First Thing We Do, Let's Kill All the Tenured Professors

Sloppy thinking about tenure abounds on the Internet. Not surprisingly, the major opponents to tenure are conservatives, academic and otherwise, whose “arguments” consist of leveling scurrilous charges against tenured professors. Not that there aren’t left critiques of tenure too, but since they’re virtually invisible, I’ma just ignore them for now.

A recent “story” at Slate examines this case and unsurprisingly finds it convincing. It really has all the hallmarks of terrible reporting: inapplicable analogies, numbers taking out of context, extensive citations from conservative critics with long records of writing about how horrible tenure is (while, paradoxically, enjoying the benefits of the institution themselves).

I mean, why would you even write this:

Imagine you ran a restaurant. A very prestigious, exclusive restaurant. To attract top talent, you guarantee all cooks and waiters job security for life. Not only that, because you value honesty and candor, you allow them to say anything they want about you and your cuisine, publicly and without fear of retribution. The only catch is that all cooks or waiters would have to start out as dishwashers or busboys, for at least 10 years, when none of these protections would apply.

It sounds absurd in the context of the food-service industry—for both you and your staff. But this system has governed academia for decades. TENURE DOES NOT WORK THAT WAY! That’s not the rationale for why tenure exists, at all. Arguments by analogy are, in general horrible; you can’t just take an out-of-context scenario from one profession and transplant into another. Just because tenure might be an absurd idea in restaurants doesn’t mean it’s an absurd idea in academia, because there are qualitatively different imperatives at work in the two institutions.

Nor do the numbers make an ironclad case for eliminating tenure:

Mark C. Taylor, chair of the Columbia University department of religion and author of the forthcoming Crisis on Campus: A Bold Plan for Reforming Our Colleges and Universities, calculates that someone who serves as an associate professor with tenure for five years and then becomes a full professor for 30 years costs a private university $12.2 million.* Public universities pay $10 million over the same period. And because most universities pay tenured professors out of their endowments, each professor freezes up tens of millions in otherwise-liquid endowment money for a generation. University debt jumped 54 percent last year, with an average debt of $168 million. If the average university tenured about 15 fewer professors, they’d be in the black.

The level of stupidity in this paragraph is just unbearable. So, let’s take it as a given that a university professor costs their institution between $10 and $12 million over the course of their time there. Is that a lot? A little? Who knows?! Compared to what? I guess it’s probably a lot if you want to pay professors the same as janitors, but there’s no obvious context for any of these numbers. So if universities tenured 15 fewer professors then ceteris paribus they’d be in the black? How about if more public funding went to our universities, maybe then they’d be in the black too! But no, obviously the answer is to get rid of people who are doing useful and interesting work because god forbid we might use public funds to reinforce the country’s intellectual infrastructure. That’s an unthinkable proposition for noted hack Mark Taylor.

Speaking of Taylor, it’s quite ironic that a professor of religion, surely one of the least useful titles in academia, should be advocating these cuts. Where does he think they’re going to come from, exactly? The engineering school? No, the engineering school has fellowships endowed by Intel and industry funding. You know whose neck they’re going to come for first, Mark Taylor? Yours. Of course then they’ll basically get rid of everyone who doesn’t bring in their own funding, leaving universities to be little better than technical institutes, but don’t think you’re going to escape the purge.

Other notable highlights:

Critics say that tenure hurts students by making professors lazy.

Well, does it, asshole?! But why do research when you can just fling unsubstantiated allegations (Critics say!) of unquantifiable moral turpitude at people. Critics of Chris Beam say writing dumb articles for Slate makes him blow goats.

Tenure can also discourage interdisciplinary studies

Does it? Who knows? Certainly not Ace Reporter Chris Beam. When I am King Shit of Reporting Mountain I will prohibit the use of the word “can” except as a direct citation backed by a graph. A pretty graph.

Besides, says Taylor, the idea that a tenured professor can finally “speak out” is absurd. “If you don’t have the guts to speak out before, you’re not gonna have it after.” Even tenured professors still have all kinds of incentives to keep their heads down. There’s still research to fund, administrators to placate, time off to negotiate.

Ah yes, I will certainly take contrarian Mark Taylor’s word for it. Certainly I have never heard of any professors ever speaking out on any topic of interest!

What’s really disappointing about this reporting is how much better it could have been. I bag on Taylor, but he’s written some fairly correct stuff on the decline of the university as a center for actual learning and on the over-production of graduate students. Those are real problems that, tenure or no tenure, should be tackled in some way, and ones that are worth reporting on. It’s also true that the tenure track tends to be unfair to women, a point which the article mentions but ends up basically glossing over. Of course, the real elephant in this room is the continued commercialization of the university, the endless proliferation of its administrative apparatus (which, let’s be honest here, eats up way more resources than some English professor), and the chronic unwillingness of the public to actually fund its educational institutions. Maybe tenure is a problem, maybe it’s not, but its relative significance in the grand scheme of problems with academia is so low that addressing it is like trying to extract the mote from your eye while you’re being impaled on a beam.