A number of bloggers have gotten into a debate about the merits of tenure. I think the discussion has been hampered by a misunderstanding of what universities do and why tenure is important. Yes, tenure sometimes protects professors who hold unpopular political views, but that’s not the primary justification for its existence. Rather, the existence of tenure, and the peculiar structure of universities more generally, is an adaptation to the distinctive task universities perform.
Universities exist to produce and disseminate theoretical knowledge, which has three distinctive characteristics that make the unusual structure of the modern university necessary. First, it’s hard for outsiders to judge the quality of work within any given discipline. You can judge the skill of a mechanic by seeing whether your car works when he’s done with it, but good luck evaluating a physics paper if you’re not a physicist.
Second, academic research consists of long-term projects with hard-to-predict returns. The typical academic paper is never read by more than a few dozen people, but every once in a while an academic discovers something like packet-switched networking or public-key cryptography that change the world. Even experts within a given discipline can’t predict which lines of research will prove fruitful or how long the process will take, so it’s important that individual professors have broad latitude to pursue the projects of their choice, even if those projects don’t look promising to others.
Finally, there is little correlation between the quality of academic work and its value in the marketplace. There’s never going to be a significant commercial market for Egyptology services. If we want a smart 25-year-old to become Egyptologists, we need to give him some reason to believe that he’ll be able to earn a living as an Egyptologist 40 years later.
This presents something of a paradox. On the one hand, the importance of local knowledge and experimentation suggests that universities should be structured in a bottom-up fashion. On the other hand, it seems that only a large, centralized institution can provide that long-term stability required to support academic research. To put it in Coasean terms: neither a conventional firm nor a conventional market is well-adapted to supporting academic research.
Universities are best seen as a third form of social organization, distinct from both the firm and the market. Like a top-down firm, a university has a centralized administrative staff to take care of routine functions like payroll, maintenance, course scheduling, and so forth. But unlike a firm (and like a market), the most important decisions within a university are made in a bottom-up fashion. Universities are divided into dozens of departments that choose their own leaders. They make decisions about hiring, promotion, and coursework with minimal interference from the administration. And within the department, faculty members have a great deal of autonomy to decide what they’ll teach and what kind of research they’ll do.
In traditional top-down institutions, people work to impress their bosses. In universities, people ignore their “bosses” (the Dean, university president, etc) and instead work hard to impress other people in their field, almost all of whom are at other institutions. Tenure is essential to preserving this bottom-up structure. If a university president had the power to fire professors, then she’d have the de facto ability to wield power in other respects as well. People with power usually can’t resist using it, so over time, power would shift toward the center and the school would be subject to all the flaws of traditional top-down at institutions. Professors would feel pressure to do things that look like good research to the non-experts in the corner office, which is a different thing from actually doing good research.
It’s absolutely true that the bottom-up structure of a university is expensive. Granting tenure to a sub-par professor means that the university is stuck with deadwood for decades. But the distinctive character of academic knowledge means this doesn’t matter very much. Only a tiny minority of scholars will produce truly ground-breaking research, and there’s no good way to predict who they are. And the most successful scholars tend to have high levels of self-motivation: neither threatening them with firing nor enticing them with large bonuses is likely to increase their odds of having a breakthrough. The best you can do is give them absolute job security and a minimum of distractions, so they can devote their full attention to their work.
Now, I haven’t said very much about undergraduates. This is mostly because educating undergrads just isn’t the primary focus of the kind of university where tenure is most important. At a place like Princeton, hiring and tenure decisions are primarily focused on an applicant’s research record. This turns out not to be such a bad deal for Princeton undergraduates because the kind of high-caliber undergrad who get in to Princeton doesn’t need a lot of hand-holding anyway. What they get instead is the chance to learn about the latest developments in their major from leading scholars in the field.
My experience is limited to large research institutions (my undergraduate alma mater is the University of Minnesota), so I’m not sure how well these arguments apply to to liberal arts and community colleges where research isn’t a major focus. In settings where educating undergraduates is the institution’s primary mission, the case against tenure may be stronger. Still, even in institutions focused on undergraduate education, the decentralization that tenure makes possible has important advantages. Just as segregating the editorial side of a newspaper from the business side is good for the long-term profitability of a news organization, so making the faculty independent of the administration prevents the administration from meddling in the educational process in ways that might harm the institution’s long-run reputation. When the people creating the curriculum are independent of the people making budgetary decisions, there will be much less temptation to deal with short-term budget problems by lowering standards or otherwise cutting corners. Granting tenure to your professors is a way of credibly committing to being the kind of place that takes scholarship seriously, and in the long run that’s extremely important.