November 21 2010
Should Academics Be "Liberated" from Tenure?
Inkwell has had numerous items on the effect of teachers' unions, which protect inferior teachers, in public schools. In the higher climbs of learning, tenure is the guarantee of employment for life.
Naomi Schaefer Riley, whose book on academia will come out soon ("The Faculty Lounges . . . And Other Reasons That You Won't Get the College Education You Pay For") has a piece in the Wall Street Journal that suggests that academia would be better off without tenure. She tells the story of Richard Miller, who left a tenured position at the University of Iowa to become the first president of the Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering in Massachusetts. Olin doesn't grant tenure.
Miller's associates asked what he was smoking:"They'll think you turned in your union card-that you don't care about the core values of academic freedom." Tenure, the theory goes, protects modern day Socrateses from drinking the metaphorical hemlock. So how's it working out for Mr. Miller and Olin?
One wishes that other academics shared his opinion. In the meantime, Olin is showing what's possible when a school sheds tenure, one of the most antiquated and counterproductive employment policies in the American economy. Instituted at a time when people in most professions remained in the same job for life, tenure today is an economic anomaly. The policy protects laziness and incompetence-and rewards often obscure research rather than good teaching....
This creative culture is apparent to any campus visitor. Unlike students in most engineering programs, who spend their first three years taking physics and math before they work on designing an actual structure, Olin students begin to design things on the first day. I watched as one professor gave his mechanical engineering students instructions to build a bridge spanning two tables. They would be judged on how much weight it could bear, its aesthetic appeal and its cost efficiency.
There are 140 applicants for every faculty slot, though professors know they can be fired. Still, they say they find it freeing. One says:
"When one is on the tenure track," he says, "the clock is ticking. There is a certain day on which you will have to produce a stack of papers." He's no longer worried about publishing a certain amount by a particular date. Instead, he's free to pursue research he finds interesting-something Mr. Somerville says has been "liberating."