States Finally Challenging Antiquated Higher-Ed Tenure Laws

Published March 28, 2017

As far as I am aware, the only two groups that receive lifetime tenured employment are federal judges and college professors, the theory being these people need protection from undue political pressure. But today, there is as much blatant politicking involved in a Supreme Court appointment as there is in a presidential election, yet a president can only serve eight years, whereas a person could be a judge for 40 or 50.  

It makes even less sense professors are guaranteed such an expensive perk. The professorial lobby pretends tenure is essential to allow it to voice unpopular and unpatriotic opinions. There might have been a time when professors could have been fired for such, but currently, they are more commonly hired for having radical opinions.

Politics Don’t Belong in Classroom

The question of a professor of any political stripe being shown the exit because the academic administration disapproves of his or her leanings should be moot. Even if the field of study is history, philosophy, or the Republican Party in the 21st century, no professor has any business dragging partisan politics into the classroom. But suggest that to a liberal academic and he or she will claim censorship, as if the job description of a professor includes political proselytizing.

In the Socratic method, to which all academics give lip service, the function of the professor isn’t to tell young people what to think; it is meant to pave the way so they can think for themselves, encouraging them to ask hard questions and even question their own beliefs.

Tenure Tide Beginning to Turn

The American Association of University Professors reports the average salary of a tenured, full-time professor in the United States is now an astounding $142,000, but the good news is it looks as though the tide is finally beginning to turn, as public and private colleges alike are questioning the prudence of tenure.

Attacks on tenure have become commonplace since the 2008 recession cut public support for colleges and forced the latter to impose large tuition increases to make up for shortfalls. In Iowa, Missouri, and North Dakota, where budget cuts are imminent, legislators have introduced bills to eliminate tenure, cut back its protections, or dramatically increase the requirements for tenured faculty to keep their jobs.

The Wisconsin Legislature cut $250 million from the state universities’ budget and weakened the schools’ tenure law by requiring reviews every five years of tenured professors, to prove their continued effectiveness. Failure to provide such proof automatically places professors on a brief probationary period. Additionally, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) has introduced an accountability program to monitor the time professors spend in the classroom.

The State College of Florida eliminated new tenure-track positions as of July 2016. Pending Missouri legislation would end tenure awards after January 1, 2018. North Dakota has cut 500 full-time public college positions and can lay off tenured faculty with 12 months’ notice. Some smaller colleges are offering buyouts of their tenured professors to cull their ranks of older faculty.

Iowa state Sen. Brad Zaun (R-Urbandale) has introduced new legislation that would eliminate tenure positions for new hires and could strip it from current tenured professors at the state’s three largest universities. Zaun told The Wall Street Journal in February, “I just don’t think if you’re being paid with tax dollars you should be guaranteed a job for life.”

Professors Should Compete, Too

Defenders of tenure argue schools without it will lose the most talented academics and the funding grants they typically acquire for the colleges that employ them. But if the dangers that threatened the livelihood of professors disappeared long ago, why didn’t tenure, put in place to protect them, also go away long ago?  

States should put college professors on the same competitive playing field as everyone else and require them to answer for their large, taxpayer-funded salaries.

Jay Lehr, Ph.D. ([email protected]) is science director at The Heartland Institute.