Tenure in US academic institutions is the subject of current debate. Marsha McNutt, a distinguished Earth Scientist and editor of the prestigious weekly journal Science, recently wrote that current times demand reform of the system, and suggested that it be replaced by a regular ten-year performance review for senior faculty, after each of which the professor's contract could be terminated.
Reasons for which tenure was initiated years ago remain important today. With the murder of those defending rationalism on the increase worldwide, the battle to defend free-thinking is hardly won. Close to home, congressional engagement in directing research funding is increasing. With regard to tenure's problems, McNutt is right that even if junior-level hires are gender equitable, it will take a generation before this equity ripples up to higher ranks. The ability to fire senior faculty could address this issue more promptly, and such fired academics might increase the experience level of the pool of temporary teaching staff, making the line between contract and permanent staff less distinct. How this would solve the broader difficulties that contract staff face, though, is less clear. The refusal to retire by faculty whose performance is no longer satisfactory was a product of the abolition of mandatory retirement age, but other strategies for encouraging later career faculty to retire do exist (see below).
The impression that the system is out of date masks its positives. Academics is one of the few areas of human endeavor in which almost everyone competes at some stage or another. Those who are able to turn acquiring and advancing learning into a career at a university are, in addition to being fortunate, generally at the top of their game. In most professions the best are rewarded with top salaries, but this commonly is not possible in academics: the security offered by tenure thus acts as an important market force in attracting and retaining the best.
More importantly, tenure, when combined with a rigorous, open and frequent review system, and application for competitive funding, continues to offer the best environment to foster a career spent widening and deepening human understanding. Tenure provides the security to pursue some contributions of less direct and immediate application than those needed to win it, but which can be of most enduring long-term value. The ten-year renewable contracts that McNutt suggests might not prohibit such work. Experience, however, suggests otherwise: the need to develop papers that will contribute directly towards contract renewal inhibits an overseas colleague from exploring potentially fascinating areas of interdisciplinary cross over. Faculty in McNutt's tenure-free universities would likely find themselves beholden to immediate-impact research, and funding agency policy including, at the present, an increasingly policing Congress.
McNutt's suggestion that the proposed ten-year contract is two-way street, freeing attractive faculty to move as they see fit, shines less brightly when one considers that at present senior tenured professors are commonly lured away from their current positions with the promise of higher pay, more facilities, better colleagues, or a more prestigious environment. There are also several practical reasons why institutions need to retain research-strong senior faculty, including involvement in shared governance and institutional memory. If faculty turnover is increased, how does a department retain identity and cohesion, and not risk elevating the number and influence of administrators? Furthermore, when there is the need to talk truth to power, tenure provides the security to do so.
In the real world, tenure is not necessarily the binary "either you have a permanent job or you don't" system that is commonly portrayed. For example, the University of California has two advancement systems for tenure-track faculty that progress in parallel. The "promotion" system considers tenure, full professorship, and further distinctions beyond, while the "merit" system reviews progress every two years for assistant and associate professors, and every three for most full professors. Faculty are expected to actively engage in considering their departmental colleagues' merit applications. In my department, all associate and full professors vote on all merit/promotion applications, including those of senior tenured faculty. Because the department is strong, the standard of tenured faculty is maintained not by the threat of being fired, but by the wish to retain the respect of one's peers. This stick is more civil than the threat of unemployment, but for those who are serious about their research it is none-the-less sharp. In addition, mechanisms exist to remove tenured faculty in the case of non-performance, and have been enacted. Several later-career faculty in our department continue with outstanding research programs and win large grants, but have chosen to do so in retirement because of attractive provisions allowing them to retain facilities to do so. The expanding strength of the department is also allowing us to replace our few non-tenure-track lecturers with tenure track faculty. In these ways at least two of McNutt's concerns have been met without giving up the benefits of tenure itself.
A professor's duties also include teaching. The quality of teaching is commonly a significant issue in winning tenure, and renewal criteria of the ten-year contract might consider this, with the positive effect of keeping faculty striving for strong evaluations from students (presently considered routinely for all faculty in the UC merit system). But when tenure-free faculty are focusing increasingly on short-term research and funding success, their institutions may be tempted to lower the teaching bar, or weigh student happiness over innovation and effectiveness in pedagogy. In particular, the loss of tenure could discourage faculty from taking steps beyond the classroom itself, such as devoting the time needed to produce textbooks and on-line resources.
Tenure is a remarkable institution that deserves active discussion of the kind Dr. McNutt's editorial has initiated. If maintained, it must be for its positive advantages, rather than due to inertia alone. However, when applied alongside strong, open and ongoing merit-based review, the tenure system continues to provide the best mechanism to ensure that faculty best develop the full depth of their potential to further humanity's understanding of the universe around us.