There are dozens of ways we could think about fixing higher education, but whether you want to change the cost structure or reform the curriculum or improve graduation rates, the best first step you can take is to eliminate tenure.
Tenure — the job for life entitlement that many professors get after spending seven years at an institution — has given college faculty a stranglehold on power at our universities. Every battle in higher education is a battle of attrition and the faculty will always win. They will outlast any president, any governor, any member of the board of trustees, any regent, any parent, and any student. And tenure professors are why reform of any other sort is not possible. The only way to balance the power at universities is to replace tenure with multi-year, renewable contracts.
Thanks to tenure, faculty have an astounding degree of control over certain aspects of higher education. At many institutions, for instance, they can decide what to teach. If it seems like many college catalogs seem like a haphazard collection of small niche courses, that’s because faculty tend to want to teach classes that fall within their narrow research interests. Writing a book about women’s literature in France from 1820 to 1840? Why not kill two birds with one stone and teach a course about it? Who cares if this is not exactly a broad foundational course that most undergraduates need?
Faculty also often can determine when they want to teach. We tend to think that it is students who want to have four-day weekends and classes in the afternoon, but faculty also like to hold classes Tuesdays and Thursdays from 11:30 to 1. In fact, on some campuses students find that it is difficult to take all of the classes they need to graduate because they seem to meet at the same time.
Perhaps the most disturbing power that faculty have come to have through tenure is the power over who is doing the teaching. Many senior faculty simply prefer not to be in the classroom. And our higher education system at all levels rewards research. As the tenured faculty opt to spend their time teaching small seminars on narrow subjects at times that are convenient for them, the large introductory courses are more often taught by adjuncts. These are teachers who are paid less than minimum wage and often don’t find out if they have a job until a week before the semester begins. They have no office and sometimes no office hours. And studies show that having a higher percentage of adjuncts on campus is correlated with lower graduation rates. Tenured professors can ensure that it is the least experienced teachers with the least support of the institution who are at the front of classrooms.
Tenure has given the faculty too much power and it has made colleges unaccountable to students, parents and taxpayers. In times like ours, this is a situation that cannot and should not endure.
Naomi Schaefer Riley is the author of The Faculty Lounges… And Other Reasons Why You Won’t Get the College Education You Paid For. (Ivan Dee, 2011). She is also a regular contributor to the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Brainstorm blog.