Saturday, April 02, 2005


the anomaly of tenure

I just read this article: - NELC to suffer the loss of key language professors

In essence, The University of Delaware lured, from Yale University, with the promise of TENURE, a spectacularly successful teacher.

As far as I know, academia is the only "industry" that offers tenure. Other industries offered tenure-like job security in times recently past. Seniority was tantamount to tenure. Surely, if one worked well and reliably at a job then there was a tacit expectation of JOB SECURITY.

Now, with changes in societal mores and "corporate culture", no job is secure. Except the job of the tenured professor.

I have heard it said that "tenure" was invented to protect the venerable professor from expulsion from his job when, with the accumulation of knowledge and wisdom, he would take a stand that upset the status quo. Thus, tenure protected academic freedom.

I suspect this is apocryphal. Tenure more likely just gave job security to the aging member of the academic fraternity, awarded by the elders in the fraternity to their rising crony, and supported by the youngers with the expectation that they would get theirs in good time.

Would academia be better without this job lure? How would professors fair as "free agents"?

I understand that there is a glut of Ph.D.'s today. It seems it is becoming a "buyers market". Perhaps academia will soon follow suit and do away with this last bastion of job security.

Other industries COULD offer tenure to employees if they wished to do so... but they do not. Indeed, they have apparently abandoned all pretenses of commitment to employees in the current ethos. Would Corporate America be better if we tenured our most experienced workers?

I wonder if institutions that can be expected to stand by their employees would thrive in today's world. I wonder if the culture of today's world would change if that were so. Would the productivity and the very PRODUCTS change if the expectation of the role of the worker, from line-worker to cubicle-resident to ultimate leaders shifted to reliable commitment of the organization towards them?

This article makes me think of two things, only one of which is specifically about Tenure, i.e.: perhaps substance is more important than image to the professors who left Yale. No one doubts that Yale is a fine institution, and it is indisputably prestigious to be teaching there. Nevertheless, faculty members are leaving Yale to work in environments which they perceive to be more supportive. They have left behind the cachet of Yale in order to improve their lives in a concrete way, be that through tenured employment security, or merely due to a higher salary offer. The reasons aren't as important as much as the decision to forgo the appearance of prestige for real-life rewards.

And second, what is cachet worth? What's in a name? For students who want to study Arabic, it appears from this article that the University of Delaware becomes, with one hire, one of the most significant "places to be". Parents and students who dwell too much on the "name brand" of a university may very likely be missing the bigger picture. State universities are in many cases as likely as Ivy League schools to offer the finest educational experiences.

Go Blue Hens!
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