Jul 18, 2011

The feminist case against tenure

It may be difficult to improve, in a reasonable span of time, the representation of women (and other underrepresented groups) in the philosophy professoriate unless there is either (i) a careful reconsideration of tenure or (ii) a strong affirmative action policy for hiring or (iii) both. (Other smaller steps may be helpful in the long run, such as the Gendered Conference Campaign and various efforts at combating implicit biases affecting hiring decisions-- but it seems unlikely that these efforts, even if massively successful, will be sufficient in the absence of the larger steps I mentioned.)

Many people see affirmative action as a way of promoting professorial diversity, but affirmative action is controversial and has some fairly serious downsides. Revising tenure, on the other hand, may be possible without any real sacrifice of academic liberties and may be one of the most effective ways of promoting diversity-- and yet very few (if any) commentators concerned with diversity make this point. 

Here's why tenure is important. The current tenure system is very conservative in the sense that it limits turnover, which tends to make it harder for underrepresented groups to increase their representation in the short and medium-term. On the other hand, tenure is beneficial to those who have it, so once representation of a group increases, tenure has the effect of making those gains more permanent in the long-term. From the perspective of enhancing diversity in the academy, tenure therefore has both advantages and disadvantages. Anyone who wants greater professorial diversity but has no interest in considering even minor revisions to tenure is holding an unstable position-- tenure, carefully crafted, is a boon to a diverse academy, but it would be a tremendous miracle if the current tenure system is delivering the greatest benefits at the lowest cost relative to other options. 

An honest consideration of tenure is thus a feminist issue, as well as an issue for anyone who wants to promote a more diverse professoriate with respect to all underrepresented groups.


  1. The tenure system is basically crazy. After years of toiling we reward the professor (supposedly) with freedom of speech among other things. Why not give him freedom of speech upon being hired? Also, once he has freedom of speech, we take away much of his incentive to actually publish anything. So the people who are free to speak/write have the least incentive to do so. Freedom of speech should not be contingent on age or prestige. And achievement should be rewarded by a higher salary. And it should be possible to lose this higher salary if performance drops. Otherwise, we've created enormous moral hazard.

  2. R.d.,
    I'm relatively unconcerned about the issue of incentives, given that almost everyone who is able to be awarded tenure is very strongly motivated by the work itself (rather than extrinsic factors, like compensation). Many scholars remain productive well into their 70s and 80s, and the number of academics whose productivity plummets after getting tenure is probably quite small. (Remember that research productivity is only part of one's productivity as a professor- some professors will shift more of their time to teaching or administrative duties rather than research.)

    I do agree, though, that we should want to revise tenure in such a way as to protect (and even extend) academic liberties. One might, for example, hire professors for fairly long-term contracts (e.g. 5 years), with restrictions on what sorts of grounds are valid causes for terminating or failing to renew the contract. These restrictions could be as close to the current tenure system as you like, ensuring that academic liberties are protected.

  3. So, if these people are so motivated, why have rewards at all? Maybe the Nobel prize should just be a picture you can put up on the refrigerator. Sorry, I don't buy it. In a time of incredibly high tuition, isn't it sad to see some of this money going to unproductive (fairly wealthy) people, resting on their laurels? Anecdotally, I know of cases of people working less hard after tenure, even dramatically so. Or working less hard on what they are paid to do. There's a reason people in other professions are rewarded with bonuses instead of tenure. Incentives matter for everyone.

    You say the number of academics who work much less hard after tenure is "probably quite small." You cite no data on this. So, I assume "probably" is your prior assumption. Do you really assume human nature to be so hard-working? Why don't we just pay professors "enough to live on", maybe $10/hour? Because they ask for more pay than that!