The Future of Education: A Poll

The Effects of Ending Tenure

Presidents were asked how their institutions would be affected if tenure were to be abolished overnight. There is roughly an even split between those who support tenure and those who oppose it, though few feel very strongly either way. Most are familiar with at least some of the hypothetical outcomes of abolishing tenure, though presidents who argue either for or against are diverse in their reasoning. In other words, no particular negative or positive of tenure is a "rallying cry" for either side.

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Surprisingly, a majority of respondents (57 percent) say "little would actually change" if tenure were abolished at all universities at once, suggesting that tenure has a smaller effect on schools' hiring and firing practices than many have supposed.

But across the board, regardless of whether they support the institution, university presidents agree that no single school could ever abolish tenure on a stand-alone basis without dramatic, negative consequences for the quality of academics and student life, as well as for the financial stability of the school.

One might imagine that a simultaneous and global abolition of tenure might be the surest way to have least effect on faculty retention and recruiting.

-- President of a private research university with 5,000 to 10,000 students.

Other reasons given for either supporting or abolishing the institution include fear of academic censorship via influence of trustees or donors, the flawed implementation of tenure practice itself, and lack of workable alternative hiring practices.

Most people do not understand that far from preventing universities from firing faculty, tenure actually forces you to fire lots of faculty who are very good but just not good enough.  In a collegial institution without such a forcing function, it is far from clear that universities would make such tough "up or out" decisions.

-- President of a private research university with 5,000 to 10,000 students

Trustees, donors, and legislators would find it easier to have their objections to the views of faculty members heard and acted on, and faculty members less certain of their job security vis-a-vis administrators and their colleagues would be more likely to engage in self-censorship of unpopular intellectual, religious, and political views than they already are.

-- President of a private research university with 5,000 to 10,000 students

[T]enure would be replace[d] by limited-term contracts and a complex, burdensome, continuous review of all faculty members at all levels of appointment.  The workload required to do it sufficiently well to stand up to the scrutiny of "equitable" review is remarkably large. To do this for the goal of separating a few who are normally called "incompetent" is very expensive and actually in a pragmatic world is not likely to be done well, either. Catching incompetence at the major universities is not the biggest problem. [Lack of] a mandatory retirement age is a much greater problem.

-- President of a public research university with 20,000+ students
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Emily Q. Hazzard is an associate editor at WaPo Labs. She was previously an associate producer for Al Jazeera's The Stream and an editorial project associate at The Atlantic.

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