Scapegoating tenure, or, What the media did and didn't learn in Econ 101

There is little doubt that the academic tenure system is under considerable pressure these days. Recent tenure conflicts at Northwestern University, Bennington College, and the University of Minnesota have attracted a great deal of media attention, and bills to weaken tenure have passed in Texas and Virginia and are pending in a number of other state legislatures. In general, the media have been eager to report from the fronts of particularly nasty tenure battles but have been much less consistent in examining the assumptions that underlie the challenges to tenure. Moreover, the media's predilection for controversy (good news, after all, is typically no news) often obscures the important gap between the rising tide of academy-bashing and what, in comparison, could be called the "informed" debate about tenure taking place among educators. One of the only points of complete agreement among the bashers, reformers, and defenders of tenure is that the media have done a poor job of educating the public. Columbia astronomy professor David Helfand, a critic of tenure, expresses the almost unanimous view of academic observers in noting that "the view of academic culture run amok is exaggerated," and that the media coverage of tenure debates is "shallow."

If any generalizations hold about the mainstream media coverage of tenure, it is the assumption that job security is an anachronism -- desirable, some argue, but doomed, almost all agree, in an era when downsizing has come to be an article of economic faith. This economic rationale against tenure was given a lengthy airing in a January 4 New York Times article, "The Ivory Tower Under Siege," which while officially non-committal about whether universities should behave more like corporations comes down on the side that, one way or another, they will have to. Likewise, the Chicago Tribune echoed tenure's business-minded critics in suggesting that "the debate forces academe to chose between one of its most hallowed traditions and contemporary bottom-line realities" (Nov. 23, 1997).

According to Dr. Cathy Trower, a researcher on faculty appointments at Harvard's School of Education, the perception that universities ignore "bottom-line realities" is a sign of their failure to justify their costs to the public: "Many people feel that tuition increases are out of control, and they wonder what the money is used for. They don't necessarily see it reflected in increased quality. And academe has done little to respond to these concerns."

This public perception, not surprisingly, translates directly into media representations of tenure, which tend to assume that job security and high costs go together. Matthew Finkin, author of The Case for Tenure (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1996), argues, however, that the relevant cost factor is not tenure but age: "All professional employees rise through a salary s cale with age. Older workers cost more. Not tenured workers." In reality, he suggests: "Faculty would have to be paid more if we abolished tenure. You would have to compensate them for job insecurity."

That has indeed been the case at Missouri's Webster University, where the administration offers the faculty a choice between traditional tenure appointments and term contracts at equal pay with more frequent sabbaticals. What the university gains is more flexibility in firing faculty, but this comes at the price of reduced teaching loads. Articles on the Webster experience, however, such as an April 24, 1997, piece in the Christian Science Monitor, flatly ignored this trade-off by insisting that term contracts are an unambiguous way to "rein in costs."

Most universities, in any event, have responded to cost pressures not by switching to term contracts, but by hiring large numbers of part-time and adjunct faculty, with salaries typically in the range of $2,000 a course. These faculty now represent more than 40 percent of all college instructors. When the question of educational quality is considered in these terms, tenure tends to fare better in the mainstream press. Brent Staples's June 29 New York Times editorial is a case in point. While endorsing the notion that tenure has grown too costly, Staples criticized the "lack of stability" inherent in an adjunct faculty and hoped that universities will arrive at a "midpoint" between the two employment models.

Finkin suggestively links the cost-cutting crusade against tenure to changes in the prevailing attitude toward education: "Education has come to be thought of as a consumer good. The question is, are faculty members an integral part of the university or are they just assets in a system that delivers a product to the students as consumers? The older and better view is that education isn't a consumer good, it's a public good, it benefits us all." This point is consistently absent from press articles and editorials on the topic, though the language of goods and services informs many of them.

At Columbia, in any case, the tenure situation is less hotly contested. In the mid-1980s, Helfand waged a successful (and extensively reported) fight to give up his tenure in favor of renewable term contracts. Overall, the state of tenure debates at the university remains mostly, according to law professor Eben Moglen, chair of the Faculty Affairs Committee, a question of fine-tuning the balance of power between the faculty and the administration. Discounting the "weak understanding of academic work and the economics of tenure" that underlies much of the debate and coverage of the subject, Moglen notes that elite universities such as Columbia have been well served by the tenure system and are unlikely to respond greatly to pressures to rock the boat. Stephen Rittenberg, vice provost for academic administration, states Columbia's investment in tenure unambivalently: "Our tenured faculty are perhaps the single most important factor determining the quality and reputation of our institution." -- Joseph Karaganis

Related links...

  • Robert Finn, "Academic Job Security Threatened As Anti-Tenure Wave Sweeps U.S.", The Scientist, Nov. 11, 1996

  • C. Peter Magrath, "Eliminating Tenure Without Destroying Academic Freedom," Chronicle of Higher Education, Feb. 28, 1997 [requires registration]

  • Chronicle Colloquy on tenure [requires registration]

  • James E. Perley, "Tenure Remains Vital to Academic Freedom," Chronicle, April 4, 1997 [reprinted on American Association of University Professors site; no registration required]

    JOSEPH KARAGANIS, Ph.D., is a free-lance writer and managing editor of the journal Sociological Theory.