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Could the Recession End Tenure?

Back in February, Gordon Gee, the president of The Ohio State University, went on the record questioning the validity of tenure in higher education institutions. A takedown piece posted this week in Slate puts that system in its crosshairs, arguing that opposition to tenure may soon see many universities adopting systems, such as Boston University's Michelle Rhee-like offer of pay bonuses in exchange for professors opting out of tenure.

There are well-trodden arguments for ending tenure: You wouldn't run any other business that way. The environment of 'publish or perish' that young professors must endure ends up hurting the quality of education that students receive.

But, as writer Christopher Beam points out, critics of tenure may have a stronger case today than in years past—thanks to the current economic climate.

As tuition climbs and universities struggle to pay their bills, tenure is starting to look unaffordable. Keeping a professor around indefinitely—tenure means they can't be forced to retire—simply costs a lot. Mark C. Taylor, chair of the Columbia University department of religion and author of the forthcoming Crisis on Campus: A Bold Plan for Reforming Our Colleges and Universities, calculates that someone who serves as an associate professor with tenure for five years and then becomes a full professor for 30 years costs a private university $12.2 million. Public universities pay $10 million over the same period. And because most universities pay tenured professors out of their endowments, each professor freezes up tens of millions in otherwise-liquid endowment money for a generation. University debt jumped 54 percent last year, with an average debt of $168 million. If the average university tenured about 15 fewer professors, they'd be in the black.


If that doesn't make tenure sound more like an unsustainable entitlement program (and not a system for guaranteeing academic freedom), I don't know what could. One group that should be in favor of killing tenure: students. Without it, schools might not have to raise tuition to make up their budget shortfalls.

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