Thursday, August 12, 2010

Higher Education? Part IV: Freedom To or Freedom From?

For my brief, positive review, see here.
For Part I, on how much a professor is worth, see here.
For Part II, on the issue of administrative bloat, see here.
For Part III, on college athletics, see here.

Possibly one of the most controversial recommendations that the authors of Higher Education? makes is that tenure is outdated, expensive, and should be abolished, replaced instead with renewable multi-year contracts. Hacker and Dreifus show that tenure does nothing to protect professors when political or other pressure really insists that someone be fired or removed from their position. They seem to resent professors being granted lifetime employment and then hanging around well past their expiry date. And they quite rightly point out that tenure doesn't all of a sudden make a scholar more radical or controversial in their research, writing, or teaching; the road to tenure has been so carefully planned that, seven years in, the newly-minted associate professor isn't likely to change course.

I've written about the issue of academic freedom; I agree that the concept of academic freedom is well-understood, much touted, but unevenly practiced. Even the idea of what is academically acceptable is problematic. We expect the freedom to be able to do the research that we want (as long as it fits into the hiring committees plan for us, the university's over-all goals, the criteria for whatever external grant we want/need, what various rankings rate as being important, and what the tenure committee deems useful/impactful/groundbreaking) and the freedom from being fired for no good reason. Tenure is supposed to protect those freedoms. Today, we are protected for the most part from being fired, but certainly not granted the intellectual freedom tenure is supposed to provide.

At the end of the day, does getting rid of tenure make any of this better or is it just a way of throwing up our hands in defeat? Do we want to function in an institution where we are not intellectually free, as was originally intended? And will getting rid of tenure (and thus eternal, life-long, employment) suddenly open the floodgates to new tenure-track professors? And is it really tenure's fault that professors never retire?

Age discrimination is illegal, and so are mandatory retirement ages. Most people look forward to leaving their jobs for the wonderful world of retirement; other are no longer able to perform their jobs. Many retired professionals keep working part-time or as consultants, either because they enjoy the work or out of necessity. People working past the historical retirement age of 65 is no longer an anomaly. Should it be something to disparage that people actually enjoy their work so much that they don't want to retire? Many older professors at public institutions are vested in the defined benefits pension programs so their salaries don't actually take that much of a hit. Rather than attacking tenure, why not celebrate that being a professor is a job that is so rewarding that people want (and can) keep working well past the age of 65?

The authors cite an example of a college that has effectively managed to entice professors to retire from their positions, without getting rid of tenure. So when this call to abolish? Of all of the cost-cutting methods the authors propose, I am most skeptical of this one. I am cynical about these things, and time after time, I've seen retirements go unfilled by new tenure-track faculty, instead hoarded by deans or provosts for whatever pet project/trend/opportunity they see fit to hire in order to increase the university's prestige. Adjuncts, grad students, and increasingly upper-level undergraduates are instead shouldering the load. Perhaps professors, seeing the writing on the wall, are holding on to their positions in part because of the pressure to produce more graduate students, who can't be off-loaded onto part-time faculty, and in part because they know that once they leave, no one will be brought in to replace them?


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