Academic Tenure

Educational excellence is the lifeblood of American Exceptionalism. It is incumbent on America’s educational institutions to ensure that excellence.” – The Lonely Realist

It’s time to revise academic tenure. The quality of American education has fallen, it has fallen fast and it’s continuing to fall. As TLR has repeatedly observed, America today is being bested in more and more areas of educational performance and innovation. Where once America’s institutions of higher learning were the primary drivers of international research, they have now ceded that role to others. For many years, America’s leading educational institutions were the foremost guardians of Free Speech. No more – in fact, they no longer agree on the meaning of Free Speech. Universities that were once the sacrosanct ivy-covered bastions of American educational excellence have lost their edge. The pursuit of excellence today is a worldwide competition …, and American universities are falling behind. Outperforming global competitors requires applying the same formulae for success that made American businesses world-beaters. Meritocratic performance standards are as necessary in academia as they are in business. The reality is that academic tenure is undermining those standards.

A professor who has been granted academic tenure at an American educational institution secures life-long employment. It would take significant wrongdoing for an educational institution to even consider termination …, and doing so is exceedingly rare. The purposes for granting tenure nevertheless have continuing validity, but only in limited circumstances. Tenure prevents dismissals for personal or political reasons or for introducing unpopular/controversial subjects. Tenure thereby protects American educators’ First Amendment right to educate without fear of being fired for speaking freely. The freedom that tenure provides is intended to transform the educational environment into a crucible for intellectual exploration and development. Tenure also counterbalances the lure of higher compensation in the private sector, ensuring that some of America’s greatest thinkers are incentivized to remain in academia. While these are worthy goals (albeit similar to benefits in private industry), tenure also removes the incentive for tenured professors to further hone their classroom skills. It eliminates professors’ obligation to publish, with the unfortunate consequence that many professors’ best scholarship is produced in pre-tenure years. The pressure for original thought and collegial interaction similarly evaporate. Even office hours, enriching university life and enhancing students’ experiences become optional. The risks of complacency and backward thinking haunt tenure decision-making. And tenure blocks the career paths of younger aspirants.

America’s democracy has prospered through the application of economic Darwinism, creating a meritocratic American financial juggernaut that rewards comparative out-performance and punishes comparative under-performance. The result is an American economy that excels by richly rewarding winners and punishing losers …, and recycling continuously. That’s one reason why America’s industries outperform their foreign competitors. Failure more readily results in bankruptcy, and business bankruptcies accordingly are more numerous in America. Outside of academia, there is no such thing as tenure rights. Failure to adequately perform means dismissal, with no mandatory notice and no necessary severance. Outside of academia, America’s practice of economic Darwinism is coldly efficient.

Despite American industry’s success with unfettered firing, tenure persists at America’s academic institutions. That has a number of drawbacks, one of which is the resulting political same-thinking that seemingly has captured America’s premier educational institutions. Critics have accused those institutions of wearing blinders that implicitly endorse limitations on Free Speech, over-emphasize diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), and encourage antisemitism. Recent Congressional hearings have inflamed public opinion and turned university education into a political football. The Florida Board of Education, for example, has issued regulations that limit the use of public funding for DEI programs. Other States have acted similarly. The decline in American education, however, has not been caused by DEI, nor did DEI originate on university campuses. Similarly, antisemitism is not taught at American universities (although it has found fertile ground through the misapplication of Free Speech principles). The focus of regulators and administrators needs to be how best to enhance learning. Treating higher education as a political issue does not further educational excellence (as is equally true in public school education (discussed here)).

Just as American companies, sports teams and media outlets value their best performers with long-term contracts coupled with generous compensation packages, educational institutions do the same via endowed chairs reserved for educational all-stars. Tenure should be granted on a similar basis and only in those disciplines in which Free Speech protections, private sector rewards, academic outperformance, etc., warrant lifetime employment. Even in today’s high-performance world, there are very few Tom Bradys, Shohei Ohtanis, Taylor Swifts and other irreplaceables. There is no reason why the standards applied in private industry shouldn’t be applied in academia. Improving American higher education is a necessity. Making American higher education more like the rest of America’s practicing Darwinist industries is an appropriate place to start.

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