Does Academic Tenure Stifle Learning?

Is academic tenure an outdated haven for non-performing professors stuck in narrow, irrelevant silos, crying out for the clear air of market discipline?

Or does the onslaught of “pay for performance” in academia just encourage “teach to test” and degrade intellectual curiosity?

Not much of a choice, is it? And have you stopped beating your wife?

Before diving in, take a look at this (astonishing to me) statistic:

“The most recent data indicate that 68%–more than two-thirds—of the professoriate [in the US] were contingent, that is, ineligible for tenure, and an additional 10%, although tenure-eligible, had not yet achieved it. Only 22% were both full-time and tenured.”

In 1998, according to the AAUP, just ten years ago, that 68% number was only 58%. In 1969, only 3.3% of full-time faculty were on a non-tenure track. By 1998, that proportion had grown to 28.1 percent. This is what a trend looks like.

Moving right along, in yesterday’s Financial Times, Peter Lorange, former President of IMD Business School, beats this dead horse in an article called “No place for tenure in today’s business school.” I knew Lorange slightly many years ago when he was at Wharton and I was at the MAC Group. He is smart, decent, and principled; but, on this issue, I find us at odds.

Lorange indicts tenure for two sins. The first is that it discourages cross-disciplinary teams, when collaboration is the new business imperative.

“the peer process of evaluating candidates…is typically subjective and highly political…reviewers make judgmental assessments based on their familiarity with a narrow disciplinary area. In the end, the process leads to a binary outcome—yes or no…leading to fragmentation and polarization…in contrast to the team approach which is vital to attacking today’s problems.”

In short, tenure mitigates against team behavior. Fair enough.

The second sin, he suggests, is that tenure hinders performance.

Lorange’s prescription—which he himself followed at IMD—is rigorous annual review. “Every professor was assessed, and every professor—both senior and junior—had to justify a place within the institution on an annual basis.”

Would this discourage professors? Lorange makes his bias clear:

“There will be some professors who will have to leave because of less-than-satisfactory performance, but this puts positive pressure on those remaining to do a good job. Tenure should not be a shelter.”

In other words, the market will flunk those who deserve it. And those who get flunked deserved it.

Lorange is absolutely right that business schools need to teach teamwork, and get rid of silos. But he’s far from convincing me that tenure needs abolishment rather than reformation to accomplish this.

But his second argument is more insidious. For a few decades now business has preached the gospel of short-term metrics and fragmented processes. “Break it down, measure it, evaluate it, incent it” is the mantra. Lorange see the danger of non-integration in departmental silos–but fails to see the same issue in governance.

If we contract professors one-year-at-a-time, with continued employment contingent on the most recent year’s performance, then we suborn short-term politicking, brown-nosing, teaching-to-test, and self-promoting schemes for “customer” satisfaction (“customers” here meaning students and administration). Integration and holistic views take a back seat to self-preservation. Which is exactly the kind of non-integrated, selfish, siloed behavior that Lorange decries regarding disciplines.

We use this model elsewhere—elementary school teachers and Congressmen come to mind (the latter every two years). That may be OK for teaching second-graders arithmetic, but PS 32 is not the college campus. As for the perpetual campaigning of congressmen—well, congressmen rank below car salesmen and lawyers on trust surveys. ‘Nuff said.

The dominant business ideology of “measure and motivate” occasionally produces perverse results. A salesperson expects to be judged well within a one-year timeframe; applying that timeframe to a CEO or a fund manager is just silly. Ditto, I suggest, university faculty.

As to motivation, the annual threat of unemployment is like hammering a nail with a sledgehammer. It works so well it smashes the nail.

The great thing about tenure is it permits a team-based, integrated view of things because it lasts more than a year. There’s a limit to how short you can make a meaningful relationship and still call it a relationship. It’s ironic that “modern” business insists on applying a single ancient pagan harvest-based unit of time to all things temporal. Why not change tenure to 6.43 years?

This is one case where the “cure” does more harm than the disease.

Sadly, in a system where two-thirds of faculty are already outsourced on an annual pay-for-performance model and heavily part-time, Lorange is beating a dead horse. Stop, Peter, you’ve already got the sale.

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