Tenure is like vaccination: they both work best when nobody opts out.
We’re in the middle of two new legislative attacks on tenure in the United States. Anti-tenure sentiment is hardly new, but it seems bound to pick up steam when I look at the current sociopolitical trends in the United States, which might be summarized as, “Don’t get comfortable.”
We academics will need to be vocal about why tenure is a good thing (here is my own defense of tenure), but I worry a lot that conditions have moved too far for us to mount an effective defense of tenure.
One of the key reactions I saw on social media to the announced bills was that abolishing tenure would cause a “brain drain” in those states, and the institutions in those states would have a hard time recruiting top notch faculty. My mind immediately jumped to this graph:
Any discussion of the academic job market that doesn’t take this graph into account is woefully deficient. Possibly even negligent.
One of the arguments for tenure is that the the increases job security compensates, to some degree, for the decreased salary. It’s generally accepted that academic pays poorly compared to industry and other non-academic positions. In theory, tenure is such an integral part of being an academic that people should not be willing to accept jobs that do not provide tenure.
The extraordinary surplus of doctoral students rather puts a wrench in that assumption. There are so many doctoral recipients that it is an employer’s market. Sure, you may lose those legendary (mythical?) “best” people, but there are plenty of people with Ph.D.s who are more than good enough: they’re still highly trained, highly skilled, and completely capable of running productive research programs.
And we know that there are many people with doctorates who are desperate enough to take positions that do not offer tenure: many of them are called “adjuncts.”
We are in a crappy situation all around. Tenure has a perception problem, because people see it as a “job for life” and a blanket protection for incompetence (it isn’t). The adjunctification of so many universities demonstrates that there are enough people willing to take jobs without tenure that both legislators and university administrators feel emboldened to reduce or eliminate tenured positions. I am deeply worried that the concept of tenure in the United States may not be able to survive these assaults.
What we are left with is the principle of the thing: tenure is supposed to allow us to do amazing long-term research, and speak truth to power. Fellow academics, if you have tenure, I urge you to use it, actively and frequently.
Should public universities have tenure systems? (Quora)
The missing piece to changing the university culture