By Bryan Caplan
Tenure is terrible. Well, it’s awesome for those of us who have it. The tenure system, however, is nonsense on stilts. Economists’ rationalizations for tenure are flimsy indeed. Just consider: Virtually all semi-prestigious professors have tenure, yet virtually no one in the for-profit sector has anything close. I know, we can construct fanciful scenarios where this chasm makes sublime economic sense, such as: “Professors are willing to sacrifice vastly more in salary than normal humans to eliminate the last vestiges of job insecurity” plus “Giving professors enormous job security has far less effect on their productivity than it would on normal humans.” But neither claim is remotely plausible. Lots of non-professors intensely value job security, and lots of professors heavily slack off once they get tenure.
Still, no individual professor is responsible for this corrupt system. And it’s hardly reasonable (or even useful) for an individual professor to renounce his tenure, whatever that might mean. It is reasonable, however, to ask: “How can my tenure be redeemed?”
The obvious starting point is: Don’t shortchange your students merely because you have tenure. Take pride in your teaching. Strive to edify and inspire even though the career rewards are trivial.
Next: Produce excellent research even though you totally don’t have to. Take pride in your contributions to human knowledge. Push yourself on both quantity and quality.
When you ponder these norms, however, they’re more rigorous than they look.
Suppose you’re teaching labor economics. Can you “strive to edify and inspire” if you gloss over intensely controversial subjects like the economics of discrimination? Absolutely not. You can’t take pride in your teaching while muttering, “Students can’t handle the truth.” The forthright yet friendly exploration of vital yet sensitive topics is part and parcel of great teaching. And while untenured teachers can plausibly protest, “I’ve got to think about my family’s security,” those of us with tenure know where our next paycheck is coming from. While there’s a small chance the administration hassles you, that’s a minor cost in the broad scheme of things. If tenured professors won’t voice awkward truths, who will?
Much the same hold for research. Slightly extending human knowledge on a topic no one cares about is rarely a worthwhile intellectual contribution. In a world of anxious conformists, most of the best research opportunities are mired in controversy – especially in the humanities and social sciences. If you want to create research that really matters, you should boldly proceed. Tenure takes care of your family, but who will put food on the table of ugly truths? Most of the time, the answer is: You or no one.
So make it you.
If you use your tenure to teach and research with integrity, you’re well above the bar. Yet if you’re earnest about redeeming tenure, you should also deploy it to defend the integrity of teaching and research in general. Untenured faculty can forgivably keep their mouths shut and their heads down. Those of us with tenure, however, are the obvious candidates to “give back”: To champion the rights of faculty and students to explore controversial ideas without fear. And bear in mind: for we professors, the only “controversial ideas” worthy of the name are ideas that are controversial on university campuses. Noam Chomsky may be more controversial than Milton Friedman in the broader world, but in academia almost no one needs to look over their shoulder before praising Chomsky.
Admittedly, the duty to stand up for the right to explore controversial ideas without fear is an imperfect duty; no one has time to stand up for everyone. Nevertheless, you have ample time to at least stand up for your own friends, your own colleagues, and your own students. Some anti-intellectual university functionary might get mad at you for doing so. If even a dream job for life doesn’t give you a backbone, though, what will?