It’s worth taking a moment to read what William Powers, the departing president of the University of Texas, has to say about the future of his institution, which, I suspect, is the future of higher education writ large. Actually, I think, as he notes explicitly, this is the present of higher education. It’s just that, perhaps because Powers is on his way out the door, he’s willing to do what few other senior university administrators are: say so publicly.
Here are some key paragraphs with bold text added for emphasis:
The institution of tenure has served American universities for a long time. It certainly is a necessary tool for individual schools to compete for the best faculty. But we need to be realistic by recognizing that it also has costs. It’s a form of institutional leverage, just like debt or any long-term contract, that locks an institution into a long-term arrangement that might be out of kilter with the needs of a changing student body and changing research needs. Coupled with the federal law that we can’t have a mandatory retirement age, it can present a barrier for young aspiring scholars to embark on teaching careers.
Rather than debate these issues as an all-or-nothing matter, we should implement our system in a way that looks to the purposes tenure serves. In fact, we already do that. American higher education, including UT, has been using an increasing share of non-tenured faculty. In this sense, American higher education has been de-tenuring itself, that is, unleveraging itself, for the last 20 years. My point here is that we need to do this in a purposeful way that is aligned with our large-scale teaching and research goals in ever more detailed ways. We need to use tenure when it is most needed: where competition is the keenest and where research is more central to the enterprise. It is less necessary where those two features aren’t present. Again, my point here is not that I have the answer. My point is that we can’t shy away from an issue even as sacred as how we use tenure. We need to lead the way by implementing everything we do in light of the purposes we claim it promotes.
There are a host of other issues we face in designing our academic programs. Which graduate programs are more critical to our teaching mission, and which are more critical to our research mission? Which programs are more critical to our mission of teaching undergraduates, and which are more important at the graduate level? We will always need a campus conversation to sort out these issues. But we won’t sort them out in a way that makes us better — makes us more productive — if we focus our aspirations and goals only at the broadest and most abstract level.
Welcome to the winner-take-all university.