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!