Higher Education Watch
Midwestern Legislators Take Aim at Academic Tenure-for-Life

Following in the footsteps of Scott Walker’s Wisconsin, which in 2015 and 2016 weakened tenure protections for public university faculty, legislators in Iowa and Missouri have introduced bills to eliminate the practice in their states.

“I think the university should have the flexibility to hire and fire professors and then I don’t think that bad professors should have a lifetime position guaranteed at colleges,” Iowa State Senator Brad Zaun told the Des Moines Register. “It is as simple as that.”

State Representative Rick Brattin of Missouri offered similar reasoning in an interview with the Chronicle of Higher Education: “Where else in any other industry do you have tenure, do you have a protection to where after you work somewhere for so long you’re basically immune?,” he asked. “That doesn’t exist anywhere except for our education system, and that’s just un-American. If you’re doing your due diligence as a professor or any profession, you shouldn’t have to worry about termination.”

Both bills were introduced very recently and it’s unclear whether either one have a chance of making it into law. The usual argument for tenure—that it is a necessary institution for protecting academic freedom—continues to hold significant purchase, and rightly so. Many untenured professors report being afraid to express unpopular views; it’s possible that eliminating tenure would make academia even more politically conformist. And politicians have a tendency to try to interfere improperly in university research agendas.

At the same time, this is by no means a simple question. The institution of tenure-for-life—and the “for-life” part is critical; it used to be that professors could be forced to retire when they reached old age—imposes significant costs on universities as well. It makes education more costly by reducing universities’ flexibility in consolidating or changing departments, forcing them to hire an ever-growing poorly paid caste of low-paid adjuncts. .

And when it comes to risk-taking and conformity, the evidence is once again mixed. It could be that while the institutions frees tenured professors to be more creative, it encourages young faculty to be more risk-averse. And one study found (unsurprisingly) that on average, the quality of professors’ work declines after they get a job-for-life guarantee.

It would probably be unwise for state legislatures to torch the institution of tenure overnight. At the same time, the existing faculty hiring and retention system is overdue for reform. Faculty are becoming a smaller and smaller share of university personnel, even as adjuncts and administrators proliferate; the university business model is increasingly not working for the American middle class; and higher education is growing increasingly politically monotonous and irrelevant in the humanities and social sciences. So it is not at all unhealthy that certain legislators are thinking about ways to shake up the system rather than settling for a dysfunctional status quo. The Missouri and Iowa bills may not have the right answers, but they will help add urgency to an overdue and important debate.

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