Thoughts on Tenure Systems

I was thinking about Olin College for some reason, which launched me into something of a rathole about tenure and academia.

I have a buddy at Olin College, and I've heard some people rave about how awesome and hard-core revolutionary the program is. And I think it's pretty nifty that in the late 20th and early 21st century, new institutions of higher learning can start and (hopefully) succeed. Having said that, as I am wont, I was curious about how tenure was dealt with.

Olin College is distinctive in several ways. First, it does not intend to establish traditional academic departments. Instead, the internal academic structure will involve several multidisciplinary clusters of faculty whose primary bond is the successful development of a cohort of engineering students. In addition, faculty employment relations will be based on renewable contracts rather than a traditional tenure system.

Now we're talking about a faculty that I suspect (this is a guess) is maybe 40 people, and maybe growing a little. Also tangentially, "academic departments" are almost always about institutional administration. Now in a small setting you don't could probably cut out that mid-level administrator, and just have the dean and a couple of people in that office take care of those kinds of things, but I'm not sure that really cuts much out, but whatever.

I have to say that I've had better experiences at institution where tenure is stronger, and the cries of, "but it isn't economically viable!" is distracting, and I have yet to be convinced. I'm also convinced that when faculty are more fulfilled and supported, students learn more (and better). Part of keeping faculty supported is tenure, not to mention, living wages and health insurance. But there's a difference between adjuncts that teach 5 intro-level classes a term and tenure/tenure-track professors that teach about three classes a term (or less), and have the opportunity to do research, and be active professionally.

I remain convinced that Tenure remains useful, even in the contemporary world. I can think of no other renewable contract-faculty type system that might successfully encourage research. You can't have meaningful research/publication systems without it. Tenure allows for the ebb and flow that's typical of the general career, it grants freedom, and sets expectations that research be incorporated into faculty life. Renewable contract systems focus on teaching, because that's easy to talk and think about.

Unfortunately, or fortunately, as long as tenure continues to exist, those jobs will be preferable to non-tenure jobs to many people, and thus continue to attract better faculty. At the very least, I think tenured faculties will be more acceptable. To make an analogy, new science fiction magazines that pay writers, "pro rates," tend to sell better, than ones that pay less than the 3 cents per word mark, because readers know that they're able to buy better stories from authors, and are able to perceive that difference.

The idealistic (and flagrantly incorrect) free-market argument should suggest that non-tenured full time jobs should pay more than tenured jobs (trading the security of tenure, for an increase in salary) and frankly if that were the case, it might not seem like quite as bad of a deal, but not only do non-tenure jobs, tragically misunderstand the role and purpose of faculty, but they put faculty in a pretty precarious situation, it seems to me, and that's not good.

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