Sunday, July 17, 2011

Tenure: The Club

Recently Stanley Fish had a interesting op ed piece in the NYTimes. It was about tenure because he was commenting on a book that was questioning the need for tenure. His view, as I understood, was that tenure would make more sense if professors actually did what they once did -- open-minded research that may or may not reveal some inconvenient information.

I have a different take on tenure. It's just a club. How so? In law schools faculty have about 5 years to prove they are tenure worthy. A decision is made in the sixth year and if they are told no they have a year to fine another job. Law schools hire people and, I am estimating, grant tenure to about 90% of the people they hire. What that means is that the initial hiring committee turns out to be right about 90% of the time. Evidently, though, they are right 90% of the time only for their own schools.

What do I mean by that? In my 30 plus years of law teaching I have see a small handful of tenure turndowns, early departures, etc. In that same time I have seen a grand total of 5 faculty take jobs at higher ranked schools. One was Liz Warren now at Harvard. One is at Virginia and another at Vanderbilt. I am saying 5 because I probably missed a couple. One way to interpret this is that most law schools hire people who are just good enough for the school hiring them -- no better (otherwise more would leave for better schools) and no worse (otherwise they would not be granted tenure).

Is it really possible that on the bases of a resume and an interview that this near perfect matching occurs? I doubt it and you should too. What happens too often is that the incumbent faculty member makes friends, knows better than to rock the boat, and, if he or she generates a fan club, the rest of the faculty agree on tenure in hopes of reciprocation when one of their favs comes along. It's not hard to get a fan club because in all likelihood the new hire was hired because he or she was already part of the elite school, class, or family connection club that the faculty hiring him or were already in. When you think if it, not getting tenure is only a little more difficult that having it taken away which is actually close to impossible.

So, the debate about whether tenure is necessary strikes me as mostly theoretical. We do not need to worry about that until someone actually begins to grant tenure or not based on what is best for the school as opposed to the faculty. Don't hold your breath.


Anonymous said...

Interesting to compare the 5 UF departures over 30 years to similar departures from FSU over just the past 10 years: Virginia, Penn, Vanderbilt, UCLA, Illinois (2), Boston College, North Carolina, William & Mary, Ohio State, just off the top of my head (and being very conservative as to what counts as a move up). 1 per year; that's 6x UF's rate, despite FSU having a faculty size half of Florida's, which means the FSU per capita rate is 12x Florida's rate. So, at least one school seems to be able to pick them a lot better than Florida.

Jeffrey Harrison said...

I agree that FSUs hiring is much more impressive than Florida's. I do, however, think in your conservatism about what it means to move up you have underestimated FSU.