In a recent post at the Chronicle of Higher Education, Kevin Carey of the New America Foundation urges professors to “embrace the new academic freedom,” particularly freedom from tenure. Tenure, Carey argues in a fit of hyperbole, “is one of the worst deals in all of labor.” First, only “a few worthy souls use tenure to speak truth to administrative power.” Most shut up. Second, tenure is a “ball and chain that ties professors to a particular institution for life.” Carey suggests that academics would be happier if they embraced their inner entrepreneurs, cut out the middleman, and served urbanites in “communities that are alive with intellect and culture and largely rid of crime.” Those who by misguided preference or bad luck live outside of America’s “Hippest, Hipster Neighborhoods,” can “live elsewhere in the kind of hybrid terrestrial and virtual communities that increasingly characterize modern life.” Let them eat MOOCs.
Let’s consider these arguments.
The first is terrible. My experience is certainly in line with Carey’s. Academics are remarkably timid in light of the protections they enjoy. But Carey’s argument would apply with equal weight to First Amendment protections. That most people say stupid or dull things is insufficient grounds to abandon free speech.
As for the second, tenure is not the reason why it is difficult to switch institutions. While Carey depicts tenure as a binding contract that requires a professor to stick with the institution that grants it, it is, of course, quite possible to move. The trouble, first, is that like many other kinds of employers, colleges and universities often prefer younger, cheaper hires to ones a little long in the tooth. Second, the academic job market is terrible. This is why you do not hear non-tenured faculty members rejoicing that they’re free to compete with one hundred applicants for the three positions available in their field.
In regard to dissatisfaction among professors, I do not know of any evidence showing that job satisfaction is lower among academics than it is among non-academics (here is some evidence to the contrary). Certainly there is no evidence that tenure makes professors unhappy. In any case, since Carey feels free to make it up as he goes along, let me submit what strikes me as an equally plausible explanation for whatever dissatisfaction exists among academics: we are really, really neurotic.