Saturday, November 13, 2004
The arguments for and against tenure are many and I do not have the energy this Saturday morning to hash them all out. Suffice it to say that the only argument for tenure that makes sense to me is this: We have a social interest in encouraging intensive specialization in certain topics that may nonetheless go in and out of fashion. In order to motivate people to devote their lives to a particular narrow topic -- say, the political society of France during the late Middle Ages -- we need to guarantee that they will not be discharged simply because academic tastes change. That guarantee, delivered in principle after proof of academic accomplishment, is tenure.
Since, however, virtually all professors in professional schools (law, business, medicine, engineering and so forth) do not devote themselves to a truly narrow academic specialty and can and often do find alternative or supplemental income from the private sector, I cannot imagine why any university would want to limit its flexibility to sever professors that become academically unproductive or terminally boring. 'Nuff said.
"We have a social interest in encouraging intensive specialization in certain topics that may nonetheless go in and out of fashion."
That is true in part; however, tenure is also intended to ensure that professors are free to hold unpopular views without fear of retribution, i.e. provide a guarantee of "academic freedom."
In practice, of course, professors with unpopular views among their colleagues are less likely to get tenure, so the protection is really against society in general rather than co-academics.
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