Are Colleges Ready to Eliminate Tenure?

by Jason Fertig

In my essay over at the NAS site, Abolish Tenure — But Then What?, I urge those who advocate eliminating faculty tenure in favor of merit-based reappointment to consider this point — is higher education truly ready for such a revolution? In assessing the three-legged stool of faculty performance appraisal — teaching, research, and service — we must ask if schools effectively evaluate professors to the point that they can consistently distinguish the best from the worst on an annual basis with careers at stake.

In Applied Economics, Thomas Sowell uses the phrase “stage-one thinking” to describe the process of only thinking about immediate consequences (versus long-term outcomes). In higher education, one of the most egregious depictions of stage-one thinking occurs in the debate of the merits of tenure. It’s easy to make the case that tenure leads faculty to become R.O.A.D. (Retired on Active Duty) Warriors. So get rid of it — but what happens next? This position seems to imply that colleges can do a valid and reliable job of assessing faculty performance on an ongoing basis — is that really true?

There is good reason to justify debating the merits of tenure; thus I implore the anti-tenure crowd to think beyond stage one. In order to justify eliminating tenure, that side has to articulate an effective evaluation method, not just generally mention “performance-based evaluation” or “merit.”

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