It’s not money that’s the root of all evil; it’s tenure. A bit of an exaggeration, perhaps, but in her latest book, The Faculty Lounges (Ivan R. Dee), Naomi Schaefer Riley argues that eliminating tenure presents the most promising first step for the reform of our colleges and universities. It’s the “game changer for American higher education.”
What is the real significance of tenure? We are often told that free-thinking academics need the security of tenure to preserve academic freedom and open debate. Really? Riley makes the entirely accurate observation that precious few professors write or teach anything remotely controversial. It’s hard to image how an exercise-science professor can get sideways with college trustees.
Far from securing a free and open academic culture, tenure can have the opposite effect. Riley does an especially good job showing how tenure constricts rather than expands the intellectual diversity of most college campuses. Colleges and universities want to give jobs and tenure only to qualified applicants—and qualified applicants are those who think the same way as the already tenured professors on the tenure review committees.
So, no, tenure does not encourage a fluid, energetic, and open-ended culture of intellectual give-and-take. Rather, tenure encourages conformity, homogeneity, and stolid continuity. Graduate students write dissertations designed to be appealing to hiring committees—of tenured professors. Then as young faculty they conduct research and write scholarly articles designed to appeal to the tenured professors who allocate grants and make decisions about tenure.
By Riley’s way of thinking, this tendency toward intellectual homogeneity is sufficient to condemn tenure. In her Afterword she commends the Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering in Massachusetts. Recently founded, this innovative institution has tossed aside a number of academic conventions, including tenure for its faculty. Richard Miller, the president of Olin, comments to Riley that “peer review”—which is the central mechanism for tenure review—“makes faculty members worry about what everyone else thinks. It makes you propose only things that succeed. It makes you conservative.”
True enough, and a powerful argument against the widespread conceit that tenure protects academic freedom and creates an academic culture more hospitable to new and challenging ideas.
That certainly was not my experience in academia. For every professor who uses the security of tenure to make a bold, and controversial claim, there are thousands who carefully conform so as to get tenure in the first place. Moreover, as Riley details, tenure discourages responsiveness to students, parents, and trustees. It conduces to laziness and has led in recent decades to a haughty, exploitive attitude toward part time and adjunct faculty.
All very true, and as I said something I’ve seen again and again. Yet, in addition to the bad consequences, I’ve seen some good in the insular, immobile, and self-complimenting mentality of tenured professors, as well as the unresponsive and conservative (in the institutional, not political sense) culture over which they superintend.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge responded to the growing influence of democratic politics and in early decades of the industrial revolution by penning an idiosyncratic work of political theory, On the Constitution of Church and State. By his way of thinking, the fluid and innovative forces at work in modernity play an indispensable role. As healthy society needs party of progression, as he put it, institutions that lead the way in innovation and creative enterprise. Something akin to the Olin College of Engineering—or the creative destruction of free market economics and high stakes game of electoral politics—is good for a society, keeping us responsive and on our toes.
Bu there is also a need for what Colerdige called a party of permanency, which means institutions and forms of life that remain insulated from the fluid dynamism of modern society. We need constancy as well as progress, a perhaps stolid and inefficient durability as well as creative destruction and urgent innovation.
Coleridge saw that the old party of permanency, the European institution of landed aristocracy and its old-fashioned feudal sentiments no longer had purchase on the modern imagination and in its place he proposed what he dubbed a clerisy. This class included not only the clergymen who are immersed in the old-fashioned patronage system of the established church, but also the donnish and bookish men whose place in society is not determined by success in business or popular politics. This clerisy, he imagined, would play a conservative role, providing cultural ballast to the increasingly mobile and fluid realities of modern life.
Many of Naomi Schaefer Riley’s arguments against tenure focus on its insulating properties. Designed, perhaps, to protect faculty from intellectual control, tenure has largely protected faculty from any sort of control. Deans and provosts and college presidents come and go, but tenured faculty endure, often unmoved. Students complain about inattentive teachers—but little comes of it. Reformers point out that liberal arts education has disintegrated into long menus of disparate course offerings designed to dovetail with faculty research interests, but to no avail. Coddled by tenure, faculty can continue on as they wish.
Ever insulating against change, tenure supports a clerisy. This clerisy brings with it all the attendant problems associated with the patronage systems that inevitably characterize the pre-modern institutions (the Catholic Church, for example) that Coleridge thought we ought to cherish, because they contribute to what he called permanency. These problems are legion and much commented upon in ancient and medieval literature: inefficiency, homogeneity, cronyism, mediocrity, and more. We see as much in the contemporary university. It cannot control rising costs, manifests a supine submission to the worst kinds of Leftist ideologies, tolerates indifferent pedagogy, tends toward a stifling homogeneity, and exploits part-time and untenured instructors. Riley documents these ugly truths quite well.
But I’m ambivalent about her solution. Riley is certainly right on the main point: higher education is a mess and we need a “game changer.” And she may be right that we should chuck tenure. If so, then we should take care and make sure that we don’t undermine the possibility of a more responsive and responsible clerisy in our university cultures. Resistance to change, indifference to market forces, serene neglect of popular demand—these can in some circumstances be virtues.
R.R. Reno is Editor of First Things. He is the general editor of the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible and author of the volume on Genesis. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.
Naomi Schaefer Riley, The Faculty Lounges: And Other Reasons Why You Won't Get The College Education You Pay For
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