Some Tea with Your Tenure?


‘The Center for College Affordability and Productivity has recently come out with a study on Texas showing that, at the public universities, 20 percent of the professors are doing 80 percent of the work. And a lot of the professors aren’t doing any of the work,” Naomi Schaefer Riley points out in an interview with National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez.

Where is your college tuition money going? And is your college-age child getting the best education he could be? Riley is author of The Faculty Lounges: And Other Reasons Why You Won’t Get The College Education You Pay For. She talks about the perniciousness of tenure and what’s best for quality higher education, families, and conservative professors. She even includes a top five check-list for high-school students and their parents currently on the college search.


Kathryn Jean Lopez: My smart but naïve daughter is going off to college in the fall. Will I be terrified by your book?

Naomi Schaefer Riley: Terrified, no. But hopefully somewhat more enlightened about higher education. The most important thing to understand, I think, in picking a college, is that professors can do many different things with their time. Some of those will benefit your education, some of them will be irrelevant. You need to find a place where the faculty’s interests and incentives are aligned with your own.

Lopez: You write: “Many schools would have parents and students believe that the value of an education relies entirely upon how much the student makes of the opportunities that universities and colleges provide. This type of rhetoric is sprinkled throughout university brochures, but the idea that we should expect 17-year-olds to figure out how to get a proper education — how to spend their time and money wisely in the vast maze of academe — is worse than ridiculous. It’s a con game made to suit the interests of the tenured faculty who would prefer to write obscure tomes rather than teach broad introductory classes to freshmen.” But isn’t all of life about making the best of opportunities? Surely schools with expensive libraries and equipment and master teachers have some opportunities to offer to paying customers?

Riley: The thing about college students is that, to borrow a phrase, they don’t know what they don’t know. So asking them to craft the foundations of their own education doesn’t seem to me to be fair to them. In one semester you might randomly pick an introduction to animal behavior, a course on women in Victorian literature, and a history of the Ming dynasty. Is it any wonder that students have no idea what they’re doing in college? A liberal education was supposed to be giving students a broad introduction to important subjects. Too much specialization early on makes it all incoherent.

There are all sorts of things that will bring a college prestige (and thereby customers), but a lot of them have nothing to do with education. 

Lopez: Why does tenure matter so much to students?

Riley: Tenure matters for three reasons. First, it encourages professors to spend their time doing research instead of teaching. A 2005 study showed that for each additional hour a professor spends in the classroom, he will get paid less. It also matters because it encourages intellectual uniformity. Studies show that professors simply vote clones of themselves into their department and give them permanent positions. Third, it puts all the control over universities into the hands of faculty. Every battle in higher education now, whether it’s over the curriculum or the money or the politics, is a battle of attrition, and the faculty, thanks to tenure, will always win. They will outlast any president, any governor, any trustee, any regent, any parent, and any student. And they are why reform is not possible.

What can be done about it? 

Riley: Not much for the professors who already have it, alas. There’s a contract in place, and it would be near impossible to get rid of. State legislatures can get rid of it going forward. Utah debated such a bill, though unfortunately it didn’t make it out of committee. At private universities it will have to be more of an issue brought up by parents, students, and trustees. Some private universities are realizing on their own that teaching has been undervalued. Duke, for instance, has hired a number of professors of practice, whose job is to teach, not do research. They are hired on multi-year renewable contracts, with evaluation based on their teaching. I think this is the ideal.