It seems to me that there are forces at work that will ultimately lead to tenure positions being very rare and reserved only for the superstars who can command this. When we'll reach this state of affairs in the US is an open question that I think will largely depend upon what happens with state budget crises over the next 3-5 years. But for this to be the common state of affairs, given the pace of change in higher education might require another 20 years. It will depend I think on how long the "buyer's market" in academia continues.--Mr. Zero
Tenure is not in any simple sense a fiction. Its existence is that of all contractual arrangements and legally enforceable agreements, which is to say sometimes it is worth it for an organization to violate it, but it places a pretty high price on doing so. So for example, if at my SLAC, tenure were to be violated in any significant sense it would have consequences for morale (very important at SLAC) and for the successful operation of the college. It is in most cases a "nuclear option." At a large state school of middling to mediocre quality it's not so important. At a high end University it would ruin, I think, the institution chances of hiring the best talent.
That said there are all sorts of limits of tenure, since it is not absolute. Removal of academic programs can result in the elimination of tenure lines and therefore the faculty who hold them. (At some schools one is tenured to the college and so that even elimination of an academic program might not involve elimination of the line so much as a change to another department.
What's crucial is that tenure gives you grounds for a certain set of institutional and legal processes that limit the reasons for which you can be terminated. The most important of these protections is "corrupting the youth of Athens." Unfortunately, many faculty are under the somewhat silly idea that tenure means that they are guaranteed a job no matter how shittily and incomptetently they behave.
So, the idea that tenure provides additional security is I think correct, and I think it is a complex multi-variable problem of practical reasoning to determine whether or not a particular VAP is preferable to a particular TT job.
Thursday, March 4, 2010
In comments, anonymous 6:59 provides a refreshingly even-handed perspective. I would quibble with the word 'will' in the first sentence; while I see some worrying handwriting on the wall, I think it's far too early to go past 'might' and head straight to 'will.' Anyways, I thought it was worth reproducing the comment in full: