Thursday, July 22, 2010

Professor Plum, With a Candlestick, In the Study

The comments to yesterday’s post shed more heat than light, but I’ll concede one point: the piece was snarkier than necessary. It was a reaction to the persistent and fundamental failure of our major opinion leaders to even understand the question. Sometimes my frustration at their obtuseness boils over, as it did yesterday.

That said, though, a few commenters raised the serious question of transition. How would we get from a tenure system to a contract system? What are the likeliest sources of change? If tenure gets killed, who will have killed it?

I’ve thought about this off and on for years. A few scenarios, with annotations:

1. The Class Polarization Hypothesis. I consider this the likeliest. In this scenario, tenure fades away to irrelevance at all but the most elite institutions, driven almost entirely by cost. The Harvards of the world can keep it forever if they want to, but the St. Somebody Colleges in the East Wherevers of the world just can’t. I’d expect that a combination of program closures, campus closures, and generational rule changes will continue the trend of reducing the presence of tenured faculty outside the elites. It’s basically an extension of the trend line of the past forty years or so.

2. Judicial Fiat. Although some like to claim that tenure is nothing more than an entitlement to “due process,” the courts have consistently recognized it as a property claim. Of course, courts can change their minds. If a high-level court of appeals were to reconstrue the meaning of tenure, all bets would be off. I consider this unlikely in my neck of the woods, but in the South or Southwest, I wouldn’t rule it out. Get a conflict going between federal circuits, and things could get unpredictable.

3. PATCO. In the early 1980’s, the Air Traffic Controllers’ union (Patco) went on strike. President Reagan hired permanent replacements for the striking workers, and the precedent has stood since. Imagine a tenured, unionized public faculty going on strike, and the governor declaring that he’ll just hire permanent replacements. It would be horrendous on the ground, and would probably only occur if a governor were Republican, desperate, and prone to confrontation. In other words, I’d look at California or Arizona, or maybe South Carolina.

4. Displacement. It may be that tenure survives in many lower-tier institutions, but those institutions themselves become largely irrelevant. Nobody seriously disputes that the major growth sector in higher ed for the last two decades or so is the for-profits, and I’ve never heard of a for-profit with a tenure system. (Some of them have full-time faculty, but not tenure.) Since the for-profits thrive on growth and the publics choke on it, it’s unsurprising that the for-profits are becoming progressively larger and more important players. Over time, this could feed into scenario 1.

5. Everything is Fine. This strikes me as the least likely by far, given the trend lines of the lasty forty years. It’s also the majority position in higher ed. Every so often the cognitive dissonance gets a little wearing.

I recognize that many of my wise and worldly readers think I’m mistaken. So I’ll pose my question to them. What will keep tenure alive and widespread? (The key word in that sentence is ‘will,’ as opposed to, say, ‘should.’)