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What Would You Do If You Couldn't Be Fired?

In an age of high unemployment, a job for life sounds like a dream. Who wouldn't want that? But according to Naomi Schaefer Riley's new book, The Faculty Lounges: And Other Reasons Why You Won't Get The College Education You Paid For, the institution of tenure in higher education -- where professors who've achieved that status after a multi-year slog can't be fired -- has plenty of downsides. Even for people who hold these cozy jobs. She shares some of them with us:
Q. What kind of behaviors does tenure create, and what are the effects on society?
A. The influence of tenure on academics begins, of course, long before they get it. Everyone is working toward tenure. Here's what one graduate student told a researcher about tenure: "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.”
That focus on security actually leads academics to give up on other things--even higher salaries. Indeed, a number of people speculated that by focusing so much on security, the whole profession is encouraging the least entrepreneurial, least risk-taking members of society to universities. It's not necessarily the kind of person you want trying to inspire the next generation to great things.
If you want tenure, you learn to keep any dissenting ideas about curriculum, university governance, teaching or anything else to yourself until you achieve it. But after so many years of keeping your head down, it's not clear that people suddenly become more inclined to say whatever is on their minds. In fact, so many years of being beaten down by the tenure process really trains people to not rock the boat.
Q. So those are the downsides to society. What about for academics themselves?
A. There are downsides both for the people who have tenure and the people who don't. They are giving up other things that people in other professions have--namely flexibility. Once you have tenure, it is almost impossible to leave your position. You have found the holy grail, so if your spouse is offered a job someplace else or you find you are living in Maine but you hate snow, you're pretty much stuck. Another college is unlikely to give you tenure so there is almost no geographic mobility in academia.
If you don't have tenure, you're basically stuck waiting around for someone--anyone--to retire or die in order to get a job. There are hundreds of thousands of adjunct faculty who are in this holding position, working sometimes at multiple campuses to make ends meet, having no office and often no office hours, finding out sometimes just a few days before a semester starts whether they have a job.
This has a significant effect on the learning environment for many undergraduates. Adjuncts do the bulk of the teaching at large universities. And they have relatively little contact with students. A high percentage of adjuncts at a school has been tied to lower graduation rates. Senior tenured faculty can choose to teach only upper level seminars or offer classes only in some small niche topic they happen to be researching. They leave the least experienced faculty in front of the most students.
Q. Without tenure, what would you envision as a fair system of employment and workplace practices for college campuses?
A. I'd like to see multi-year renewable contracts. I think this would accomplish a number of things. First, I think it would allow universities to get rid of faculty who are lazy or incompetent. I think it would allow for more movement in the academic labor market. It would also force colleges to spell out exactly what they expect of professors and evaluate them on it accordingly. If you're supposed to be teaching a certain number of students and teaching them in a broad array of topics, it should be possible to write that into the contract. Without tenure, academia would start to look like the rest of the economy. A lot of the academics I talk to suggest that if we got rid of tenure people would walk around worrying every minute of the day whether they would have their jobs tomorrow. This is not how most people think about work. They walk in every day, put in a good effort and assume they will have a job tomorrow. It's not that no one ever gets fired. But if it were as capricious as academics fear, no one would ever get anything done.
Photo courtesy flickr user, GollyGforce