To tenure, or not to tenure, that is the question
Over at Confessions of a Community College Dean, there's an interesting discussion going on of the merits of tenure versus long-term, renewable contracts. It's based, in part, on an article that Dean Dad has up at Inside Higher Ed. Here's my response to these issues.
Tenure has its merits. One is that it protects people from firing based not on competence or performance, but on other, less defensible grounds (e.g., political orientation). Another is that it provides a very strong incentive for people to be very productive early in their careers.
At really "high end" institutions, the down-side of tenure is, I think, less of a problem. What I know of the economists at Harvard, or MIT, or Columbia, or Berkeley, or Chicago, or Northwestern, or Wisconsin...suggests that they are motivated very strongly by a desire to find out how the world works, and a very strong desire to be recognized as excellent. Tenure there is probably neither a strong motivator nor a major problem once people are tenured.
It's at mid-level research institutions, and at "teaching" institutions, that tenure provides the strongest early-career motivation. And where it can have the least desirable later-career consequences. For most people, those later-career consequences don't exist, because they (we) are more internally motivated than externally motivated. We want--need--to do a good job, by our own lights, and we continue to be more-or-less productive. Tenure protects us, but absent really dreadful administrators and absent political interference, we don't really need it.
The other issue about tenure comes with the end of mandatory retirement rules. What was originally seen as a guarantee with an expiration date is now a guarantee without an expiration date. That's a problem (see, for example, Larry Summers' comment in his resignation letter that the median age of the tenured faculty at Harvard is 60. If fewer and fewer people are retiring, universities will find it more and more difficulty to bring in the brightest of the new generations. At my own institution, the median age of tenured/tenurable faculty is 58. Yikes.)
But that concern about incompetent administrators and political interference has some resonance, I think, for a lot of people. It's not hard to find current examples of administrators without the spine to stand up for their faculty. It's not hard to find legislators who are all too ready to interfere politically in universities. In private institutions, donors.
My own prefered system combines longer-term contracts with some additional protections against abuse. I like a shorter (3-4 year) probationary period, followed by rolling 6-year contracts. For each year in which a faculty member earns a "satisfactory" performance evaluation, one year is added to the end of the contract. And dismissal must, finally, be for cause.
I think it's essential that the faculty be involved in developing--and monitoring and revising--the performance evaluation systems, so that what constitutes satisfactory performance is as transparent and as objective as possible. I think that a system of appeals, involving faculty as ajudicators, for annual evaluations is a good thing. And I think "term limits" for administrators may also be a good thing as well.
I believe security is essential for people to do good scholarship and good teaching, to take chances, to be offered the opportunity to take risks professionally without immediate dire consequences. But I do have some reservations about making it a lifetime guarantee.