After I published The Faculty Lounges in 2011, making the case for ending tenure in higher education, interviewers would often ask me two questions: 1) Do you really think that's feasible? and 2) Where would it happen first?
Private institutions, I explained, are an unlikely starting point. Boards of trustees are often uninvolved and uninterested. But public institutions, whose policies are subject to review by state legislatures, have a much better chance. And institutions that are newer are also more likely to dismiss academic convention and opt instead for a more entrepreneurial culture. So it was not entirely surprising that Florida Polytechnic University, a new public research university scheduled to open in August 2014, has decided to offer multi-year renewable contracts to its faculty members instead of tenure.
Here's the report from Inside Higher Ed:
“We want to be a leading university, and we wanted to attract faculty who think out of the box, and who are ambitious and creative,” said Ghazi Darkazalli, vice president of academic affairs. “We don’t want them to be worrying within the first five or six years whether they’re going to be tenured or not.”
The faculty contracts will last for one, three or five years, and will be renewed based on merit “rather than on a set rule within the boundaries of tenure,” Darkazalli said. He said that abandoning the tenure model means that faculty members will be less inclined to pursue the kind of “trivial publication and research” professors on the tenure track sometimes feel is required of them to succeed, and instead focus on teaching and research beneficial to their students.
Mr. Darkazalli seems to have a pretty good understanding of the detrimental effects that tenure has on academia. But the union representatives are unhappy.
“Academic freedom and independence is necessary for high-achieving faculty to function, which is why top scholars typically refuse to go to institutions that cannot make these guarantees,” Paul M. Terry, president of the University of South Florida System chapter of the United Faculty of Florida. “Since top institutions do make such guarantees, any institution lacking them will fail to attract faculty in what is now an international marketplace.”
The market is such that academics cannot be as picky as Mr. Terry assumes. But his threat that the school will not be prestigious enough without tenure is typical. In fact, Florida Polytechnic might look at the Olin College of Engineering in Massachusetts. With no tenure, Olin has managed to get professors to leave schools like the University of Iowa or Vassar and get students to turn down schools like MIT and Berkeley. As the dean there told me, having tenure is like being placed in "golden handcuffs": "There are more important things than permanent employment."