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GOP Goes After Tenure

Walter Russell Mead

Republican state legislators across the country, concerned about rising tuition prices and eager to combat academic liberal bias, are taking aim at faculty tenure protections at state universities. The Wall Street Journal reports:

For decades, tenured professors held some of the most prestigious and secure jobs in the U.S. Now, their status is under attack at public and private colleges alike.

In states facing budget pressures such as Missouri, North Dakota and Iowa, Republican lawmakers have introduced bills for the current legislative sessions to eliminate tenure, cut back its protections or create added hoops that tenured faculty at public colleges must jump through to keep their jobs. University administrators, struggling to shave their costs, are trying to limit the ranks of tenured professors or make it easier to fire them.

The anti-tenure crusaders have some of the right impulses, but they seem to be approaching the problem with a meat ax rather than a scalpel. Here are some thoughts on a more productive way to proceed.

First, the best place to trim higher education budgets is administration. Administrative bloat, much of it driven by federal regulations, represents a loss to both taxpayers and students; this is an area where savings could be procured with less political backlash. For example, the average state university today is an unwieldy mix of institutions and activities that maybe don’t all need to be under one roof. Legislators should think about ways to disaggregate them and promote competition. Do colleges need to run dormitory systems? Health clinics? Dining halls?

Second, policymakers should develop a comprehensive vision for higher education reform, rather than conducting piecemeal attacks on this or that activity. While there is a lot wrong with the modern American state university, they are complicated systems, and strong ones are an important economic asset for states and cities. The goal of reform shouldn’t be to punish professors perceived as radical or lazy. The goal of reform should be to build a stronger, smarter, more productive higher education system that does a better job for kids at a sustainable cost both to students and taxpayers.

Third, policymakers could draw sharper distinctions between disciplines and between teaching and research. Not all disciplines are equal, though many would like to pretend that they are. ‘Research’ is a much more important component of the natural sciences than in the humanities. It is not clear that the best teachers of the humanities are engaged in cutting edge research, nor is it clear that taxpayers are well served by funding ‘research’ into various postmodern critical theories (if you doubt this, see the Twitter account New Real Peer Review for real-life examples of the type of humanities work that is supported by public funds).

In the social sciences and the humanities, there may need to be a change in the expectation (which already in reality is being left behind) that every professor ultimately achieves tenure and that research plays a major role in getting there. Universities should improve the status of career teaching professors so that the current class of hyper-exploited adjuncts becomes a thing of the past. And they should reduce the number of research professors in many (not all) of the social sciences and the humanities. This actually improve the standing of many of the academics who carry the heaviest burden of student instruction while retaining serious scholars at state universities.

Attacking foul-mouthed tenured radicals who try to turn their classrooms into indoctrination shops is politically popular, but comprehensively reforming public higher education systems so they do a better job for more students is more important.

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