A Small-c Conservative (Lukewarm) Defense of Tenure

Recently my colleague Mark Bauerlein commented on the interesting debate regarding the continued merits—or lack thereof—for tenure. The basic critique of tenure is a powerful one: as Freakonomics put it, “What does tenure do? It distorts people’s effort so that they face strong incentives early in their career (and presumably work very hard early on as a consequence) and very weak incentives forever after (and presumably work much less hard on average as a consequence).”
Indeed, I’m sure most professors can point to one or two (or more) cases from personal knowledge that don’t even meet this standard—of professors who produced little or nothing as untenured faculty but received tenure anyway, and continued their commitment to mediocrity for the next 30 years.
It’s hard to doubt this critique, especially since the traditional argument for tenure—it’s necessary to protect academic freedom—is now almost laughable, for two reasons. First, as Alan Charles Kors has long held, the path to tenure encourages timidity. A professor who spends seven years as a junior faculty member worrying about speaking out is very unlikely to suddenly reverse course once he or she receives tenure. The pattern of behavior simply has become too ingrained.

Second, in the groupthink atmosphere that currently prevails in humanities and (most) social sciences departments, tenure exists as a club to be wielded to squelch dissent. Anyone even suspected of challenging the status quo can be eliminated during the tenure process (I was lucky in this respect, in that I benefited from a CUNY administration and Board of Trustees committed to following the rules). AAUP head Cary Nelson’s linkage of tenure and academic freedom is nothing short of absurd in the current environment.
If tenure isn’t likely to promote intellectual diversity on campus, it does have some marginal value in promoting pedagogical diversity. It functions as a break on faddish trends, and preserves more traditional approaches to fields at least for a generation of students. As Mark has noted, in this respect tenure can have the effect of encouraging intellectual staleness among the faculty. But it can also preserve needed subdisciplines that have run afoul of the paragons of political correctness. For instance, without tenure, military history—now all but dead—would probably have perished (outside of the service academies and a handful of Southern schools) in the 1980s, once history departments nationally began lurching to the left. But the existence of tenure allowed military historians already on staff to finish out their careers unscathed, even if they almost never were replaced.
A similar situation exists now for those who teach political or diplomatic history. Without tenure, almost all such positions would be eliminated or revised beyond recognition in the race/class/gender-dominated academy. Alas, 15-20 years down the road, as the final generation of political and diplomatic historians retires, they almost certainly will be replaced by figures who adhere to a race/class/gender approach to teaching. But until then, students at some institutions at least will have the opportunity to be exposed to a more pedagogically diverse approach to the American past.
A similar description could apply to fields like English, philosophy, or anthropology. Whether giving today’s students a brief window of access to a more pedagogically diverse academy that is rapidly passing us by is worth the economic and intellectual costs of tenure is a difficult question to answer. In any event, I agree with Mark that “in fields in which salaries are fixed and employment guaranteed for decades, tenure will decline into negligibility a generation from today, and all the talk about generational values and academic freedom and rigorous instruction won’t preserve it.”
Finally, two points of dissent to points raised in the blogosphere’s tenure debate.
1) From Orin Kerr, a possible defense of tenure: “Academics are the best judges of who is a good academic, and tenure is necessary to ensure that a group of academics will hire the best person to fill an open faculty slot. This argument is made in detail in H. Lorne Carmichael, Incentives in Academics: Why Is There Tenure?, 96 Journal of Political Economy 453 (1988). The basic idea is that tenure is a necessary evil because faculties vote on who to let join them: If professors know that their own jobs will be in jeopardy if they hire someone better than themselves, they will make sure that they only hire incompetent new people.”
This explanation strikes me as plausible at first blush but inaccurate in reality. As one of my mentors, Paula Sutter Fichtner, used to remark, first-class departments hire first-class professors; second-class departments hire third-class professors. In most instances, mediocrities aren’t so dull as to not recognize their own mediocrity; whether or not their job is on the line from new hires, they have little incentive to want to staff their department with people more accomplished than themselves. In this respect, the hiring (or tenuring) of even one or two mediocrities can have long-lasting ill effects.
2) From Freakonomics, discounting the prospect of academic freedom violations: “If one institution fires an academic primarily because they don’t like his or her politics or approach, there will be other schools happy to make the hire.”
This claim might be true for Steven Levitt’s field of Economics, but it certainly doesn’t apply in the humanities and most social sciences. Given the groupthink uniformity that exists, it’s highly doubtful that “there will be other schools happy to make the hire” of a professor drummed out of his or her previous institution for challenging the ideological or pedagogical status quo.

KC Johnson

KC Johnson is a history professor at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York Graduate Center. He is the author, along with Stuart Taylor, of The Campus Rape Frenzy: The Attack on Due Process at America's Universities.

One thought on “A Small-c Conservative (Lukewarm) Defense of Tenure”

  1. Your final quotation from Freakonomics is a remarkable on, KC–remarkable because, as you note, it applies to such a small portion of the campus. I haven’t read what the authors say about tenure beyond what you quote, but one wonders how many humanities and social science departments Levitt believes would grab up a young teacher/scholar who had been let go at tenure time and was known for opposing affirmative action in college admissions.

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