January 13, 2017

HIGHER EDUCATION BUBBLE UPDATE: Legislators Take Aim At Academic Tenure:

Following in the footsteps of Scott Walker’s Wisconsin, which in 2015 and 2016 weakened tenure protections for public university faculty, legislators in Iowa and Missouri have introduced bills to eliminate the practice in their states. . . .

Both bills were introduced very recently and it’s unclear whether either one have a chance of making it into law. The usual argument for tenure—that it is a necessary institution for protecting academic freedom—continues to hold significant purchase, and rightly so. Many untenured professors report being afraid to express unpopular views; it’s possible that eliminating tenure would make academia even more politically conformist. And politicians have a tendency to try to interfere improperly in university research agendas.

At the same time, this is by no means a simple question. The institution of tenure-for-life—and the “for-life” part is critical; it used to be that professors could be forced to retire when they reached old age—imposes significant costs on universities as well. It makes education more costly by reducing universities’ flexibility in consolidating or changing departments, forcing them to hire an ever-growing poorly paid caste of low-paid adjuncts. .

And when it comes to risk-taking and conformity, the evidence is once again mixed. It could be that while the institutions frees tenured professors to be more creative, it encourages young faculty to be more risk-averse. And one study found (unsurprisingly) that on average, the quality of professors’ work declines after they get a job-for-life guarantee.

It would probably be unwise for state legislatures to torch the institution of tenure overnight. At the same time, the existing faculty hiring and retention system is overdue for reform. Faculty are becoming a smaller and smaller share of university personnel, even as adjuncts and administrators proliferate; the university business model is increasingly not working for the American middle class; and higher education is growing increasingly politically monotonous and irrelevant in the humanities and social sciences.

I don’t think tenure is the problem — in fact, the real political activists seem to be student life / diversity administrators. But higher education’s brand has suffered a lot in recent years, which makes this sort of thing less unthinkable than it used to be. And that brand damage has been self-inflicted.

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