Is it time to get rid of tenure?

Op-ed argues academic freedom could have other protections

Presidential candidate Gov. Scott Walker (R-Wisconsin) has the right idea about getting rid of tenure, argue John McGinnis and Max Schanzenbach in a Wall Street Journal opinion piece.

"Guaranteed employment for life will not promote good teaching or scholarly productivity when incentive pay is limited, and employment for life can be long," they write.

As state universities face increasing expenses and technological shifts, higher education administrators and faculty should consider the benefits of eliminating tenure, argue McGinnis and Schanzenbach.

In its current form, they say, tenure runs up institutions' costs—especially because of the 1994 Congressional ruling that banned mandatory retirement ages for faculty. Recent surveys found that nearly 75% of faculty intend to retire much later than the average worker—or at all.

According to McGinnis and Schanzenbach, research productivity fades with age—so when faculty members do not retire, it is harder to reallocate resources to more in-demand fields, such as STEM programs.

"These problems will only worsen as exponential technological advances and disruptive changes in labor markets prompt student to shift their majors," they write.

In tenure's place, long-term contracts would provide much of the same benefits, say McGinnis and Schanzenbach. The contract would allow institutions to dismiss individuals for sexual and academic misconduct while setting standards for research and teaching requirements. Periodic reviews would ensure faculty hit their benchmarks.

These lengthy contracts would also protect the "socially valuable work with low market returns," such as research into very specific subjects like Egyptology.

To those who oppose eliminating tenure because it protects academic freedom, McGinnis and Schanzenbach point out that academic freedom is also protected by the First Amendment and precedents set by the Supreme Court. Additional protection could also be specifically laid out in future faculty contracts.

And tenure does not offer the protection that it appears to, they say. Even now, faculty members are discriminated against for their opinions during the hiring and promotion processes. Nixing tenure would not change that, they say.

"What's clear is that lifetime tenure is an inefficient one-size-fits-all solution," they conclude (McGinnis/Schanzenbach, Wall Street Journal, 8/11).


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