Phi Beta Cons

The Right take on higher education.

Re: Tenure


In the Winter 1997-1998 issue, Academic Questions featured a brilliant and forcefully argued article called “It’s Not the Tenure, It’s the Radicalism,” by Paul Cantor. The piece (available through subscription and through many libraries) made the case against the elimination of tenure. Cantor, himself a scholar in the traditional vein, is sympathetic with efforts to reform the left-wing academy, but he believes that “under current circumstances by far the most likely outcome of abolishing tenure would be to increase the radicalism of the academic community in the United States.”


Cantor cautions against contrasting the current system with an alternative system that exists only in theory. Whatever alternative is advanced will likely be administered by the very radicals whose power conservatives wish to diminish. He points out that free-market solutions cannot work in the academy, because the academy is not a free market. Those in higher education take no real risks and have no bottom line to force them to perform. When measures are introduced to evaluate academic performance, they are somewhat meaningless (such as publishing rankings of colleges or citing rentention and graduation rates, none of which provide true indices to whether learning is really taking place), or they even degrade the academic environment further, as with the ubiquitous and all-important course evaluations.  


Putting hiring and firing decisions in the hands of administrators, Cantor argues, would be even worse, because they are so lacking in true discernment of academic matters, that they make the average professor look “positively Solomonic in comparison.” And they too are thoroughly steeped in contemporary cant. 


Eliminating tenure would tilt the university more toward radical orthodoxy. Those who buck the trends will not fare well, and will be even more marginal without tenure to protect them. Things will go further in terms of diluting scholarship to mean such things as service, and there will be even less consideration of scholarly issues. 


Cantor concludes by citing a case at the University of Arizona, which advertised itself as a public institution operating without tenure. The campus’s executive dismissed one of its five founders after one year based on her teaching and her ability to work with others. Cantor says thankfully that he has not been judged on his ability to work with others since the third grade, and comments that “here we see that in the absence of a tenure system and traditional criteria for evaluating faculty, the touchy-feely educrat is free to implement the new tyranny of niceness.”


Cantor concludes that “the institution of tenure can often provide the only bulwark against such dangerous developments as the complete politicization of the academy, which in current circumstances would likely mean its complete radicalization.”


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