Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Science Article on Tenure and University

The latest issue of Science has this interesting article on tenure and the future of the University. This piece is also timely given the economic downturn and the pressures being put on University administrators to look for ways to cut operating costs. Here is a sample:

The fundamental rationale for the tenure system has been to promote the long-term development of new ideas and to challenge students' thinking. Proponents argued more than 60 years ago that tenure is needed to provide faculty the freedom to pursue long-term risky research agendas and to challenge conventional wisdom (1). Those arguments are still being made today (2) and are still valid. However, a 30-year trend toward privatization is creating a pseudo–market environment within public universities that marginalizes the tenure system. A pseudo–market environment is one in which no actual market is possible, but market-like mechanisms (such as benchmarking and rankings based on research dollars, student evaluations, or similar attributes) are used to approximate a market.

... Scientific paradigms shift, and student thinking is stimulated, when dissidents take unpopular positions—unpopular not just with the public, but also with administrators and faculty colleagues. People are much more likely to buck the tide if they know their jobs are secure. Cutting costs by cutting tenure means that a smaller proportion of faculty have the structural conditions needed to challenge conventional thinking.

...But I, and other faculty I have discussed this with, believe that a university is not supposed to be a business; viewing it as one shows not hard-headed realism but a failure to understand what gives the university its strength and potential. Tenure-system faculty are a problem to administrators and trustees precisely because tenure-system faculty have an alternative vision of the university and the power to act on that vision.

... The decision about tenure is also a decision about two visions of a university. A university can be seen as a business with a "product" whose offerings should be driven by student "demand," a business that should rely on contingent faculty combined with highly paid administrators committed to "the bottom line." Alternatively, it can be seen as a center of knowledge where students are educated (not just trained), that should be governed in significant part by tenure-system faculty with a long-term commitment to the institution and to knowledge.