Higher Education’s Ultimate Failure

Who would have ever thought that tenure’s undoing in public higher education would be caused by higher education’s failure to achieve one of its most fundamental objectives: Teach people how to think critically.

There is a growing push to eliminate tenure for faculty in public higher education. Every argument that I have seen to support this change is illogical. The poor thinking reflected by tenure-eliminating advocates illustrates one important way in which higher education (and all education that preceded it) failed in its effort to teach critical thinking to its students, and, especially, how to avoid illogical arguments, inconsistent thinking, and unsound reasoning.

It seems that a general education philosophy course in logical thinking, co-taught with business political science, business, and engineering professors to emphasize its practicality, might have instead produced graduates who would not proffer or so easily fall prey to faulty arguments. Given its obvious importance and practicality in business, politics, and elsewhere, such courses should come at the very beginning and again at the very end of all degree programs.

The articles “Killing Tenure” and “Missouri Lawmaker Who Wants to Eliminate Tenure Says It’s ‘Un-American’” capture some of the illogical arguments used in the effort to eliminate tenure in public higher education.

As everyone should know, tenure is a job protection that exists to allow faculty to pursue lines of research that could be unpopular and lead to retribution. The fact that tenure has expanded into “astronomical freedom to do whatever they [faculty] wish” is primarily due to poor administration by generations of university presidents, provosts, and deans. Tenure is a job protection similar to the tools and safety equipment afforded to workers in hazardous industrial work environments; the protective equipment afforded to firefighters and law enforcement; the personal protective gear afforded to people who deliver healthcare; and redistricting to assure re-election and astronomical freedom to say whatever one wishes.

Generally, Kettle Logic informs the overall argument against tenure. Specific examples of illogical arguments shown below are taken from the article “Missouri Lawmaker Who Wants to Eliminate Tenure Says It’s ‘Un-American’,” and reflects the typical thought process and arguments among those who seek to eliminate tenure in public higher education.

Tenure is Un-American.
Type of illogical argument: Red Herring, False Equivalence
Comment: Sigh.

Tenure “protection” exists in no industry other than higher education.
Type of illogical argument: Special Pleading
Comment: Other forms employment have similar employment protection for the purpose of ensuring freedom from public or political pressure. For example, federal judges, to assure judicial independence. The unique nature of certain jobs require unique protections.

Degrees must correspond to jobs.
Type of illogical argument: False Equivalence
Comment: Job markets fluctuate and industry is fickle. The mission of higher education is not to chase to the ever-changing job market. Higher education could resolve this concern and increase transparency with a simple disclaimer: “Higher education is not mandated by society. As an optional educational experience, higher education serves the varied interests of students in relation to society’s ever-changing wants and needs. As such, academic programs and earned degrees may or may not lead to part- or full-time employment.” Such a statement would obviously remain true even if all degree programs corresponded precisely to jobs.

High cost of higher education is due to tenure.
Type of illogical argument: False Assumption
Comment: High costs (tuition and fees) are due primarily to bad processes throughout higher education, both in administrative and academic work. Today, less than half of full-time faculty members have tenure, and faculty wages, inflation adjusted, have been flat for more than 30 years.

Tenure allows professors to teach classes “that really aren’t.”
Type of illogical argument: Red Herring
Comment: Where this problem exists, the simple solution would be to improve the university-wide curriculum development and approval process.

Tenure allows professors to teach classes are disconnected from the real world.
Type of illogical argument: Faulty Generalization, Avoiding the Force of Reason.
Comment: Where this problem exists, the simple solution would be to improve the university-wide curriculum development and approval process. Another solution would be to improve the faculty hiring process so as not to discriminate against candidates with industry experience. Accreditation bodies would need to make accommodations for teaching faculty with wider ranges of experiences and degrees, and administrators (hiring officers) must not interpret such requirements in ways that narrow the range of teaching faculty experience, thereby excluding qualified candidates.

If you’re doing your job, then you don’t need tenure.
Type of illogical argument: Affirming the Consequent, Inductive Fallacy
Comment: Tenure is part of what enables faculty to do important elements of they job that they are specifically hired to do; e.g. research.

Professor’s job is to ensure students are successful in their job.
Type of illogical argument: Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc (faulty cause-effect)
Comment: Professors cannot control student outcomes post-graduation (Example: proffering illogical arguments that will harm people and society). Former student’s success in the workplace is controlled by their own performance, their immediate supervisor, other people, and other factors.

Students obtain degrees with no real-world applicability.
Type of illogical argument: Expediency
Comment: That’s a choice that students make. Is it wise? Maybe yes, maybe no. Those degree choices exist primarily because there is continuing marketplace demand.

Taxpayer and student dollars pay for faculty doing things outside of their job description.
Type of illogical argument: Shifting the Burden of Proof
Comment: Likely true in some cases, not true in most cases. Corrective action, if needed, is the responsibility of college and university administration, not state legislators.

“Where else in any other industry do you have” such highly educated people making such low pay? If tenure is eliminated in public higher education, then the pay of all full-time faculty must be raised to 50 to 100 percent to be on par with industry salaries. This is the same logic upon which eliminating tenure is built. The two go together precisely.

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