Much has been written lately about the luxury of being a tenured faculty member and whether the tenure system has outlived its usefulness. It has not. Frankly it is more important than ever. Let me explain.
One of the most influential concepts of the last twenty years is “social capital.” The term was popularized by Robert Putnam in a book entitled Bowling Alone which documents and analyzes the general decline in collective activity in the United States. The title comes from the fact that while bowling is as popular as ever, bowling leagues are not, instead people tend to bowl alone.
But how does an examination of people’s bowling habits lead to a defense of tenure? Social capital is about the value that comes from maintaining good social relationships. When people have such relationships they bowl together, when these relationships atrophy they bowl alone. One of the most powerful products of a good social relationship is trust. Sustained satisfactory interaction builds trust. As trust builds, information between people flows more freely. Free information flow is especially valuable in workplace settings for companies that compete through innovation and are required to respond to rapid change. Employers in these environments have a strong interest in developing systems that promote good social relationships and build trust. And as any manager can tell you, while trust takes years to build, it takes only seconds to ruin. It is a very fragile asset.
Universities ask their faculty to freely share their knowledge with others. In general, professors do not hold the copyright to their work or receive royalty payments for their ideas. They give ideas away both to educate students and foster the development of even more powerful ideas as colleagues build on each others work. Professors also train their successors: Ph.D. students who eventually become part of the academy and compete with their mentors in the marketplace for ideas and jobs. In short, sharing information is the core activity of any university.
This is where tenure comes in: Faculty give up the value of their intellectual property and agree to share their ideas freely with others, in exchange for employment security. This exchange creates trust by ensuring faculty that they will not be put at a competitive disadvantage by sharing their knowledge with others. People who fear job loss, don’t share information, they hoard it.
But it would be folly to grant everyone tenure: It is a prize reserved for those with a sustained record of meaningfully adding to our body of knowledge and passing these new insights on to students. The competition for tenure is like a tournament: it encourages everyone to work hard for a prize that only some will win.
Universities are not the only institutions that use this employment strategy to build social capital and trust. Many organizations that rely on idea generation and information sharing work similarly. Perhaps the best examples are law and accounting firms. These organizations also hire people and put them through a process that grants some employees life-time benefits: partnership in the firm. Like university faculty, it is difficult for lawyers and accountants to capture all of the intellectual property from their intangible assets unless they are in business for themselves and it is important for senior accountants and lawyers to train junior employees to sustain the firm. These professionals are going to be far less willing to do this, if those junior employees could replace them. And the promise of partnership gets junior employees to work hard, just like tenure does for faculty.
Do universities make mistakes and tenure people who fail to perform after achieving this milestone? Of course they do. But law firms and accounting firms also award partner status to some people who fail to live up to expectations. Mistakes are the cost of doing business, but the benefits of the system far outweigh these isolated costs.
American higher education, especially graduate education is the envy of the world. Students from all over the globe want to study in the United States. We produce far more Noble Prize winners than any other country and ideas originating in universities help drive an economy that is increasingly based on innovation and intellectual property. It is no accident that revenue from licenses and patents based on ideas from the U.S. far exceeds those originated in any other country. A higher education system that encourages the free flow of ideas has been a key contributor to our economic success. Dismantling that system now would be a very serious mistake.