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Education Reporter

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Faulty Towers: Tenure and the Structure of Higher Education, Ryan C. Amacher and Roger E. Meiners, The Independent Institute, 2004, 94 pp. (exclusive of appendix), $14.95.

This slender paperback is really two books in one: an overview of the role of tenure in American universities and a list of well-argued suggestions for reforming university management, in which tenure does not figure at all.

At least half of the book is devoted to arguing that reformers' focus on the impediments posed by tenure is misplaced. After reviewing reported cases on the subject, the authors contend that the law already allows incompetent or unproductive professors to be fired even if they have the typical contractual protection of tenure. "It is extraordinarily rare for a university to be ordered to reinstate a dismissed faculty member," they conclude.

Somewhat surprisingly, the book reveals that tenure was never intended to guarantee lifetime employment to college professors. Lifetime faculty employment was the norm long before tenure became widespread in the early 20th century. Tenure — which requires specified cause for dismissal — was actually intended to upgrade faculty ranks by introducing the concept of a tenure track with a probationary period of several years, following which the faculty member would move up or out.

Instead of trying to abolish tenure, Faulty Towers urges reformers to work on the inefficient norms of public and non-profit university management. Most universities have a democratic model of faculty participation in governance. Faculty members exercise excessive control over who is the president, what other departments should be doing, and how faculty should be compensated. Public colleges employ about 40% more labor than private colleges for the same amount of capital. Bureaucratic resistance to change stymies efforts to reward increase productivity, cut undersubscribed programs, or design new programs that could threaten someone's departmental turf.

What are the solutions? "Binding decisions by faculty committees must be largely ended," so that more power is concentrated in the senior administrators and trustees. Trustees should support administrators who fire incompetent teachers. Greater use of student evaluations and fewer course requirements (many of which simply function as jobs programs for their departments) would help.

State universities should be decentralized, with less governmental regulation, less control by flagship universities which have little incentive to improve other colleges in the same system, more freedom to set tuition, and use of tuition vouchers.

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