost the university millions of dollars.” – I don’t think the author is even qualified to talk about the subject, because she or he has no initial data to compare, – couldn’t even Google offers for open professorship positions and calculated their salaries using an initial offer and public servant pay grid, to which the tenure salary is usually attached.
    In general the cost of a tenured professor to the university is greatly offset by the money(grants/special prizes/industry partnerships) a tenured professor brings on the table.
    3. Tenure track professors must focus more on research than teaching
    That’s the point of tenure, albeit he got it wrong once more – no one needs students, taught by some ancient sage whose knowledge is way outdated, which is apparently what a professor should be in the eyes of this blogger(?). But wait – here’s something – tenure track professors focus on implementing and including the results and proceedings of research (which, by the way lies almost entirely on the shoulders of doctorate students(as advanced experimentation staff and fresh eyes, who can spot something unusual), postdocs( as the tactical command, workhorses and idea-pushers) and invited/shared researchers(as strategic trend-setters and expert consultants) ); they ensure that the material can be understood and can also be recreated by the appropriately taught students; they search for funding of specific doctoral/postdoc projects, besides managing their own projects. Basically – if the students can’t have funding – they can’t do research, if the students are not taught the latest techniques – they won’t be able to understand other researchers, their own field and won’t yield new results. If they wont’ be taught how to write academic papers – no research. No research equals no publications, which leads to the disappearance of funding and important projects.
    4. Intellectual inflexibility
    What really happens is a university which determines if someone is up for tenure during his doctoral thesis (3-4 years), postdoc (2-6 years) and staff researcher time (an arbitrary number ) – which is time enough not to make a hurried mistake. In general every university has a level and the rectors and faculty heads know where exactly they stand, compared to others, so that internationally equal universities exchange professors among them.
    “ure can the university be that the professor will keep up in that given field?”
    That’s why most courses are not taught by tenure professors, but by postdocs and researchers. A tenured professor is, mostly a high-level manager, has a strategic view of the field and an expert in a some parts of the field, the rest of the field is occupied by researchers and doctoral students.
    “And there will be increasingly lesser incentive to merge disciplines as professors with tenure are more likely to delve deeper into one esoteric aspect of a given field to be deemed “an expert”.” – there are more disciplines, because industry and non-applied human knowledge expands. What used to be 30 years ago (my mother’s field) “Semiconductors and dielectrics” is today “Thin film technology”, “Physical chemistry in thin film objects”, “Vacuum physics for semiconductor manufacturing”, “Computer engineering”, “Analog computer engineering”, “Microwave telecommunications” and many, many other specialities.

  • Kunstler

    I’m a tenured professor at a traditional Upstate NY college. I have to say that while I like the job security for myself, it’s frustrating to see what happens to my colleagues when they become tenured and stop producing. I work with someone who is a professor of ceramics and he is a poster child for why tenure is a bad idea. Rather than using tenure as an opportunity to be a leader without fear of being sacked, he’s taken tenure to mean that he can check out.

    Professionally, he’s nonexistent–the guy is an artist and hasn’t exhibited work in years; he doesn’t even have a website. He never talks about making work or being in the studio–only the reasons he can’t work (what is an artist who doesn’t make art?). Though he’s a full college professor, he wears ignorance like a badge of honor, saying that he “can’t write because he wasn’t trained as a writer.” He crows this to shirk administrative duties and from teaching courses not in his narrow area of interest. Though sabbaticals are supposed to be for professional development, he seems to have used his for a vacation–there’s no evidence of professional activity, certainly nothing shared with the campus community who filled in for him while he had his time off.

    Another colleague and I are trying to update our program to reflect the contemporary situation, that art making must be approached critically, intellectually. Sadly the ceramicist has nothing to contribute, and while he thinks he not getting in the way, his dead weight keeps us from realizing a valid curriculum.

    As for teaching, his classes fill because he is an easy grader–his is exactly the situation described in the book Academically Adrift–students fill his courses and give him great reviews, in return he doesn’t challenge them. The student work coming out of his courses is appalling, much of it looks like elementary school ceramics, but he defends his worth saying he is offering an “visceral” experience as opposed to the intellectual.

    So he will continue this way until he retires in many years. The school will pay a top salary for dead weight. Other artists/teachers who could run circles around him won’t have the chance to teach in our program. Students are denied learning from someone with real art-world credentials who is professionally engaged and understands current issues in the field.

    Worse, he becomes a demoralizing anti-model for other professors. If he behaves in this way, why should anyone else write the reports, teach the less-desirable courses, jump through administrative hoops, develop themselves as a professional, or serve the campus community?

    In most businesses (and education is a business) this sort of person would have long-ago been let go, but he uses tenure as a legal shield to the right to create his own featherbed for the next decade.

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