Sunday, April 19, 2009

Tenure trouble?

In today's WAPO, Francis Fukuyama writes the following pithy op-ed:

"I'm a tenured professor. But I'd get rid of tenure.

Tenure was created to protect academic freedom after a series of 19th-century cases when university donors or legislators tried to remove professors whose views they disliked. One famous instance in the late 1800s involved progressive movement leader Richard Ely, whose critics accused him of socialism and tried to remove him as an economics professor at the University of Wisconsin.

The rationale for tenure is still valid. But the system has turned the academy into one of the most conservative and costly institutions in the country. Yes, conservative: Economists joke that their discipline advances one funeral at a time, but many fields must wait for wholesale generational turnover before new approaches take hold.

The system also hamstrings younger untenured professors, making them fearful of taking intellectual risks and causing them to write in jargon aimed only at those in their narrow subdiscipline: Thus in economics, people have "utility functions" instead of needs and wants.

These problems are made worse by a federal employment law that bars universities from instituting mandatory retirement. Deans and provosts can't remove elderly professors who take up slots that could fund two or three younger colleagues. Two developments are about to exacerbate this problem: a decline in university enrollments as the baby echo generation passes through college, reducing overall demand for professors; and the financial crisis, which has decimated professors' retirement savings, giving them incentive to hold on to their sinecures even longer.

Things don't have to be this way. Academic freedom can thrive in think tanks and research institutes. U.S.-style tenure doesn't exist in Britain or Australia. Japan grants tenure but forces professors to retire at a relatively early age (60 at Tokyo University).

The freedom guaranteed by tenure is precious. But it's time to abolish this institution before it becomes too costly, both financially and intellectually. "

Before we begin, it behooves us to remember that Mr. Fukuyama also wrote the following:

"What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such... That is, the end point of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government."

After that lovely cheap shot, let's go back to his current essay.

Starting with the simply weird, consider the notion that: "The system also hamstrings younger untenured professors, making them fearful of taking intellectual risks and causing them to write in jargon aimed only at those in their narrow subdiscipline: Thus in economics, people have "utility functions" instead of needs and wants. "

Does Francis really think that only people in a narrow subdiscipline can understand the concept of a utility function? Does he think that utility functions are something other than a way to put needs and wants into an equation for modeling purposes? Does he really think that only untenured economics professors use this "jargon".

Now going to the deeply flawed, consider the idea that: "Academic freedom can thrive in think tanks and research institutes."

Wow. People, do you think there is academic freedom at the Cato Institute? The Economic Policy Institute? That is a VERY disingenuous sentence!

One part of the essay I do agree with is the idea that tenure plus no mandatory retirement can cause some problems, but not because " Deans and provosts can't remove elderly professors who take up slots that could fund two or three younger colleagues." To me the real problem with the combination is that elderly professors will have an extremely difficult time relating to students, doing quality research and making appropriate choices about who to tenure among a department's untenured faculty. Of course there are exceptions, and I do not know how real this problem is (does anyone know how many working professors in the US are over 70?), but it is a problem for academia, just like it is for the US Supreme Court.

So, I'm a tenured professor, and I'd keep tenure, but I promise to quit before I'm 70!


Anonymous said...

Tommy the Englishman has observed that the consequence of getting rid of tenure in Britain has been to give British academics something that looks a lot like tenure but is not called tenure.

We still have 65 year old mandatory retirement, but the truly good 20% or so faculty get hired back part time after hitting 65. You can do this, because we have a pension scheme that's second to none--1/80 of your final salary indexed for inflation for every year worked.

Dr. Richard Scott Nokes said...

Now that I've got tenure, I'll spit in my own cornpone by saying I'd like to see the tenure system abolished as well. Tenure is essentially anti-competitive, keeping the academic job market permanently depressed, prevents mobility among productive scholars, and keeps salaries low (as an effect of the above causes).

Though he is right that the effect makes untenured professors fearful of taking risks, more importantly it also makes universities fearful of hiring people full-time, lest they get stuck with an expensive lemon for decade after decade ... leading to an over-reliance on adjunct faculty.

In an unrelated note, my word verification is "hydrosyn," which I will define as "any evil act performed using water."

Anonymous said...

Francis Fukuyama = wrong about everything. If Fukuyama supports it, it must be wrong. This guy is an anti-elightenment social traditionalist statist. ...A complete goober, and a supporter of every idea that results in suffering and pointless hardship. He has criticized libertarianism and futurism, enlightened self-interest and materialism, capitalism and the pursuit of unbounded life. He is an opponent of Ray Kurzweil's ideas, and an opponent of the blokes who usually cover futurism for Reason magazine. He generally and roundly criticizes libertarianism. Basically, he's just completely wrong about everything, in so many ways at once that it would fill (and has filled) giant volumes to fully destroy his arguments. In short, Fukuyama is a proponent of everything that is backwards, and an enemy of decentralism and human freedom. I can't believe anyone takes anything he says seriously.

I'm glad some people spend time debunking him, but honestly, they could be better spending their time arguing elsewhere in favor of freedom. ...Or better yet, actively pursuing it. It's almost worse giving someone like Fukuyama the controversy they crave. He is literally below Eric Dondero on the intellectual argument scale. Seriously.

On the plus side, it would be easy to write a book titled "Fukuyama: Wrong About Everything". Simply cut and paste arguments of his and respond to them with an equal length rationally-self-interested argument.

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prison rodeo said...

But he's right! Get rid of tenure, and everything becomes clear again, like it was in the 1600s. Physicists would no longer talk about "quarks," but instead about what they *really* study: "little tiny things." Linguists would focus not on phonology, but "what stuff sounds like." Chemists? Not compounds, isotopes, and the like, but "little tiny things (that are bigger than the things the physicists study)." Imagine how much easier life will be for all those younger professors... Why, they won't even need Ph.D.s any more, just a basic command of the English language and ready access to Wikipedia.

Also unassailable: the logic to "The freedom guaranteed by X is precious, so let's all abolish X!" Anyone else here of a more libertarian bent than I care to take a crack at that one?

Shawn said...

so, is this an example of "i favor free trade in everything but my own industry" on angus' part, or is eliminating tenure a restriction on contract, rather than a restriction on freedom?

Shawn said...

btw, I know nothing about fukuyama, nor am I questioning angus' criticisms, I'm just discussing the elimination of tenure as a possibly valid idea.

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