Arthur Levine, president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation and former president of Columbia University Teacher’s College, thinks that it is.
Levine believes that tenure fails to do what it was designed to do. For example, “it fails to protect faculty and academic freedom in times of intense political pressure when it is most needed.” (He cites the large number of professors fired during the McCarthy era). It also fails to protect faculty who are doing controversial research or research that might be deemed politically incorrect. Levine notes that “faculty members who do such work are often shunned by colleagues” and “in these cases, tenure, at best, sustains a scholar’s employment through a career of marginalization.” Tenure also fails to protect intellectual openness on campus. Levine points to the Vietnam era when many campuses barred government officials who were prosecuting the war.
On the other hand, of those faculty members who receive tenure, the overwhelming majority do not engage in teaching or research that is in any sense controversial. More often tenure provides a lifetime of job security not to professors whose work requires protection, but to a significant minority of “deadwood” — individuals who are unproductive, out of date, or poor in their research, teaching or institutional commitment. In this sense, tenure can not only lead to academic freedom and intellectual excellence, but can also provide license without accountability and shield low-quality academics.
Levine believes that tenure cannot and should not be eliminated:
So why not eliminate tenure, as many suggest? There are three compelling reasons. First, the abuses of the past far outweigh the limitations of the present. For universities to succeed, it is better that the majority who may not need the protections of tenure receive them than that the minority who do need protections be denied them. Second, evidence indicates that colleges that lack tenure develop a de facto system of lifetime appointments, in which individuals receive continuing appointment based on their longevity at the institution or personal circumstances such as a child in school or a family illness, which make separation from the institution a hardship. By contrast, tenure at least necessitates a major scholarly review and a thoughtful decision by academic colleagues regarding a faculty member’s suitability for a lifetime appointment. Third — and this is an entirely pragmatic rationale — any major institution that chose to eliminate tenure would be at a disadvantage in recruiting top faculty in the future.
But he also believes that reform is necessary.
I would offer one proposal: Since mandatory retirement is not possible, the length of tenure could be limited to a significant but finite number of years. A term of 30 years, for example, would ensure essential academic freedom and at the same time allow for the turnover that universities require to remain intellectually strong.
Beyond that initial term, faculty and universities can together negotiate shorter-term contracts, modified assignments, or retirement. To be sure, some faculty remain vital well into their eighth decade, maybe even beyond. Some who no longer teach or publish or advise students still contribute to their institutions in other ways. In such cases, a contract extension model could work to the benefit of both the faculty member and the institution.
This makes sense to me.
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