Published by The Chronicle of Higher Education
The trustee hadn’t said a word for an hour as the board of the small Midwestern liberal-arts college debated ways to turn around its flagging fortunes. But during a lull in the conversation, he finally spoke up. As David Strauss recalls, "He looked at everybody as if we’d all been fools, and said, ‘Well, the solution is easy. Get rid of tenure.’"
Strauss, a principal of the Art & Science Group, a consulting firm that works with colleges, had heard the argument before. Almost anyone who works in higher education has. Many outside academe — and some within — see tenure as an entitlement that encourages "deadwood" professors to coast and shields firebrands who spout off, an anachronism that hinders colleges from innovating and drives up costs.
Strauss says that the trustee’s suggestion was politely ignored and talk soon turned back to more pressing issues, such as enrollment and academic programs. Though tenure is increasingly scarce, its status as an ideal in higher education is so sacred that sentiments like the trustee’s are rarely expressed openly. Indeed, several academic leaders, lawmakers, and advocates for adjuncts and academic freedom didn’t respond to requests for interviews for this article. But the trustee’s argument against tenure isn’t going away, and may be gaining momentum.
There’s little evidence that students care whether or not professors have tenure, but it matters "to the extent to which the faculty, their research and scholarship, contribute to the overall reputation of the institution," says Richard A. Hesel, a principal of the Art & Science Group. Students do care a great deal about reputation, he adds.
Even more than a college’s outward reputation, students care about their own experiences. Most institutions are aware that they need to make the education they provide "a more unified, aligned, harmonious overall experience over four years," says Brand, the president of Cornell College. He worries that without a core of long-term faculty members who are deeply invested in the institution and its success, "those experiences would become splotchy, with lots of one-off experiences, rather than helping our students pull it all together."
Strauss, of the Art & Science Group, says that successful colleges must find a middle path between serving the market and tacking with the political winds, and upholding the core values of their missions with blinders on. "If you lean too heavily on either of those sides, you’re going to lose," he says. "Simply doing away with tenure — now we can manage them better, so to speak — you can also lose your soul with it, and the market will sense that you lost your soul."