Tenure is the Problem

The article, “Law School Professors Face Less Job Security(WSJ, 11 August 2013) suggests that law schools’ labor cost problem, the direct result of declining enrollment, can only be corrected by changing the tenure system to give administrators greater flexibility to reduce the number of faculty. Tenure, it appears, is the biggest problem that plagues law schools when tuition revenue declines (and prices can’t be raised and reducing salaries is not feasible).

From this article, it seems clear that law school administrators are unwilling to do the following:

  • Think
  • Be creative
  • Determine the root cause of their problem(s)
  • Improve their product and service
  • Improve administrative and academic processes

This is too much to ask and too difficult to do. Instead, law school administrators want the ability to terminate faculty when needed, and eliminating or changing tenure will help achieve that objective – yet they have always had the ability to terminate faculty due to financial exigencies.

In pursuit of one’s academic work, faculty need to be able to speak truth to power; to critique and criticize (speak and write freely) without fear of losing one’s job (in the same way that workers will not participate in kaizen [think and do freely] if it will cost them their job). It’s a simple cause-and-effect that leaders prefer to ignore. Tenure in higher education (like the so-called “qualified job guarantee” in kaizen) has never meant lifetime employment, yet the generations of administrators who have treated it as such (e.g. an unwritten contract), bear the consequences of their decision not to take action when faculty have failed in their responsibilities (e.g. terminated “for cause”).

More generally, what worker wouldn’t want the ability to speak truth to power? I have worked in several organizations, both in private industry and higher education, where you cannot speak truth to management, and the organization was worse off as a result of blocked information flow. Higher education administrators and others should want to strengthen tenure in academia (and elsewhere; e.g. “qualified job guarantee” in Lean organizations), rather than diminish it.

In the end of the article, a student said: “I want the best educational experience, [the tenure system] really gets in the way of getting the right teachers in the right places.” That is a very important complaint, but it has nothing to do with tenure. It is an operations (staff and scheduling) problem that is the responsibility of administrators. Someone should educate the student on that.

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