Ripped to Shreds

July 22, 2010

Brian Leiter rips Mark C. Taylor to shreds in his post this morning. If you’ve been following the New York Times Room for Debate column, you’ll know that Taylor stupidly argued last week that tenure should be abolished, or some such nonsense.

I suggest — nay, I insist! — that you head to Leiter’s site and read his awesome takedown.

I’d just add my two cents on tenure. I agree that it plays a fantastically important role in securing academic freedom, so it is important for this reason. I don’t want to downplay the significance of academic freedom, as it seems to me incredibly important.

But I also think that tenure provides the grease the keeps the wheels of the university running. That is to say, universities aren’t structured like businesses. They’re extremely horizontal organizations. They run in part on the good will and charity of their faculty. Every faculty member is, more or less, in command of his or her own research program. Every faculty member commits hours of her day to her teaching, to her research, to the health of the department, and/or the wider university community. This seems to work pretty well, as faculty tend to pick contributory tasks that suit their talents and their interests.

I certainly put in many more service hours than are required of me, and I’m happy to volunteer this time because I like doing the things I do. In part, my autonomy as a faculty member helps me feel that my contribution is good and worthwhile. What I do is not required of me, but I like it and so I do it. Though I’m not yet tenured, I feel that my otherwise risky contributions in this regard (because they are above-and-beyond my service requirement) are rewarded because they are satisfying for me, my colleagues, and my students. It’s a bonus for them. I further have the continued sense that I am not so much being evaluated on my extra-curricular contributions as I am being given the freedom to contribute in a way that I see fit to contribute. Almost every department runs on this underlying expectation of faculty. We contribute because we want to, because we know how universities work, and we have a sense of what makes a university work well.

If I were required to fight every year, or every few years, for my job, I might stick much more closely to my job description. Moreover, if I were required to fulfill X, Y, and Z service requirements as a line in my job description, only to be evaluated on the quality of my contributions by my colleagues — “gee, we put him in charge of that conference and he screwed up the coffee and the crudité” — I think I might be much less inclined to do what I do. So too with teaching and research. If I am forced to face down a panel of my bosses who will evaluate and score my teaching, I will be much less inclined to take chances with pedagogy; or I will be much more inclined to take the safe path.

To be sure, there is still considerable oversight and feedback from senior faculty down to junior faculty, but even across cases of wide seniority, there is more parity than in most workplaces. I am not called into the boss’s office to get a talking to about my performance. There is also oversight from peer reviewers at other universities, so the work and research of faculty is held in check by the scrutiny of experts renowned in their field.

To abolish tenure would require dramatically restructuring the service and oversight requirements of individual faculty. It would require making chairs into bosses, deans into CEOs, and provosts into kingpins. In short, it would require a dramatic overhaul of the university system. That university, the one that seems to tickle Taylor, would be unrecognizable from the university we currently know and love.


  1. Your link is wrong. I think you meant to link here:

    I’ll try to comment more later.

    • Whoops. Thanks. Fixed.

  2. This is a very good expansion of the relevant issues. People go into academia partly in order to determine their own futures with their own work. Tenure lets us do that. And in a field where the money is nice, but it isn’t the main reward this is very important.

  3. Some years ago, after observing colleagues, Eli came to the conclusion that a rolling contract, like they give the football coaches was a much better system. The term should be long enough to outlast the average president, provost, dean or chair, 8-10 years, but there should be an annual serious review.

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