Loren King
Sep 16, 2019 · 5 min read

Tenure and the Good of the University

In many universities the traditional model of tenure-track and tenured faculty — who balance research, teaching, administrative responsibilities, and varying degrees of public engagement — is under threat. The causes are complicated, and the longer-term consequences unclear, but there is one troubling dynamic that doesn’t receive enough attention: the loss of tenure is a loss of diverse cross-generational expertise.

Building research strengths is a long game, and what seems a frivolous and indulgent topic to one generation (‘who cares about medieval understandings of gender?’ ‘what on earth is an imaginary number?’) may turn out to be vitally important in the future. When we fail to replace retiring tenured faculty — or if we simply end replacement hires altogether, as many universities have done — we allow research and teaching strengths built up over decades to fade away. For all its apparent faults and very real costs, tenure allows universities to build diverse inter-generational research strengths, many of which don’t respond directly (or even indirectly) to market or social demands.

It’s tempting to frame the issue of academic tenure against a popular caricature: entitled deadwood faculty, shirking their teaching duties and dabbling at frivolous ‘research’ while contingent adjunct instructors teach their courses, all while virtue-signalling on social media over their fair-trade morning lattes.

On this complaint, the loss of esoteric research strengths isn’t a bug, but a feature: finally, universities are being held to account, both by market forces and taxpayer scrutiny! If university students are no longer seduced into pointless majors in art history and queer studies, then so much the better. If the aim is to orient university education toward future employment, then getting rid of tenured deadwood faculty is a good start.

This complaint gets a lot of populist political traction, but badly misses the point. Indeed, it is exactly wrong about the enduring and critical social and economic importance of the university.

Long-term research and teaching diversity, within and across universities, is precisely what generates the public goods everyone wants from us: innovative ideas and technologies, yes; but especially, thoughtful creative graduates who can think outside of specific vocational imperatives, applying skills from one set of problems to others in novel ways. Those critics who insist that university education is a hindrance to innovation and creativity tend to either ignore, or downplay, the degree to which scientific, technological, and even artistic creativity flourish in and around established universities.

I’m tempted to say the university is unique in this respect, and that if we treat our campuses as merely another kind of public service provider, we’ll lose those desirable externalities. That’s not quite right, however: instead of demanding that universities be more accountable to markets and voter/taxpayers, we should instead work on making other public services more like universities, building and sustaining long-term, inter-generational expertise in and across ministries and agencies. (a propos: read Michael Lewis’ Fifth Risk. Seriously).

There’s an analogy here with Ronald Coase’s theory of the firm, and further, why successful firms restructure, and sometimes avoid IPOs in spite of their lure. Firms are buttresses against short-term market pressures, allowing in-house pursuit of long (often risky) bets. Likewise, if we tie universities too tightly to market demands and taxpayer/government oversight (and that’s how tenure is often criticized, either directly or obliquely), we undercut the ability of all but the wealthiest elite universities to play the long game.

Perhaps that’s what people want, or at least think they want: a few elite universities with tenured faculty, and the rest of the system basically made up of ‘differentiated’ vocational institutions churning out (allegedly) employable graduates?

Some complaints about the oversupply of degree-granting institutions seem to concede something like this elitist view: the Harvards, Oxfords, and Stanfords will always remain attractive for the children of the wealthy and powerful, but the proliferation of colleges charging exorbitant tuition, sustained by student loans? This resembles any other speculative market bubble. When the market inevitably corrects itself, we’ll be left with those viable, established high-reputation universities, and a more modest number of chastened, now-efficient vocational institutions.

But even if we accept the logic of this analysis, and even if we could have confidence in training institutions to reliably track employment trends (we can’t), we should be clear about what is lost on this view: if we think that at least some of the elite university “goods” ought to be scaled up and open to all students capable of attending, then that hope — of democratizing the university — will be lost, and we’ll instead have a system where a few elite universities buy their research diversity and faculty independence by coddling scions of the rich and powerful (and that’s working so well), with vocational training the only feasible option for everyone else. No doubt that seems acceptable to a certain kind of critic (they probably think of themselves as ‘hard-nosed realists’), but it too misunderstands the value of the university, and the benefits of ensuring that the university experience is open to any and all who seek it out and are willing to put in the effort required to learn.

No doubt the university will evolve, as it always has over the thousand years or so of the medieval university, and the century or so of the modern Prussian model of the research university. I don’t think we can direct that evolution in any systematic way, but we can try as best we can to balance the public goods of the university, as engines of creativity and innovation, with a commitment to openness and inclusion.

That means, most obviously, rejecting the old Faustian bargains with the powerful and privileged: ‘we’ll credential your privileged offspring, if you pay us and leave us alone to do what we do’. (That bargain took a particularly disturbing turn for my graduate alma mater, as is now being revealed.)

Less obvious, perhaps, is that ditching tenure, and the diversity of cross-generational expertise that comes with it, will achieve just the opposite of what critics intend, cutting against hopes for diversity and inclusion, and thus stifling a vital engine of the public good of the university.

Written by

Professor and dad with astonishingly poor time management skills. I swim some. lorenking.org

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