Here is my column from the West Bend Daily News last Tuesday.
The Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee is in the final stages of putting together the state’s next biennial budget for the full Assembly and Senate to consider. Assuming that they do not try to cram the proposed deal for a new arena for the Milwaukee Bucks into the budget where it does not belong, the final remaining major piece is the transportationbudget. The committee has resolved the portion of the budget concerning the University of Wisconsin System. Intended to allow the university more flexibility in managing its budget, one of the provisions passed by the committee is to remove tenure for professors from state statute and allow the UW to decide how, when and if tenure should be extended.
The reaction from academia has been predictable. Throughout the halls of higher education, cloth is being rent and teeth gnashed as professors predict the waning of academic freedom and demise of UW. As the beneficiaries of the tenure system, academics have a vested interest in protecting the status quo, but that does not mean it should persist.
Tenure is the right of someone to hold a job permanently. While overcoming the protections of tenure can occasionally be overcome in the event of gross incompetence or criminal behavior, it is almost impossible to fire a tenured professor once it has been granted.
The argument for tenure is that it empowers academic freedom by protecting professors from a retaliatory job action if the professor challenges prevailing thought or ventures into unpopular subjects. The expansion of thought and learning is a fundamental and necessary element for a university and, indeed, for our civilization to advance.
While the goals of tenure are laudable, the real world effects of it are less so. Although the iron protections of tenure occasionally might protect a professor who chooses to color outside of the lines, more often it protects professors who may have been brilliant at one time but have tumbled into the crevasses of laziness and idleness that is the preferred trajectory of most humans. Many tenured professors teach few classes, work few hours, conduct little or inane research and contribute little to advancing thought while continuing to collect all of the pecuniary benefits of full-time employment.
The concept of tenure is a relatively new one. It is an American creation of the 19th century, intended to protect teachers at a time when political, racial and other forms of retribution too often found good teachers out of a job. Most of the elite people of thought and learning throughout human history plied their skill without the benefit of tenure. In fact, only a miniscule sliver of the knowledge that underpins modern civilization came about from a tenured professor — and even most of that which did was never under threat to require tenure protection.
The reason that state lawmakers have included the removal of tenure from state statutes is because the maintenance of tenure is expensive. Not only is the university hamstrung to manage its budget when it has to pay for professors whose useful life has long since passed, but they are also forced to lay off more productive, non-tenured staff when the budget gets tight.
By removing tenure from the statutes, the Legislature is not ending tenure altogether. The Board of Regents is free to enact tenure as a policy of the university, which they have already done. The difference is that the Board of Regents is also at liberty to adjust the terms of tenure instead of state lawmakers. Should this provision pass into law, the right and responsibility of tenure, for good or ill, passes into the hands of the leaders of the university.
Tenure is an outmoded concept whose time has passed, if it ever existed at all. It is a protectionist racket that shields people from the just consequences of their behavior. Permanent employment is a socialist’s dream that is ill suited for a free society. State lawmakers are right to remove it from statutory protection.
(Owen Robinson is a West Bend resident. He can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org).