March 18, 2018

To Fix Higher Education, Start by Eliminating Tenure | From the Bell Tower

No one knows for sure if higher education is the next “on-the-bubble” industry that is about to burst, but there certainly is considerable concern about the sustainability of traditional higher education. It’s not that anyone suspects the top tier institutions are in jeopardy. But with over 3,500 institutions, and many of them struggling to attract sufficient students while balancing their budgets, there is a good chance some will not be here in the next decade. In response to the many problems faced by colleges and universities, a whole host of experts have written books offering solutions for what ails higher education. I previously interviewed the co-author of one of them, Andrew Hacker, who along with Claudia Dreyfus, wrote last year’s Higher Education? How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids and What We Can Do About It. Since then several more books of this type were released including one by Clayton Christensen, in which he promotes using technology to disruptively innovate higher education. One of these books in particular, has received extensive attention, not all of it good, owing to a controversial solution: get rid of tenure.

When Your Chronicle Essay Gets 143 Comments…
Enter Naomi Riley. She is the author of one of the latest book in this genre. It’s titled The Faculty Lounges: and Other Reasons Why You Won’t Get the College Education You Paid For. If you want to get a sense of the basic themes of the book you can start with Riley’s essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education in which she discusses a primary advantage of eliminating tenure: higher salaries for faculty in exchange for greater flexibility and control for the institution. As might be expected there were a huge number of comments, most of them arguing for the ways in which tenure benefits higher education and is essential to the core of the academic enterprise. After reading the book I asked Riley to answer a few questions (I was only allowed to submit five so I chose carefully). While the book has little to say about academic libraries — and makes no mention of whether academic librarians are part of the tenure problem — I did want to learn what Riley is thinking about our libraries – if at all.

Since it is so controversial to advocate for the elimination of tenure, why did you bother writing this book at all? What was your motivation?
I think the issue of tenure gets taken off the table too soon in any debate about academic reform. You hear, on the one hand, that it is integral to the academy, to the protection of academic freedom and to the success of professors. But then you hear the same people throwing their hands up and saying that tenure is on its way out anyway. I don’t think the former is true, for a variety of reasons, but the latter is definitely true.

The question is: What are we going to do about it? Now, I think, is the time to be intentional about creating the system of higher education we want for our students in 10 or 20 or 30 years. And what we don’t want is a small number of senior tenured professors at the top while the rest of the schools are overrun by adjuncts with no support from their institutions and no job security. Studies show that a higher percentage of adjuncts on campus is correlated with a lower graduation rate for students.

Continuing down the current path, leaving tenure alone and hiring all of these low-paid adjuncts, is not smart. Instead we should change all faculty over to multi-year renewable contracts and make sure that we are transparent in these contracts. If we want to emphasize teaching–and I think it’s vital that we do—then we should say that. And eliminate all of this vague language about the three legs of the academic stool when we all know that it is research that is valued most (not the other legs of teaching and service).

Outside of a few outliers and radicals, do you expect that the majority of current faculty will ever support any argument against tenure? Your Texas Tribune “debate” with Daniel Hamermesh is a good example. It’s clear your book has no power to convince him to admit that eliminating tenure would help higher education.
I think what most amazes me is how young professors support the institution of tenure, despite the fact that all of these aging professors who just want to stay on one more year (until their 401(k)s bounce back) who are preventing them from getting a foot onto the academic ladder.

Cathy Trower, a professor at Harvard’s education school, has done surveys of young scholars to see whether anything would budge them in their view of tenure. Even a salary increase of 15 percent would not change most of their minds. Here’s what one graduate student told her: “It is not so much that we absolutely insist on security, but the reality is that academic life has so little going for it. There is only this one absolutely gratuitous benefit, which is that you have this absurd amount of security, which almost no one else in the workforce has. . . . The idea of setting it aside [while] all other elements of academic life remain moderately crappy … that would seem like I just gave up a whole lot.”

If this is at all representative of the kind of people who are going into university teaching, we’ve got problems. If the rest of us focused on job security to the same extent academics did, the entire economy would come to a grinding halt. So do I expect academics to change their minds about the issue? Not in large numbers, but I think one of the biggest problems with tenure is that it insulates faculty from what is going on in the rest of the university and the rest of the world. So any change in the academic labor system will certainly have to come from administrations, trustees, legislatures, etc.

Are you aware that approximately 50 percent of the academic librarians in this country have or are on the tenure track? If you don’t think that full-time faculty need tenure, what do you have to say about academic librarians who have or are on the tenure track? Do you think it can be justified?
I would be hard-pressed to think of any reason why a librarian would need tenure. Librarians outside of universities don’t have tenure. Are they any worse at their jobs? I know some of your readers will insist that librarians, just like faculty, need to go out on a limb occasionally and do something controversial that could lose them their jobs. Maybe they will stand up to Homeland security officials who want search records of people under suspicion of terrorism. I think those cases are small in number and fairly isolated. And, to be honest, I think most university officials would happily support the rebel librarians—it will probably land the university some nice publicity in the New York Times.

But more to the point, when we look at tenure, we have to ask: has the current system supported intellectual diversity and dissent on campus? I think the answer is no. College faculties are some of the most intellectually uniform bodies out there and I don’t just mean in terms of how they cast their votes in presidential elections (though that is certainly the case.) Here are the words of a veteran journalist who, after a long bitter battle, actually succeeded in getting tenure at Ohio University. Here is what he wrote in the Chronicle of Higher Education about how he has resolved to act from now on:

I must try to be less bold in expressing unpopular opinions about campus policies, curriculum goals, or the use of increasingly limited resources. Academic politics are much more about personal turf and fragile egos than I had imagined. So I also have to learn to not always jump so eagerly into debates started by others. Against instinct and training, I must try to avoid rocking the boat in a workplace that is hostile toward dissent.

Tenure requires publication. Often lots of it. The publications typically end up in journals that academic libraries must purchase. Given the expense of quite a few of these journals, it all adds to the cost of higher education. What are your thoughts on “open access”, that is, encouraging faculty to publish in journals that are “open” to the general public and free for their use? If we eliminated tenure how do you think that would impact on scholarly communication?
I think the bottom line with faculty publication is that there is too much of it, particularly in the humanities and social sciences. It costs parents and taxpayers a great deal of money in the sense that professors teach fewer hours when they are occupied with publishing. At research universities, of course, many professors teach a half a load because they are expected to be publishing the other half of the time. (In case you were wondering where the priorities are, a 2005 study from the Journal of Higher Education found that at every level of college, for every additional hour a professor spent in the classroom they get paid less.)

Obviously it adds to the costs if tuition and tax dollars also have to pay for the journals themselves. And maybe an open-source model can change some of that. But I think the bigger issue is paying for faculty time spent in this manner. Tenure increases the incentives to research. Tenure is a sort of reward we give people for work they have already done. Congratulations. Great book. Well-received. Here’s a job for life.

But teaching is a dynamic profession requiring constant evaluation. As any good teacher will tell you, there is no resting on your laurels. The students sitting in front of you today will not be better off because you taught students well ten years ago. Experience can help but you still need the energy and commitment you had when you first started.

On page 157 you mention the rising cost of academic library support. Certainly, libraries do add to the cost of higher education and there’s little or no revenue generation. Do you think academic libraries have to do a better job of demonstrating or quantifying their value in order to stay relevant to the institution – and hopefully well resourced? Do you have any specific recommendations for academic librarians who would like to make sure that students and their parents do get the college education for which they paid? How can we help to make a difference?
I think in the current environment, librarians need to be mindful of the circulation of various publications. There is a tendency (though it used to be much more widespread) to just take whatever university presses were offering. But if no one is using those books, academic libraries are wasting their resources.

University Presses have continued to act as enablers of this publication overload. As a 2009 report from the American Enterprise Institute pointed out, over the past five decades the number of language and literature academic monographs has risen to 72,000 from 13,000 while the audience for such scholarship “has diminished, with unit sales for books now hovering around 300.” Someone has to put the breaks on this. It won’t be the professors since they want to use the publications to get tenure. Maybe it will be the librarians since they’re the only customers left in this market.

I want to thank Naomi Riley for responding to these questions, and sharing some thoughts on where academic librarians fit into the higher education equation. Clearly we want to be one of the reasons that college students do get the education they pay for. Whether or not tenure helps us to achieve that goal is still up for debate. I would recommend Riley’s book for any higher education collection. Give it a read and see what you think.

Steven Bell About Steven Bell

Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA, is the current vice president/president-elect of ACRL. For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his website.