Thursday, November 5, 2009

The future of tenure

Picking up where Anand left off a couple of weeks ago, the current issue of Academic Matters features a three-way debate on the future of tenure: Michiel Horn argues in favor of tenure, while Michael Bliss and Mark Kingwell argue against. Kingwell's article is, verbatim, the one from Inside Higher Ed.

Bliss's article comes across as a rant, while Kingwell continues his tendency of writing articles that are more attention-grabbing than well-thought-out.

However, I'm struck by Horn's argument: abolition of tenure could lead to the worst of both worlds (worst, at least from the tenure critics' point of view): hard-to-fire professors who are never required to demonstrate their productivity. Horn puts tenure in historical context, showing that it emerged in the 1960s as a financial perk, and a codification of the long-established practice of respecting the academic freedom of professors. Without tenure, the system could well revert to the historical norm of automatic contract renewals -- but this time without the need for pre-tenured faculty members to demonstrate high achievement.

A university without tenure might resemble the public school system, where it is rare for teachers to be dismissed for poor performance. I suspect this is not what Bliss and Kingwell have in mind.

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