Naomi Schaefer Riley’s “The Faculty Lounges” has generated a healthy amount of buzz in and out of academe. The focus of this compact and cogently written book is on the institution of tenure.
Ms. Riley thinks tenure “is preventing institutions from living up to their highest potential,” by “stifling the most innovative professors and preventing students from getting the education they deserve.” Further, she contends that the incentives of tenured faculty have been “skewed … so that the people who should have the most concern about the economic and educational sustainability of the institution … actually have the least.”
Yet Ms. Riley recognizes that her subject is not simple, that there may not be a one-size-fits-all solution. She skillfully presents detailed evidence, acknowledging that much of it does not point in a single direction.She reflects that throughout her many interviews, she was “surprised at who is willing to question tenure and who is not.”
Addressing the central defense of tenure, “academic freedom,” Ms. Riley smiles at the Ford Foundation’s funding of “Difficult Dialogues” on such topics as “sexual orientation,” observing that these discussions are “not difficult at all on campuses because the outcomes are agreed upon.” Likewise, vocational courses and those with unabashed political agendas, and externally funded and directed research, do not implicate the interests sought in protecting the classic notion of academic freedom. Ms. Riley concludes that tenure in its current form is not essential to the protection of freedom of inquiry and expression.
Ms. Riley also notes that the percentage of college faculty who are tenured has declined significantly in recent decades. Nevertheless, in part because tenured professors under federal law are “no longer subject to mandatory retirement,” a large cohort of baby-boomer faculty leaves little room for upward mobility by younger academics.
As institutions confront economic pressures and seek to staff the teaching of introductory courses shunned by the tenured professoriate, they turn increasingly to the hiring of adjunct or “contingent” faculty. These migrant workers of academia suffer extremely poor compensation, an almost total absence of job security, and working conditions that seldom include adequate office space for interaction with students. Not only the adjuncts, but also the students are shortchanged.
At some schools, unions have sought to organize adjunct faculty and graduate students used as teaching assistants. While ill-considered policies may invite organization campaigns, Ms. Riley underscores that the unionization of faculty is virtually always bad for students. Like tenure, it brings protection for the incompetent, accompanied by staunch opposition to merit pay and other means of recognizing teaching effectiveness.
I was especially impressed by two points. First, some schools have successfully recruited and retained excellent faculty without offering tenure. These are schools that have “strong and clear missions” and require that faculty buy in as a condition for employment. They are a diverse lot, including Grove City and Hampshire colleges, the Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering and the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. For most, this will not be feasible, but for schools that genuinely differentiate themselves, this approach deserves consideration.
The second, more broadly applicable point is that tenure as currently practiced simply vests too much power in an unaccountable faculty. At most institutions, tenured faculty control hiring and promotion of new faculty, choose what courses will be offered and get away with declining to teach the broad survey courses that are invaluable to students seeking a well-rounded education.
Ms. Riley believes that the power of tenured faculty in these matters “should be drastically reduced.” She bemoans the ineffectiveness of most administrators and opines that most governing boards are “simply not up to the task of overseeing universities.” But she notes, offering John Silber’s role as a change agent at Boston University as one example, “when administrators have the backing of the trustees, they can accomplish a good deal.”
Ms. Riley does not contend that the abolition of tenure is a magic bullet that will slay the dragons besetting higher education. After a lucidly guided walk through a great deal of information, she concludes that accomplished and productive professors should have a substantial measure of job security. This could be better achieved, she urges, through the use of long-term contracts accompanied by a performance review process aimed at eliminating the excesses of the tenure system and more closely aligning the interests of administrators, faculty and students.
While this book should be read widely on campus - especially by students - it also deserves to be read by others with an interest in the state of higher education. In particular, parents contemplating the college choices of their children, and trustees charged with governance will find that Ms. Riley has served up much food for thought.
Ray Hartwell is a lawyer and Navy veteran. He is also a trustee emeritus of his college and law school alma mater, Washington and Lee University.
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