Why Hasn’t Efficient Breach Killed Tenure?
Hi, everyone. Posts on my own scholarship to come, but why not begin with some questions about the institution of scholarship more generally?
Perhaps inspired by the latest shenanigans by the purportedly wild eyed radicals on the Harvard arts and sciences faculty, there’s been some gnashing of teeth about the tenure system. Tenure sure is a unique term in an employment contract. There’s no similar job security for artists, novelists, or journalists. Do academics really deserve better? Do they deserve stronger protections against termination than, say, civil servants (as an administrative law guy, when someone says “job,” I think “federal pay grade”)?
I wonder. But I also wonder why, if tenure begets mediocrity, deans don’t simply fire the tenured professors they don’t like, and present them with big breach of contract damages checks after doing so. Not every institution could afford to do so, of course, but some assuredly could – I’m looking at you, Harvard. And, while we’re engaging in a bloody-minded thought experiment, I also doubt that the regulatory protections against dismissal that tenured professors enjoy – deaccreditation or probation by a university licensing outfit, for example – are really the kind of sanctions that rich, established schools have to worry about, even if they decided to clean house in an unprecedented way. Who would disaccredit the Ivy League?
So the way I see it, the death of tenure is something that schools could make happen – they just haven’t chosen to do so. Maybe it’s an implied endorsement of the tenure system, or maybe it’s a sign of path dependence. As someone who sure would like to get tenure, I hope this unexercised power suggests that the system is a benign one. But I’d welcome explanations of tenure’s survival in light of what seems to me to be a rather delicate position.