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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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  • Makaden

    “Many untenured professors report being afraid to express unpopular views; it’s possible that eliminating tenure would make academia even more politically conformist.”

    As a person with a PhD in the social sciences, I can tell you a few things about this quote:
    1. If they are afraid to express unpopular views, it’s likely because they wouldn’t be able to get tenure if they did.
    2. This affirms a quote later in the article, that the humanities and social sciences have become monotonous and irrelevant.
    3. The above truths lead to the political interference we see now. Higher education is a bastion of not only liberal thought, but of the creation of liberal culture–the latter point often overlooked. That makes it a political player, par excellance.

    Higher education has succumbed nearly fully to what social psychologists call the confirmation bias: because they don’t let anyone in who doesn’t toe the line of their particular agenda, they never get a chance to “look in the mirror,” so to speak. Because of this hegemony, everything they say or do is affirmed by those in the circles in which they run. Misrepresentations, blind spots, flat-out errors, etc., are all sacralized in the mono-culture they have created. And since these faculty are deeply implicated in the hiring process, the mono-culture filter is strong.

    You have to bust up AT&T if you want long distance competition. Time to pull a Reagan.

    • RedWell

      This is misleading. For one thing, How many faculty are even in the social sciences and humanities? This constant hand-wringing over liberals in those areas is highly overstated. What about STEM faculty? Business? Nursing? and so on. The fear of progressives taking over academia is not unreasonable, but it is more straw man than menace.

      As for monoculture, it happens, but it happens in every field. Judges, physicians, military, accountants, tech people, and so forth. I have seen little systematic evidence – as opposed to anecdote – that higher ed is qualitatively different or worse than those fields. Yes, faculty lean liberal, but the military leans conservative. It happens. The question is whether and how professionals police themselves.

      Yes, certain redouts of higher ed are dysfunctional, but they are also under pressure. The only institutions generously funding the humanities and social sciences are the leading, often private, universities that can afford it.

      One other thought, here. If the system is opened up, why do we think we will see a greater influx of conservatives? This seems to implied in these arguments, but there is no evidence that would happen. And, anyway, what happens if we get conservatives, but they are the conservatives that other conservatives like? The problems of an ideological litmus test go both ways.

      As for tenure, it is from another era and needs to be reformed. But keep this in mind: we ask faulty to be experts in their fields and exchange years of earnings when they are young for getting an advanced degree. Yes, many historians and English profs will struggle to transition, but why would people with high-level skills, or the potential for high-level skills, spend their time in a higher ed career when they don’t even receive the reward of tenure for relatively lower wages and time lost to get the position? If you turn higher ed into a market like any other, you will either need to ramp up salaries and benefits or let the market settle on cheap, overworked nonexperts. The Ivies and their peers will be fine and will continue to house those annoying progressives. It will be the state institutions that are accessible to 80% of students that could suffer.

      • Banned_by_KBTX

        Your post tended to wander a bit, but you seem to be saying that progressive domination of the humanities and social science is not the big problem conservatives say it is. That’s easy for someone to say – if they are not the target.

        Try listening (as I have) to a college administrator – someone who has authority over you – describe people as Nazis and racists because they voted for Trump or because they doubt the science behind so-called global warming, and then try to convince yourself that a progressive monoculture is not a big issue. Or if that scenario does not convince you, how about having your classroom or office invaded by student activists calling you a “fascist”, and the school blames you? (I have managed to avoid the latter scenario – so far – only because it’s hard for the campus hotheads to portray solving a third-order polynomial equation as some offense against progressive sensibilities).

      • Makaden

        Firstly, I fully endorse the response of Banned_by_KBTX. I’ll address your paragraphs in turn:

        1. Misleading would be to judge the prominence of my argument quantitatively by measuring the number of humanities and social science faculty. Their influence is qualitative and disproportionate to their numbers. For one, the other faculty cadres you mention don’t concern themselves so much with culture creation outside of their own disciplines, and this, in part, makes them far less politicized. It is by no means a straw man.
        2. Whether monocultures happen in other fields is not relevant to the discussion at hand. The argument is whether the disproportionate influence of the monoculture of the humanities and social sciences is related to the tenure-based structure of the university. I’m not sure what you would consider “systemic evidence,” but if you simply take the time to read about the deadly symbiosis of this monoculture with the current millennialist SJW generation, you see faculty falling like flies–and not just the conservatives, but those who insist on the academy being a place of exposure to varieties of thought. There is plenty of evidence for this.
        3. Your third paragraph is misleading. The leading universities are the most desireable ones and the ones that have the most students–add these together and you get the most influence.
        4. It’s true, we don’t know that opening up the system would result in more conservatives. But we DO know that the system we have now keeps them out. Market competition is messy and unpredictable–it’s the nature of the beast. And if you get conservatives that other conservatives don’t like? GREAT. We aren’t going for a monoculture, remember?
        5. That was a delicious typo, I must say. To respond to the substance, I need only take my own experience. Your question is based on principle, but actual lives are rarely lived that way. To get into a PhD program is to be exposed to how the faculty process works–something that is fairly opaque to the glossy-eyed potential student. And once you get in, begin incurring debt, you find it hard to get out. There is a direct correspondence between debt accumulation and knowledge about the system, but the more debt you incur, the more difficult it is to reassess your choice. So you graduate, think about things more deeply and reflexively, and realize that not only is the system inaccessible to you systemically (there are fewer and fewer jobs but programs admit more and more students to generate money), but it is increasingly inaccessible ideologically because of the dynamics we have been discussing.

        It’s a real problem and its vicious. It’s going to bring down higher education in time.

        • RedWell

          Some fair points. Naturally, I disagree at various stages for various reasons. For what it’s worth, part of my goal, here, is to play gadfly in a forum where everyone agrees with one another.

          I’ll focus on what I consider to be a representative point that you make: “So you graduate, think about things more deeply and reflexively, and
          realize that not only is the system inaccessible to you systemically
          (there are fewer and fewer jobs but programs admit more and more
          students to generate money), but it is increasingly inaccessible
          ideologically because of the dynamics we have been discussing.”

          My experience is similar to yours, so no point in claiming special knowledge. If our standard is generalization from experience, here’s mine: I entered my education as the conservative ready to run counter to liberal academia. What I found was that no one cared. Most of the debates were, for instance, genuinely academic, such as a focus on methods.

          No one asks in class or at conferences or in job interviews what your politics are. Admittedly, it may be implied in what you study, in many cases. But the hard-core progressive theorist is going to have as hard a time as the blunt conservative in getting a job.

          Being an ideologue is the problem.

          You can find a home as a conservative. You just have to be savvy and good at what you do. In addition, any number of Christian colleges, schools in the South (especially), think tanks or faculties at places like the Hoover Institute would be happy to have you.

          I have also found the system to be frustrating. But from where I stand, the real bias is against people with conservative lifestyles: someone who pursues family first, for instance. You don’t fit in culturally. From what I can tell, though, that is also true of other professions that attract high-fliers. But that is different than saying that there is an ideological bias ferreting out conservatives.

          If conservatives were serious about penetrating academia, they could.

          The problem, I suggest, is demography: conservatives tend not to elevate intellectuals (though they do value intelligence), so the percentage of people out of that population willing to pursue the academic track is inevitably smaller. A good sociological explanation, anyway.

          • Urko U.S. Deplorable ✓ᵛᵉʳᶦᶠᶦᵉᵈ

            Reality: if you’re in demand .. you’re in demand — engineering, medicine.

            If you’re in a field when hundreds of qualified persons apply for one opening (Arts & Letters) — you are NOT in demand. Period.

            Ignoring reality will not make it go away.

          • Makaden

            Wouldn’t it be great if free market principles were in play here? Then you could be right. Your response begs the question, not answers it.

        • Pait

          Universities have been around for centuries. They’ll be around – unchanged – when we’re all gone. They are among the most durable institutions in the world. They’ll still be around when the companies that each of us works for has disappeared – except for those of us who are employed by universities. or by the catholic church.

          With half a dozen exceptions, universities are older than the countries where they are located. Some can rant and rave and claim they are doomed – they will survive longer than the countries.

          • Makaden

            A worthless rejoinder. Obviously I didn’t mean the university as an institution would cease to exist. It is a shame the hermeneutical principle of meaning determined by context has ended up on a milk carton.

          • Pait

            Worthless for you. Yet is is true.

      • PALADIN

        “Annoying progressives” ? Cut but -Professor Puar at Rutgers univeristy says that the Jews in the Middle East harvest
        the internal organs of Palestinians.

        1000 professors signed a petition supporting her.

        How many professors signed a petition urging that she be fired- ZERO.

        Should Jews sign the petition supporting Puar?

      • PALADIN

        It is not that they are annoying? it is that they spend so much time spitting on the people upon whose backs they ride.

        How about having a real debate about political correctness?


      You are correct. What about a free debate?

      Surely there is one professor and one school and one President of a University who is willing to ahve a real debae about Political Correctness ? OR NOT! How about you big boy? People who can be shouted down should even be a professor. Is there not one brave person in the entire land of the home of the free-because it is the home of the brave -who will invite me to a debate.

  • Tom

    “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.”

    There’s some decent arguments to be made for ending tenure. This isn’t one of them. The main culprits in university personnel costs are administrators hired to enforce and enhance “diversity,” as well as the necessary staff to turn universities into worlds unto themselves instead of being integral parts of their local communities.

  • Beauceron

    They have to do something. The study of the humanities, and law and psychology, pretty much everything that is studied that isn’t business or STEM, has simply gone off the rails.

    Frankly, I think there’s no fixing it. It’s too far gone, the systems are too atrophied. The entire academic system as an institution needs to be stripped down to the studs and rebuilt if you want to save it, That would require firing and then banning from campus about two thirds of the humanities professors in the country. And that, sadly, is simply not going to happen.

    These tweaks around the margins won’t do a thing. Wisconsin showed that.

    • Fat_Man

      Studs ain’t far enough. Foundation would be more like it.

      Heck, burn it all down. Plow it under. Sow the land with salt.

  • Anthony

    “…they will help add urgency to an overdue and important debate.” A debate indeed to be had but more helpful perhaps if enclosed in debate between an occupation’s probability of computerization and educational attainment – one estimate (by 2034) is that 47% of total U.S. employment at risk.

    The observation, because implicit in post is middle class jobs: “…as new technologies – such as robotics, computerization and artificial intelligence – are fundamentally different from past technologies, with the potential to emulate human labor itself, thereby potentially making human workers (tenured professors) and their flaws obsolete….Surely this coming technological revolution is set to wipe out what looks to be the entire middle class.” In that respect, the tenure question may possibly be relegated to the proverbial dust bin of history.

    • Pait

      I’m not to sure about that. They used to say similar things about robotics – that robots were a fundamentally different technology with respect to their impact on work. In fact robots were just another technology that increased productivity. Robot intensive Japanese industry caught up with the richest countries in the world – great for the Japanese, but there were no big losers. The real losers are the people who were led to believe that they can have the same relative income as the previous generation by doing exactly the same thing, as opposed to taking the opportunity of higher productivity to learn something new, but that’s a different story.

      I quite suspect that the same will happen with artificial intelligence. I was floored when AI learned to play Go – AlphaGo was a very fast development which I had completely not expected, probably the most amazing AI achievement to date. However it is a small step compared to advances in other waves of technological change. We’re now getting to the really difficult problems, I guess.

      • Anthony

        I think we may agree (“I’m not sure about that.”) more than my comment obviously infers. I actually had been writing to ideal of post (taking aim at academia) and its oracular ability relative to so-called Academic Left. Giving TAI right leaning perspective another considered vantage point for prognostication had been intent.

        By the way, wasn’t AlphaGo a computer board game contest?

        • Pait

          AlphaGo is a Google supported program that plays Go, or Baduk, Weiqi, an Asian board game which is much harder than chess, and which I believed would take another decade to conquer. AlphaGo is not at top pro level if not higher. It is in my opinion the 1st AI development that was not completely predictable.

          I think this means we overestimated the complexity of Go more than anything else, but I could be wrong.

          • Anthony

            Thanks, Pait, but I know when I’m beyond my depth (familiar by name with board games cited and AlphaGo). Still, I appreciate the summary. To that end, AI development and predictions will probably continue to surprise – and I’m in no position to say you’re wrong.

  • Fat_Man

    “It would probably be unwise for state legislatures to torch the institution of tenure overnight. ”

    Rubbish. Wisdom would be torching the whole corrupt system. How about rigorous wage and price controls on public universities. No more two million dollar a year presidents. How about forcing them to shed most of their administrators. . How about shutting down all research money in the humanities and social sciences. How about banning faculty from administra6tion and from personnel decisions (They turn their departments into echo chambers. Random draw would be better.) How about not allowing foreigners to take places from local kids at those schools. (hint its about the Benjamins).

    • CapitalHawk

      Yes. But consider that academics, notably the academics that have been elevated in the current system, are the ones telling us that we should be careful in torching the system in which they have done so well. No self-interest there. Nope. /sarc

  • FriendlyGoat

    Universities should be run by non-teacher administrators with concentrated effort on the sales side and otherwise managing temp instruction labor for product fulfillment—— as is the trend in every industry that can get away with it. Most of the career colleges ran this way and made a bucket of money doing it as long as student grants and loans were available. Likewise was Trump University, conceived after all, by a certified businessman.

    Students of state universities and their parents are being presumed so dumb as to not know or care that they are the “marks” when government is run for them “like a business”. The product sells better when most of the staff looks younger and more hip anyway. A rotation of half-starved adjuncts is actually a plus for “presentation” factors——compared to fossils in tweeds, you know?

    • DanielAMcAllen

      For the most part Universities ARE run by non-teacher administrators. And those folks are often paid far far more than teachers.

      I’m fully on board with abolishing tenure across the entire public education spectrum. But in no way is the problem that there aren’t enough business people running universities.

      • FriendlyGoat

        I hope you realize that I was being satirical—–and yet—–we all kinda know that some of my “malarkey” is not too far from real trends.

        To me, there is much more to be lost from abolishing tenure than to be gained from abolishing it. Mainly, in spite of all the talk about “bad teachers”, any new path to pushing out the older, wiser and more loyal folks is also a path to enabling the “malarkey” of my first paragraph above. The young temps are cheaper, of course. And, as a result, who in their right mind wants to pursue a career in education to be low-paid and managed by twits? (That last question is not a small matter going forward.)

        • DanielAMcAllen

          On the flip side the teaching profession loses many dedicated and talented young teachers every year because there is no place to go as older teachers clog up the system, including some who are burnt out and no longer effective teachers who can’t be fired due to tenure.

          So long as voters hold school boards accountable for the quality of the schools and in turn the boards hold administrators accountable, you won’t see mass firings of experienced teachers for younger cheaper ones because that would likely produce lower test scores. Schools will reflect other businesses and be a mix of young and experienced.

          • FriendlyGoat

            If I was a school teacher of early or mid-career experience and could possibly get out of it to do something else BEFORE I GOT TOO OLD TO MAKE A SWITCH, I’d go. Their unions are going to be killed deader than dead and the teachers themselves are going to be laughed at from stem to stern while that occurs. Teaching today’s students WHILE being derided by the whole political right every day, WHILE enduring criticism of public pension plans AND being “evaluated” on the test scores of students whose parents are “out to lunch” for all kinds of reasons is——too much to bear.

            Betsy Devos ALONE is the signal for anyone with sense that the teachers are in for a very hard time. An AMWAY billionaire by marriage—–it’s enough to make real teachers completely sick to their stomachs.

  • DanielAMcAllen

    “Many untenured professors report being afraid to express unpopular views..”

    Uh huh, and what percentage hold that fear because they think their views will prevent THEM from getting tenure?

    • Jim__L

      If tenure is not an issue, this is (happily) less of an issue.

    • Eurydice

      Well, there’s that. And also, a lifetime habit of keeping quiet isn’t going to be overturned just because one achieves tenure – the hostile environment still exists. In any case, haven’t there been instances in which tenured professors have had problems, even loss of tenure, because of their “unpopular views”?

  • Pait

    Academic work is very specialized. It is not like medicine or law or business, where there’s always another job waiting in town for a qualified professional who leaves or loses their job.

    It would be quite difficult for a professor to embark on a long-term scientific endeavor that may change the world or may lead to nothing much if it weren’t for the possibility of a lifetime employment guarantee. But it is precisely on those people with long visions that the advancement of science rests – not on those who obtain immediate results. It is not a coincidence that judicial appointments also last long, or that churches and temples often provide for long term employment. These are areas of activity where a longer perspective is needed.

    I understand that politicians who think in terms of 2-year intervals between elections would like to end tenure, and that journalists who give opinions for hire would agree, but it’s a very bad idea.

    • Urko U.S. Deplorable ✓ᵛᵉʳᶦᶠᶦᵉᵈ

      You mean the hard sciences.

      Social sciences – 10¢ / dozen

      • PALADIN

        This is a shame because:

        The United States is the United States because of the humanities-not because of the sciences. The founding fathers studied lots and lots of history before they came up with the Declaration of Independnce and the Constitution.

        • Pait

          That is of course correct. But then, Mr Deplorable’s dismissive comment says more about him or herself than about the social sciences, which if you think carefully are producing relevant knowledge at a steady and perhaps increasing pace.

          • PALADIN

            Thank you. We need to have a conference for the people of this country so we can talk to the America people. Will the American Interest sponsor such a conference. It woudl generate a lot of interest and be carried by C Span and more.

          • PALADIN

            How do we get an open debate about this? It would attract a good deal of attention and should be set up to be much more than a closed academic debate.

            I would like to see academics of course, but also non academic citizens and politicians and administrators.

  • Banned_by_KBTX

    [P]oliticians have a tendency to try to interfere improperly in university research agendas.

    Interesting. Politicians represent the taxpayers who fund these schools. I teach mathematics at a junior college, and while I have seen the Legislature make plenty of goofy decisions in regards to education it is not the job of the Legislature to just write blank checks professors and administrators can cash at will. Professors who find this oversight too stifling should start their own school – and pay for it themselves.

    Besides, politicians are not the biggest threat facing higher education. Student activists – sometimes aggressively backed by faculty/administrators – routinely bully, threaten, intimidate, and occasionally physically assault those they deem to be “bigots”. The article makes no mention of this growing problem.


    1. Tenure is given to protect free speech
    2. The places that have tenure have less free speech than almost any known institution, other than your neighborhood car wash
    3. What then is the reason for tenure?

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