By Francis Fukuyama
Sunday, April 19, 2009
I'm a tenured professor. But I'd get rid of tenure.
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.
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.
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.
Things don't have to be this way. Academic freedom can thrive in think tanks and research institutes. U.S.-style tenure doesn't exist in Britain or Australia. Japan grants tenure but forces professors to retire at a relatively early age (60 at Tokyo University).
The freedom guaranteed by tenure is precious. But it's time to abolish this institution before it becomes too costly, both financially and intellectually.
Francis Fukuyama is a professor of political economy at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.