The Lean Case for Tenure

Critics of higher education often cast doubt or label as unconvincing the role of tenure in protecting academic freedom. Firstly, tenure is often misinterpreted as “lifetime job security,” as I have previously noted. Secondly, advancing truth through academic freedom made possible by tenure runs parallel to the requirement in Lean for management to guarantee to employees that they will not become unemployed as a result of participating in kaizen (seeking the truth about problems). That, too, is not lifetime job security.

People willingly and enthusiastically participate in kaizen in organizations where the so-called “qualified job guarantee” is made. Unfortunately, the leaders of most organizations do not offer a “qualified job guarantee,” resulting in unwilling and unenthusiastic participation in kaizen (and, predictably, layoffs as a result of kaizen). Employees are not given the ability to think freely, and so the truth remains hidden behind the dense fog of organizational politics. Despite greatly suppressing enthusiasm for improvement, progress is made through compliance to management’s demands – but at a much slower pace than would otherwise be possible (meanwhile, the slow pace of change is one of senior managers’ perpetual complaints). The desired results are never achieved quickly enough because the appropriate safeguards were not put into place by senior managers at the start.

Likewise, if the purpose of higher education remains to advance knowledge by seeking the truth (problem-solving), educate students, and satisfy the needs of society, then appropriate safeguards must be put into place by senior administrators. Tenure is both essential and an effective way to achieve this purpose as well as academic freedom. Though tenure, like anything, can be improved. If this and other empirical arguments are unconvincing, then it is clear that we face mental rigidity informed by illogical thinking: e.g. avoiding the force of reason, abuse of expertise, inability to disprove does not prove, special pleading, and red herrings (such as First Amendment protection). This, of course, suggests tenure critics may have political agenda rather than a genuine interest in improving this aspect of higher education.

Like any privilege, there can be much stupidity surrounding it. Both professors, administrators, and others misinterpret, misapply, or abuse tenure. These problems, however, can be corrected. To eliminate tenure because of its abuses and to ignore tenure’s benefits is bad decision-making caused by confirmation bias, as well as faulty estimating or forecasting of likely outcomes if tenure were eliminated.

Since leaving industry, I have worked full-time as a professor on a renewable contract basis, as a tenure-track professor, and as a tenured professor. From my perspective, tenure, this extra layer of protection to think and write freely, gives me the feeling (confidence) that I can be a little bit more aggressive in my academic work (research and teaching). The difference is small, yet it is significant. But, tenure does not make me overconfident and prone to do stupid things, or to think that I have a job for life. I respect the privilege and hope to be a good role model as a tenured professor.

From a Lean perspective, tenure is a must-have in academia, just as the “qualified job guarantee” is a must-have in industry – and in academia – for both faculty and staff.

Update (13 February 2014): Read this thoughtful defense of tenure by Prof. Lawler.

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