Who will lead the academic revolution?

Mark Taylor advocates the end of tenure. He makes this radical suggestion for a few reasons. He argues that tenure enables older and less productive professors to hang on to their jobs well past their prime, which gums up the works for younger and potentially more productive scholars. Though tenure is supposed to guarantee academic freedom, he suggests, almost no one acts more free once they obtain tenure. Indeed, he argues, tenure is essential only for guaranteeing financial stability, not for guaranteeing academic freedom — organizations such as the American Association of University Professors, despite their rhetoric suggesting that tenure is necessary for academic freedom, actually demand academic freedom for those who lack tenure, as well as for tenured professors.

So, abolishing tenure will allow younger and more productive scholars to replace those older and more complacent. Replacing tenure with 7-year contracts that include incentives for performance (merit raises) and disincentives for a lack of performance (demerit pay-cuts) will serve to push those who excel to continue to do so and to weed out those who continue to lag behind. End tenure, and we end complacency.

But who will lead? Taylor does not suggest that we take tenure away from those who already have it, though he himself has given it up (he has no tenure, despite chairing the religion department at Columbia). But though Taylor walks the walk, in addition to talking the talk, he alone will not effect the revolution. Nor do we see the ranks of tenured professors lining up even to retire, much less to give up their tenure as they continue to work.

Perhaps a young scholar not on the tenure track could blaze a trail? But as long as one’s peers continue to have tenure-track jobs, they will always have more respect within the academy than those without. Those on the tenure track are nurtured, protected, urged to be independent, to develop their own research agenda. Those not on the tenure track are often either assigned overwhelming teaching loads or are glorified research assistants for — you guessed it — folks with tenure. Indeed, one might question whether those not on the tenure track (who may, after all, be classified as staff, rather than as faculty) ought even to be considered peers of those faculty members on the tenure track.

So, again, who will lead this revolution? Not those with tenure, since they lack the incentive; and not those without tenure, since they lack the power. A university? A group of universities? Will they be able to attract the best and brightest in a market where the majority of schools still grant tenure? There’s a certainly a glut of talent out there — but it’s a surfeit of PhDs all trained to expect a tenure-track job. This sort of training is not necessarily the best when one’s actual position requires a more radical, more entrepreneurial mindset.

It’s certainly a risky proposition for any university to stick its neck out by denying tenure to everyone. So, again, I ask — who will lead the academic revolution? And why will they choose to lead it?


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