Tenure, a lifetime faculty appointment at a college or university, is still a fixture of higher education, but it is increasingly coming under pressure. Many still think it’s the way to go — that it provides a just reward for exceptional scholarship, that it ensures academic freedom by preventing faculty from being fired for espousing unpopular positions, and that ensures university governance by the people who should govern the university, namely, the professors who make it great.
Others, however, think that it contradicts free market principles, it encourages slacking once tenure is achieved, and that it promotes a pernicious self-selectivity, in which faculty, to achieve tenure, must toe the line and and show themselves to be politically correct if they are to get tenure in the first place. Some go so far as to argue that tenure is a welfare program for college and university professors.
Why should someone prefer a school without tenure to one with it. Riley reports the case of
In the midst of such debate, Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering has burst on the scene. Begun just over a decade ago, it has a large endowment for its size, has quickly shot up in the national rankings of engineering schools, and has no tenure. But that hasn’t stopped prospective faculty from apply to the school — over 100 for each faculty position, as Naomi Schaefer Riley reports in an article titled “How to Succeed in Teaching Without Lifetime Tenure.”
Mark Somerville left a tenure-track position in the physics department at Vassar to teach at Olin. “It was not a hard decision to make,” he says. Mr. Somerville says he has found that the lack of tenure has changed his teaching and research interests for the better.
“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.”
Is tenure going the way of the dodo? It’s too soon to tell. Institutional inertia being what it is, expect it to be here for a long time. And yet, also expect innovative institutions, like Franklin W. Olin, to come up with attractive alternatives to tenure.