Our Universities: Tenure and the Marketplace

Stanley Fish, writing in the New York Times Opinionator online July 11, 2011, comments extensively on the relationship of tenure, academic freedom, and current university life in response to a book by Naomi Schaefer Riley entitled, “The Faculty Lounges: And Other Reasons Why You Won’t Get The College Education You Paid For.”  Both commentary and book carry arcane and dated views of tenure.  But here is a tenure fact for one of the largest state university systems in the nation:

The vast majority of faculty members appointed to the tenure track in recent years have experienced success, as evidenced by a rate of denial of tenure and non-reappointment of slightly more than 1%.

The California State University, Office of the Chancellor, November 2009


I worked with Christopher Alexander while at Berkeley, a man with a keen mind and a powerful view of architecture in the twentieth century.  He took the position that architects themselves were the cause of the failure of “modern” architecture because they failed to respond to the needs of people.  He argued that we would be better off with more user and citizen input into the designs of buildings and public places, because the public relied on experience and common sense – substance over style.

Architects lacked the humility and insight to accept knowledge they saw as mundane.

Alexander, in addition to helping pioneer the computer as a design thinking/doing tool, led a revolution of sorts in thinking about the architectural profession.

His ideas antagonized people. He challenged the status quo.  He suggested that the profession was the problem, not the cure.  In The Timeless Way of Building, A Pattern Language, as well as in a lasting body of additional work, Alexander laid out a different vision for the profession.

He built his arguments, not at a faculty meeting, but in a studio; not in a union hall, but in a laboratory; not in a courtroom, but in his office; not on politics, but intellect.

The university exists in a powerful international marketplace that values original ideas, not ideological diatribes masquerading as insight.

While Alexander fought his battles with the leadership of the university, he was constantly bombarded with inquiries from universities around the world.  Would he like to teach here?  Would he be the dean there?  Would he accept an endowed chair? His job security didn’t come from his tenured position.  It came from the power and quality of his ideas.

I soon formulated this paradoxical axiom regarding tenure:  The people who have ideas worthy of tenure don’t need tenure, and the people who need tenure for job security don’t deserve it. The power of the marketplace outweighs the shortsightedness of people panicked by original thinking.  Faculty members only fear new ideas when they worry about the defensibility of their own.  This phenomenon has only become more common as universities have increasingly become political organizations rather than intellectual ones.

Christopher Alexander is the only person I ever met who might have been fired for his ideas had he not been tenured.  I emphasize might because the university very likely would have gotten hold of its fear with both hands and said, “Wait a minute, this may be shortsighted.”  Their folly would have been immediately rectified by the clear-headedness of the marketplace.  Alexander had ideas that both stirred and scared people.  Under that scenario, the university must ask, “If not here, where?”  And for these few people the marketplace makes redundant the purpose of tenure.

I have met two people with tenure who would have been fired had they not had tenure because of the depth and power of their ideas.

For a thankfully few others, the risk of firing did not come from ideas, but rather because  faculty members did not do a good job: They were not good teachers, and did little to integrate whatever scholarly perspective they had into the public square of the program and students they served.  Tenure protected them from these various forms of incompetence, and that is not supposed to be its purpose.

Our universities need to allow faculty members the freedom not to worry too much about the adverse effect of new ideas. However, there must be consequences when instructors do not perform their jobs adequately if few are to provide an education of substance to each student.

Tenure should not protect incompetent professors.  It should protect promising, innovative ideas while their foundations are being strengthened enough for them to stand on their own if they can.

Galileo might have fleetingly thought he needed tenure, if he knew what it was, for championing a heliocentric universe.  He didn’t . . . because the marketplace prevailed.


4 thoughts on “Our Universities: Tenure and the Marketplace

  1. I will be leaving SIU after 28 years. My position at SIU was never tenured, even though I taught graduate level courses, served on graduate student committees, published in peer-reviewed journals and (along with other faculty) obtained external grants to fund well over a million dollars of equipment upgrades.

    My students were often shocked to learn that I, a full professor, was not tenured. My response has been: “I don’t need tenure, I have marketable skills.” The response, though it may have sounded boastful, was meant to stimulate the students into acquiring a good skill-set. Most often, it worked.

  2. Galileo was forced to recant and lived the rest of his days under house arrest. And, what would have happened to you had you not been hired with tenure? Do you think Glenn would have given you the position you have now out of niceness?

  3. MS – Perhaps Dr. Poshard would have, but even if he hadn’t I trust that Dr. Wendler would have had no difficulty securing another position.

    I agree with Walter’s sentiments here. The post-tenure pause has become a way of life for far too many. I don’t feel the need for tenure nor a union contract. If this university doesn’t want me, I can find work elsewhere.

    Contemporary America is not the world of Galileo nor the Joads, especially for those as highly educated as we are. Perhaps I’d have to take a job that is less desirable and fulfilling than my current one, but my skill set would be welcomed outside the academy as well as within.

  4. I just completed my first year as a professor after 4 years teaching as a PhD student. I would add to Dr. Wendler’s excellent commentary one other positive aspect of academic tenure, one I find ironic at the least. While tenure (as well as labor unions) surely protects the lazy, I have a sense that academic tenure makes true excellence in teaching possible in the age of grade inflation, a growing sense of student entitlement in addition to increased reliance placed on student evaluations to judge faculty performance. Only as I began my professional private sector career prior to my PhD program did I realize how certain SIUC professors I almost hated & often rated poorly in fact had done the most to truly educate me, develop essential skills I needed but did not value & build the character & emotional maturity required for ‘real world’ competence. To various degrees each demanded hard work & commitment of my time & focus. I don’t think any of these best of the best professors at SIUC considered my self worth or emotional well-being particularly relevant to the courses they taught. Perhaps having tenure enabled each of these few men & women to forgoe the consequences of the moral hazard a new 21st Century academic often faces given the research documenting the correlation between high grades & good student evaluations.

    Off I went to my first salaried position last year, overly idealistic & equally determined to have my own uniquely positive impact on my students, hoping to give them not necessarily what they wanted, but what I knew they needed to make a valuable contribution in their major field in ways I’d already begun to develop in the somewhat protected world of a graduate assistant & TA.

    Imagine my surprise & disappointment to be told by my mentors at this new school in one way or another about the importance of making my courses easier in my years leading up to tenure so the students would like me & evaluate me well. I guess the degree seems more important than the education at times. May God bless those professors some retired, some now passed away who inspired me to hope to follow their example!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.