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A Libertarian Defense of Tenure

Aeon Skoble

Libertarians are understandably frustrated with the state of higher education today. Libertarian ideas often do not get covered, or are covered unfairly. Faculty are overwhelmingly left-of-center, and government subsidies have driven up costs, leading to higher student debt.

These are legitimate concerns of course. However, the solution to these problem is not to abolish the institution of tenure. Tenure is not anti-liberty, and it provides important protections for those who are libertarians (and conservatives) in academia. In addition, it has some efficiency properties that explain why it has survived and might well do so even in a world where the state had no role in higher ed.

There are many potential objections to tenure. For some, the idea that a tenured professor cannot be fired strikes them as a rejection of the free market. Others believe that tenure is a way of protecting leftist faculty, even if their ideas are wrong-headed, and students don’t wish to hear them. In that way, tenure is a kind of monopoly protection for bad ideas. Finally, people across the political spectrum believe that tenure creates so-called “deadwood” faculty who, once they are tenured, no longer have to care about their teaching or research.

First, let’s dispatch a common misconception: it is not true that tenured professors cannot be fired.  Tenured professors can be fired for a variety of reasons.  What tenure does is limit what counts as a valid reason for dismissal in order to protect academic freedom. A tenured professor can be fired if caught plagiarizing, or found guilty of sexual or other forms of harassment, or convicted of violent crime. But if she can be fired for writing an article that the dean disapproves of, she cannot perform her job. And that is where tenure comes in.

Understanding why tenure is a desirable institution requires us to remember the purpose of a university. Universities are, ideally, institutional arrangements that enable scholars to engage in the activities of seeking the truth and then sharing the fruits of our scholarship with students, other scholars, and perhaps the general public.

Essential to that project is that scholars are free to seek the truth as we see it, without interference by others who have different goals. Of course, scholars must play by some very simple rules of the game: do not lie or cheat; do not distort your data or the arguments of your sources; be transparent about conflicts of interest; do not engage in personal attacks or the use of force, among others.

If this sounds familiar, that’s because the search for truth is a discovery process analogous to the market. Just as entrepreneurs in a market require the freedom to discover value where their best judgment takes them, subject to rules against force and fraud, so do scholars in a university require the freedom to discover truth where our best judgment takes us.

Tenure protects scholars like us from interference with our attempts to discover truth. Scholars cannot engage in truth-seeking if we’re facing retaliation from people who don’t like where our research leads. A university cannot be a university without robust protection of the open exchange of ideas and the freedom of each scholar to research in his or her field without intimidation.

By ruling out the possibility of firing a professor simply for the content of her beliefs, tenure ensures that the university will be what Michael Polanyi called “a republic of science,” in which truth-seeking is the highest standard.

Skeptics might argue that even if tenure were abolished, faculty still wouldn’t leave their current jobs because they would find it difficult to get hired elsewhere. But that’s not the point. The point is that we cannot do our jobs without a credible guarantee of academic freedom, and tenure is one way to secure that.

Tenure protects academic freedom in three distinct ways. First, when we engage in research and publishing, we can’t be worried that some administrator, trustee, politician, or even a student activist will find our work offensive and retaliate against us. This will have a chilling effect on our ability to seek the truth, which is our job as college professors. There are numerous examples of libertarian and conservative faculty facing just these sorts of threats, and tenure is the primary reason those threats are empty.

Second, when we construct and teach our curricula, we can’t worry that any of the usual suspects will take offense, or try to substitute their judgment for ours. Finally, when participating in institutional decision making about academic matters, we can’t be afraid to call shenanigans on various administrator-driven fads (of which there are many) that would undermine our ability to engage in research and teaching.

Although we are open to alternative institutional processes if they could be shown to adequately protect academic freedom, abolishing tenure in their absence is a dicey proposition. Absent tenure, it is libertarians and conservatives who would be the first to be persecuted, censored, or silenced.

Politically correct ideas don’t need the protection of tenure because they are popular; tenure protects ideas that are not. Abolishing it would give still more power to the activists and administrators who seek to create an ideologically uniform academy.

Given those concerns, how big is the downside to tenure? If the complaint is that some faculty’s research productivity declines after tenure, then an easy fix is to have continued productivity tied to merit raises.  Nothing about the institution of tenure precludes post-tenure reviews and merit pay. And even if some faculty slack off as publishers, so what? As long as they’re good teachers, mentors, and colleagues, it’s not necessary that all college faculty be active publishers their whole careers.

Tenure offers a beneficial set of incentives for many universities. Faculty want the protections we have outlined above, and universities want to encourage faculty to develop university-specific human capital to better serve their educational vision and the type of students they attract. Faculty don’t necessarily want to make those specific investments if the opportunity cost may be enhancing their publication record so as to make them more attractive in the job market.

Tenure is a commitment by the institution to maintain a faculty member’s employment in return for abiding by some basic rules and demonstrating during the tenure process that they have acquired that institution-specific human capital. The faculty member gets enhanced, but not total, job security, and the institution gets someone committed to its particular needs. In this way, tenure is like marriage: we bind ourselves to an arrangement with high exit costs in order to incentivize ourselves to commit to the relationship. Just as marriage is compatible with a free society, so is tenure.

There are many problems with contemporary higher education, but tenure isn’t one of them. Ending tenure would exacerbate many of those issues while also creating new ones. And in an institutional setting where the opponents of liberty hold most of the cards, getting rid of one of the most important institutions that protects dissent and the ability to seek the truth will only silence the friends of liberty.

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