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Tenure Reform

I'm a potentially-aspiring academic -- that is, depending on what happens with my personal life, I'm quite likely to find myself seeking a tenure-track academic job. Nevertheless, I quite agree with Neil Sinhababu's thoughts on tenure reform. In brief, he suggests that tenure should not be an all-or-nothing permanent decision. Rather, professors should get long-term contracts (say 15 years), at the end of which they must show that they're still producing the high-quality scholarship and teaching to deserve another 15 years. After a couple such renewals, highly distinguished faculty could get permanent tenure. This system seems like a good compromise between preventing complacency and giving academics space to work out ideas and take up long-term projects without worrying that some supervisory body is breathing down their neck.

I always have to roll my eyes when I see most defenders of the tenure status quo whipping themselves into a righteous frenzy about how necessary it is to protect their freedom. I've come to the conclusion that tenure is valuable to most academics not so much because it allows them to take controversial stands without being fired, but rather because it allows them to imagine that their stands are so controversial -- so radial and upsetting to the powers that be -- that they need such protection.

I think such a long-term-but-not-permanent tenure system might also be beneficial to the truly radical scholars. (The obvious example here would be Andrea Smith, but I don't know the details of her case enough to directly apply my thoughts to her.) Certainly they would benefit more from permanent tenure -- but for that very reason they may be less likely to get it. If the tenure is only a 15-year contract, the university may be more willing to take a chance on a more status-quo-challenging scholar. Permanent tenure is such a momentous thing that it might be triggering (conscious or unconscious) prejudices that lead to second-guessing and eventual denial of tenure.


Blogger Alon Levy said...

The problem with 15-year appointments is that there isn't much opportunity for renewal then. What happens now is that you get a Ph.D. in your late 20s, let's say at 28. Then you have a postdoctoral appointment for two to four years, bringing you up to 31. Then you get an assistant professorship. After 5 years, when you're 36, you're up for tenure. So if tenure is replaced by 15-year appointments, it means that you'll retire toward the end of your second appointment.

The best argument I've seen for keeping tenure is that however bad academic politics is now, it will only get worse if every year the faculty has to discuss whether to keep 1/5th or 1/10th or 1/15th of the senior faculty.

1:13 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wanted to post a link to this post, but I can't get the url for it. Help?

10:16 AM  
Blogger Stentor said...

hafidha -- just click on the timestamp for a post to get its URL. The URL for this post is

10:26 AM  

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