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… says get rid of tenure.

And maybe it’s not fair to judge his argument, since he’s written a piece in response to a Washington Post request that he contribute to a breezy, seasonal forum on “spring cleaning.” Still… Let’s take a look. UD comments here and there in blue.

I’m a tenured professor. But I’d get rid of tenure. [At first glance, a pithy, hard-hitting opening. Yet if Fukuyama’s opposed to tenure, he’s always free to turn it down, as a number of professors in this country have done. They negotiate various forms of non-tenured contracts with their institutions. It can be done — perhaps not at all schools, but at many. So from the outset, Fukuyama looks cowardly or hypocritical. If tenure should be abolished, be an example.]

Tenure was created to protect academic freedom after a series of 19th-century cases when university donors or legislators tried to remove professors whose views they disliked. One famous instance in the late 1800s involved progressive movement leader Richard Ely, whose critics accused him of socialism and tried to remove him as an economics professor at the University of Wisconsin.

The rationale for tenure is still valid. But the system has turned the academy into one of the most conservative and costly institutions in the country. Yes, conservative: Economists joke that their discipline advances one funeral at a time, but many fields must wait for wholesale generational turnover before new approaches take hold. [As with his first point, his second has an internal unsteadiness to it. Fukuyama both concedes the link between tenure and intellectual freedom, and attacks tenure as the cause of intellectual sclerosis. Presumably, with the abolition of tenure a host of intellectual freedom problems will arise. Why should we get rid of one flawed system in order to introduce another?]

The system also hamstrings younger untenured professors, making them fearful of taking intellectual risks and causing them to write in jargon aimed only at those in their narrow subdiscipline: Thus in economics, people have “utility functions” instead of needs and wants. [Wow. Try being an English professor. Utility functions sounds like a breath of fresh air… But put that aside. Fukuyama is about to defend think tanks as a model of non-tenuring intellectual institutions, but almost all think tanks are ideologically driven in a very obvious way, so I don’t see how they would respond to this problem. And as for the problem itself: The numbers don’t lie. Most universities tenure most of the people who come up for it. At some universities, the figure is almost one hundred percent. Junior faculty should check the figures, calm down, and write what they want to write….  And really – on the matter of jargon –  let us recall Ecclesiastes:  Of the making of much jargon there is no end. I doubt people write this way because they’re afraid they won’t get tenure.  I think they write this way because most conform, and this is the way many other people are writing.  Professors who use jargon don’t suddenly become fresh and pellucid after they get tenure.  As Fukuyama points out, tenure has always been about protecting the intellectual freedom of the few people who don’t conform.

If you want to know where jargon starts, read the post just below this one, which excerpts Walter Kirn.]

These problems are made worse by a federal employment law that bars universities from instituting mandatory retirement. Deans and provosts can’t remove elderly professors who take up slots that could fund two or three younger colleagues. Two developments are about to exacerbate this problem: a decline in university enrollments as the baby echo generation passes through college, reducing overall demand for professors; and the financial crisis, which has decimated professors’ retirement savings, giving them incentive to hold on to their sinecures even longer. [Actually, there are many things that universities can do to deal with this admittedly significant problem. Buy-outs, offers of gradually reduced teaching and hence gradually reduced salary …]

Things don’t have to be this way. Academic freedom can thrive in think tanks and research institutes. [Let me say again what I say above. Think of almost any think tank – Brookings, Heritage, CATO. They’re wonderful places for strengthening the visibility of liberal or conservative or libertarian thought, but they lack the non-ideological atmosphere of universities. And yes, UD‘s aware that some university departments are themselves very ideological. But that’s not a permanent, definitive characteristic of them, and things can and do change.] U.S.-style tenure doesn’t exist in Britain or Australia. [I’d hesitate to point to Britain’s faltering university system as a model.] Japan grants tenure but forces professors to retire at a relatively early age (60 at Tokyo University). [Is Fukuyama endorsing state-mandated retirement? Seems out of step with his other political positions.]

The freedom guaranteed by tenure is precious. But it’s time to abolish this institution before it becomes too costly, both financially and intellectually.

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14 Responses to “Francis Fukuyama…”

  1. Jeffrey Kallberg Says:

    Isn’t his op-ed more about the lack of a mandatory retirement age than about tenure?

  2. Margaret Soltan Says:

    Well, as my longer comments suggest (I’ve updated the post), I’d say his op-ed is sort of about that, but is rather confused. For instance, I doubt, given his general political orientation, Fukuyama would in fact support mandatory retirement.

    He’s rather stuck, in other words. Mandatory retirement would do a great deal to cure what he takes to be a sickness, but he’s ideologically unable to endorse it, so he goes after tenure altogether… even though he acknowledges the important link between tenure and intellectual freedom…

  3. francofou Says:

    "If tenure should be abolished, be an example."

    Not entirely fair. That would be to assume substantial personal loss with no impact on what is an institutional reality – like giving tougher grades to combat grade inflation. Sounds like, "America, love it or leave it."
    Tenure is like any labor union. It is (or was) a very valuable response to a very real problem, but having become ossified as a result of its own success, it becomes a burden to the society as a whole and begins to fragment under the pressure.
    You are opposed to online learning, as am I, but the growth of that industry is in part a fruit of the domination of the tenured faculty’s self-interested (and expensive) protection of the status quo. Too much control at the center leads to proliferation of options in the margins.
    In the humanities, at least, no one polices the quality of teaching: the responsibility of tenure is not on a par with the authority of tenure.
    Maybe it’s time for someone to nail 99 theses on academe’s door.

  4. Dave Stone Says:

    To add to your points, if the problem with tenure is junior faculty who are unable to express themselves, I hardly see think tanks as the answer. In addition to the ideology problem you identify, they tend to run on the grunt labor of the young and the leisurely great thoughts of the senior. Hardly a radical switch from the status quo.

  5. Margaret Soltan Says:

    I’m not sure exemplars like Fukuyama would assume substantial personal loss, francofou. It’s precisely strongly positioned, principled professors, able to make plenty of money from other sources (Fukuyama’s books, his think tank affiliations, etc.) who should take up this cause, if they consider it a good cause. Things don’t change unless some people are willing to assume some burdens so that they can change.

  6. francofou Says:

    If 20 or 100 Fukuyamas gave up tenure, would that strengthen the university? Or would it provide lines for more mediocre people? What is needed is strong leadership to rethink the whole issue, and that will happen — is happening — regardless of what the faculty thinks.
    Tenure is a means, not an end, and there is not much thinking about the end, as far as I can tell. As long as the *quality* of teaching and research is ignored, education will continue to suffer, and tenure becomes a secondary issue in terms of academics — but not in terms of budget.

  7. Bonzo Says:

    Ah, it is a complex matter.

    I wouldn’t have my job if it weren’t for tenure.

    Perhaps to some people (the U of M administration) that would be a good thing?

    As for FF, UD has neatly pointed out the box that he is in. Getting rid of mandatory retirement has indeed caused huge problems for universities.

    And I will point out the obvious. If universities want to get rid of what they consider to be dead wood, most places have in the tenure code provisions for removal for cause. If they are not willing to use these provisions to remove a faculty member, then one wonders what exactly is the purpose of post-tenure review?

    That’s a rhetorical question. I don’t want to kick off a great philosophical brouhaha about it.


    Bill Gleason
    U of Minnesota

  8. RJO Says:

    As I’ve heard a number of people say, the best solution is to decouple tenure and compensation. Tenure is important in protecting people from retribution for the expression of unpopular views (although very few people are daring enough to need such protection). But by preventing institutions from reducing salaries across the board during times of economic hardship, tenure can become an institutional and disciplinary suicide pact. If finances have reached a point where untenured people are being laid off and positions cancelled so that highly-paid tenured folks can keep their high pay, then there should simply be salary cuts across the board on the tenured faculty, with no individuals singled out, so that institutional services can remain level.

  9. Bonzo Says:

    RJO – agreed – in theory.

    Unfortunately, at our place and others – decoupling compensation from tenure also has pitfalls for the unwary. This has been tried, in medical schools for example. To say you have tenure, but that doesn’t mean we are going to pay you any salary – unless you have grants – is meaningless. I know that is not what you had in mind, but unfortunately working it out in practice is a lot more difficult than you may realize..


  10. theprofessor Says:

    It may be that faculty at elite institutions can be effective longer in the more limited number of classes that they teach, but at places like this, the lifting of mandatory retirement is a real problem. Most faculty are still OK at 55-60; start pushing 65, though, and the number of burnout cases soar. I have now seen a half-dozen older colleagues stay past 70, and it is not pretty. It was gut-wrenching to see one institutional legend push on to age 74, a husk of his former self. Sadly, he believed that he was still at the top of his game. The problem with the buy-out approach (here, at least) is that the people most likely to take general offers of buy-outs are the most energetic and high-performing older faculty that one would like to keep until age 65.

  11. theprofessor Says:

    Basically, what you have in mind is happening here, RJO, although we are only talking about 1-2% cuts in compensation across the board. If it means not turfing the promising untenured faculty members, I don’t mind ponying up. The problem is that if it continues for more than a couple of years, the younger ones will vamoose anyway, leaving us with nothing but 50- and 60-somethings and a passel of young visiting profs and adjuncts, which will be destructive even in the short run.

  12. Jonathan Mayhew Says:

    Fukuyama could give up tenure and simply ask his university to hire him back on year-to-year contract. They could still keep him if they wanted–which they would because he is a well-known person.

    The system that seems most logical is to have tenure last until 67, at which point a university could offer a series of three or five year contracts to those it wanted to keep beyond that. Where that would get sticky is that forced retirements for economic reasons would tend to coincide with periods in which retiring professors retirement portfolios are at their lowest ebb.

  13. An Economist Says:

    Economics advances one funeral at a time? Fukuyama has no idea what he is talking about. Economics is full of trends, and fads, there is a huge premium on any new idea. Witness the explosion of new game theoretic ideas, signalling theory, then experimental economics, then behavioral economics, now neuroeconomics.

    I’ve been involved in the later three subdiscplines. All my work was very far from what the majority of what my colleagues in my department did. But they were interested, supported me for tenure and promotion. I sent pretty crazy papers to top journals like the AER. Instead of getting shot down, I got reviews that said "not entirely believeable, but new and interesting". It got published.

    Look at the new assistant professors in the top schools – MIT, Stanford, Harvard, Chicago. These people are doing things that steal from wildly different disciplines. The people having trouble with tenure are those who haven’t picked up on the latest fad and are just cranking out solid but dull work.

    Economics is in terrible trouble – the fact we have no good explanations for the crisis makes this obvious. But it’s certainly not because we aren’t looking for new ideas! If anything the taste for novelty is too strong.

  14. Margaret Soltan Says:

    An Economist: Yes. And your comment reminds me of an important, tenure-related difference between fields like economics and fields like literature. The tyranny of the book manuscript (you’ve got to have one before you can be considered, at many schools, for tenure in the humanities) tends to suppress original thought. The absence of the book-imperative in the social sciences tends to mean greater freedom of thought, originality, intellectual boldness and agility among junior faculty in things like economics.

    I’ll quote from an early post of mine about the matter:

    ‘ “To make a group of scholars turn on a dime, we need a publication not as thick as a brick, but as thin as a dime.” Economists, scientists, and political scientists have long known this, and their tenure standards focus upon essays as much as, if not more than, books. Lindsay Waters describes an economist asking him “why the people in many of the disciplines in which I publish want to waste so much of the time of young people in the prime of their lives with such a lot of make-work. In economics, he said, they want to keep the kids working hard to generate new ideas that the rest of the profession can feed off of, because youth is the leading edge.” The economist, Waters concludes, is right: “Why should we encourage young humanists to do a lot of Mickey Mouse work, to go through the motions, when what they should be trying to write are moving essays… .?” ‘


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