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Abolish Tenure


By John L. Larew

THE staff position accurately catalogues the ills afflicting the English Department (and, to a lesser degree, all Harvard departments) as a result of the University's hide-bound tenure system. Unfortunately, the staff does not carry the argument to its logical conclusion. The crisis in the English Department will not be solved simply by restructuring the Faculty bureaucracy. True reform will require abolishing the institution of tenure.

The notion of a lifetime guarantee of a job would seem ridiculous in any other occupation. We can imagine how productive and diligent bricklayers and ditch-diggers might be if they were granted lifetime jobs. Baker Professor of Economics Martin S. Feldstein '61 would have no trouble explaining why over-protected union members become lazy and unaccountable to their employers. One wonders how over-protected professors are any different.

University officials argue that academia is fundamentally different from other professions, and that professors need the protection of tenure in order to conduct their scholarship without fear of reprisal. In this view, tenure is the guarantor of unimpeded academic freedom.

In practice, it doesn't work that way. The iron-clad protection of tenure is simply not necessary to cultivate diverse opinions. For one thing, universities themselves hold academic freedom sacred and will attempt to protect scholarship from outside interference, as they did during the McCarthy Era. Second, the legal system offers instructors protection against wrongful dismissal. For example, in the case of Ofsevit v. the State University of California and Colleges, the California high court ruled that the First Amendment protects teachers from dismissal for their political beliefs or activities.

More than protecting academic freedom, tenure often protects incompetence and sloth. Lifetime job security allows senior faculty to ease the burden of such annoying tasks as teaching undergraduates.

EVEN if tenure really does encourage creativity and innovation among the senior faculty who enjoy its protection, it almost certainly squelches free-thinking scholarship among the junior professors still climbing the professional ladder. The "up-or-out" system demands that junior faculty members win tenure by the end of their eight-year stints or leave the University. This system encourages young academics to conform to conservative, established academic traditions in order not to offend the conservative, established academics who will vote on their tenure bids.

Once entrenched in a department, senior faculty can block the appointments of younger scholars for 30 to 40 years, producing the sort of academic stagnation that can be found in the senior ranks of several Harvard departments. Tenure is so effective at shunting off younger academics that tenured faculty make up two-thirds of all full-time college instructors nationwide.

Even when senior professors are sincerely interested in rewarding innovative scholarship, the tenure system still prevents the rejuvenation of faculty ranks. The prize at stake is a life-time professorship, so departments must be extraordinarily circumspect about whom they approve. An irrevocable tenured position is a huge risk to take when a young scholar's work may later become irrelevent, obsolete or discredited. (Occasionally, this happens after the person has already received tenure--one of the primary flaws of the tenure system.) The strong bias against offering tenure is understandable and unavoidable, but destructive nonetheless.

Harvard needs a way to retain promising scholars for longer than eight years without taking the irreversible step of offering lifetime posts. Fortunately, there is a solution to Harvard's faculty woes that would remove disincentives to innovation, restore discipline and accountability to the Faculty, clean out academic deadwood in senior faculty ranks and eliminate barriers to young scholars, all while protecting academic freedom and providing a modicum of job security.

The solution is to eliminate lifetime tenure and replace it with renewable multiyear contracts, with the duration of the contracts increasing every time they are renewed. A professor would be initially hired for, say, five years, then renewed for eight, then renewed again for 10. This plan combines the best aspects of the tenure system with a reasonable measure of accountability.

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