Disincentivizing Dissent, Ctd

by Chris Bodenner

A reader writes:

How would abolishing tenure solve the problem of junior professors who are afraid to speak their minds? It would only generate more fear among faculty about rocking the institutional boat. The ranks of full-time non-tenure-track faculty are not filled with outspoken rabble rousers. Nor do we see much fearless speech in other industries in which employees lack job security. The tenure system has its flaws, but proposals like Beam's wouldn't fix them.

Perhaps more importantly: The blog debates on this topic tend to focus on aspects of tenure important in social sciences and humanities, such as the freedom to say controversial things. However, in the natural sciences and engineering, controversial speech is not a major issue. In these fields, tenure plays a vital role in allowing universities (especially public universities) to compete against private industry for top talent without paying top dollar up front.

The downside for the universities of this arrangement is small because even tenured faculty in natural sciences and engineering must keep bringing in the grant dollars to maintain a productive research group, and hence to command the respect of peers inside and outside the institution. So, once the institution has spent six years verifying that Prof. X is at least as aggressive, savvy, competitive and career-focused as she is is intelligent, the risk of offering her a lifetime contract is small.

From the standpoint of the science or engineering researcher, tenure is valuable because it makes it easier to take risks. Most successful researchers can point to moments in their careers when they bucked the conventional wisdom to take a risk on a novel research concept, or to steer their careers into a new area in which they did not have prior expertise, often via a cross-disciplinary collaboration. Tenure makes such innovation easier.

Beam is also dead wrong about what universities look for in making tenure decisions, at least in the natural sciences and engineering. The most productive institutions seek a risk-taking temperament in their junior faculty. The kiss of death for a tenure case at a successful institution is "smart fellow, but he's largely followed in the footsteps of his elders"! Demonstrating a potential for innovation (or, better, a track record of innovation) is the name of the game at a competitive institution.

Why do I focus on what goes on in the natural sciences and engineering? Because the "big business" of academia is technical research - not political science, economics, law or humanities. This is so because sci-eng research is where major grant funding exists (which in turns reflects societal needs; for example, we need breakthroughs in energy technologies more than breakthroughs in feminist legal theory). This grant funding is pursued vigorously by most major universities, which compete over the size of their grant portfolios much more than over the quality of their law faculty.

So from an institutional perspective, even the worst-case scenario for tenure in the social sciences and humanities is a burden worth bearing in exchange for the benefits of tenure in the natural science and engineering.