If you want to stir up some disagreement when talking about higher education, just start talking about tenure, which essentially provides professors permanent employment. The subject has long been a source of controversy.
Just weeks into 2017, two states have already introduced bills to eliminate tenure from public colleges and universities. Missouri’s proposed law would bar tenure for new professors hired starting next year. Iowa’s bill would eliminate tenure for all of its professors.
To advocates of tenure, its necessity is clear.
“The primary argument for tenure is that it protects academic freedom,” said Hans-Joerg Tiede, who focuses on tenure and academic freedom for the American Association of University Professors.
“Faculty members still are under attack for their speech, for what they say in the classroom, for what they publish and what they say in the public arena," Tiede said.
There may also be a market argument for keeping tenure, said Richard Chait, a professor emeritus of Harvard’s School of Education.
“It would create an enormous competitive disadvantage in the recruitment of faculty," Chait said.
Chait said he finds many problems with the way tenure is handled, including the difficulty schools can have eliminating unpopular or outdated programs taught by tenured staff.
"I have a rather notorious history as a critic of tenure, but I don’t think the solution is to abandon the idea," Chait said.
He said it would be a mistake to eliminate tenure entirely.
"I don’t think the university is suddenly better, and in fact, over time I think it runs the risk that it could be materially worse,” he added.
Chait said the push by some states to end tenure isn't surprising, considering the current political climate.
“There’s a certain circadian rhythm to these initiatives," he said. "They seem to arise about every 10 or 15 years, usually in the aftermath of some political tumult.”
Richard Vedder, an emeritus economics professor at Ohio University, has also criticized tenure. He said he sees value in offering teachers higher pay instead. Still, Vedder said he disagrees with states having a say in how colleges and universities manage tenure, preferring to let schools decide.
And, he said, fewer faculty are receiving tenure anyway.
“Tenure is declining in its dominance in higher education as an increasing percentage of faculty are hired either as adjuncts or part-time faculty, or are hired on a non-tenured basis,” Vedder said.
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