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Florida Public Uni Dumps Tenure


Florida Polytechnic University will be the state’s first public university to operate without a unionized faculty. EAGnews reports that FPU is ditching the tenure system altogether in favor of fixed-term contracts that will be renewed based on performance:

Ghazi Darkazalli, the school’s vice president of academic affairs, said the goal is to focus faculty on what’s most important, instead of “trivial publication and research” typically pursued by those on the tenure track.

“We want to be a leading university, and we wanted to attract faculty who think out of the box, and who are ambitious and creative,” Darkazalli told Inside Higher Ed. “We don’t want them to be worrying within the first five or six years whether they’re going to be tenured or not.”

We see many advantages to these kinds of contracts. In addition to eliminating the stress and “publish or perish” madhouse that comes with pursuing a tenured position, this system promises to keep bad teachers and academic hacks in the classroom for only set amount of time instead of a lifetime. Perhaps the biggest advantage for students will be the opportunity to learn from professionals who know about the world outside of academia.

A fixed-term contract system has a better chance of attracting people who have spent much of their careers outside the classroom but who want to teach for a few years. There’s no guarantee this will make for better educators, but people who have actually spent time working outside of universities are generally better equipped than career academics who from kindergarten through old age have never spent more than a year or two outside of a school.

Naturally, this system is a nightmare for unions. The president of the United Faculty of Florida recently warned of the threat to “academic freedom” and declared, “Nobody wants to be a part of an institution where you’re just hiring and rehiring people at the lowest price you can get away with.”

There’s probably at least half of a legitimate gripe somewhere in there, and we hasten to point out that a performance-based contract system is far from a cure-all. But more experiments like this, aimed at cutting costs while improving educational experience, are exactly what US higher ed needs.

[Image of school lockers courtesy of Shutterstock]

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  • Blaton Hardey

    Actually, I’d love to be a part of an institution where they’re just hiring and rehiring people at the lowest price they can get away with.

  • wigwag

    “There’s probably at least half of a legitimate gripe somewhere in there, and we hasten to point out that a performance-based contract system is far from a cure-all.” (Walter Russell Mead)

    Professor Mead gets this exactly right; there are some legitimate downsides to eliminating tenure, but those downsides pale in comparison to the benefits. The problem is that what Florida Polytechnic University is doing is a half-step; the next step is to eliminate not just the tenure but the jobs of the university administrators and officers.

    Think about it; under the current system we have three constituencies; those who want to learn (we call them students), those who want to teach (we call them Professors) and those who want to mediate the process (we call the mediator a university.) Higher education can be improved and made much less expensive if we remove the middle man; in this case, that’s the university itself. Here’s what an alternative model might look like.

    Suppose Professors Mead, Berger, Garfinkle, Fukuyama and Bhagwati decided to create the “American Interest University.” The could go out and recruit 5 additional faculty members as erudite and brilliant as they are. With ten professors they could offer to matriculate 200 entering freshman and offer exactly one major; a degree in Political Science.

    Under the current system, students take 40 course over four years to obtain their degrees. Each course is offered three hours per week for about 17 weeks. The “American Interest University” could maintain the same model. With ten faculty members making a four year committment, each of them would only have to teach one course per year. It would be 3 hours of teaching and maybe a little prep time (as experienced as they are they could probably prepare lectures in their sleep) once a week for 17 weeks.
    Tuition would be charged at $10,000 per year; a bargain rate to be taught by these brilliant professors. With 200 students revenue to “American Interest University” would be $8,000,000 over four years. Each Professor could share in that equally; that’s $800,000 in income over a four year period for teaching 3 hours per week for 17 weeks. Unless the bloggers at AI are hedge-fund kind of rich, this is alot of money for not alot of work. It might even be enough to convince Garfinkle and Berger to take the Acela to New York for a few hours once a week to teach their course. It might be enough money to lure Peter Berger out of his retirement from teaching,
    What do the students get? Instead of intro course from a wet behind the ears graduate student or a junior faculty member who doesn’t know which end is up; every single faculty member for every single course would be the best that America has to offer. Yes their would be no choice about what courses to take, but the courses offered would be brilliantly done.
    Of course I am oversimplyfing a little. A space to accommodate lectures would need to be rented and some administration would be required. But a system like this could be very lucrative to the faculty and offer students an extraordinary educational experience for far cheaper than most private universities charge. It’s all made possible by eliminating the middle man. Who needs the university; for education to be meaningful, all you really need are the teachers and the students.

  • Kavanna

    This post casually confuses tenure and unionization. Most universities don’t have faculty unions. Almost all have tenure.

    In Florida public higher ed, membership in UFF is voluntary. Working for tenure is mandatory for regular, full-time faculty (that is, not research appointments or adjuncts).

    Tenure has long been coveted as a sign of professional independence. Being about solidarity, unions are antithetical to professionalism.

    The question is, is tenure antithetical to professionalism? If tenure is abolished, will faculties (or any other profession you care to name) rise to higher levels of professionalism, or will they sink to the point where professionalism is lost and unionization becomes pervasive as necessary self-protection?

    • Kavanna

      Another pertinent question: nowadays, does tenure induce the opposite of what it was originally intended to do?

      That is, does the process of getting tenure induce conformism and drive away independent thinking?

      These days, the answer is far from obvious, and may vary from one academic discipline to the next, or from one department to the next.

  • foobarista

    The gigantic question: will classroom skills count or will research count in whether to get contracts? Part of the problem with academia nowadays is not enough academics appear to care much about classroom teaching, particularly of undergrads, especially if it interferes with getting yet another paper out.

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