Institutionalized Incompetence, Tenure’s Dirty Little Secret


A recently released study, “When Tenure Protects the Incompetent: Results from a Survey of Department Chairs,” by John Rothgeb, professor of political science at Ohio’s Miami University, announced the startling news that tenure, as it is practiced at many U.S. colleges and universities, protects incompetent faculty from suffering the consequences of their incompetence.  It is, of course, only their students who suffer.

This astonishing study (I’m certainly astonished, aren’t you?) also found that the incidence of keeping substandard faculty around was demonstrably higher at institutions at which “collegiality” is a criterion for securing a coveted-job-for-life. Beneficiaries of this chummy career path will earnestly point out to you that a candidate’s “fit” with his or her colleagues in a small department is essential, because to get, oh my goodness, all of the many, many tasks required to run a department of four or five accomplished efficiently requires collaboration and team work. You’d think the six years’ run-up to the tenure decision year, like a pre-Broadway tryout, would be sufficient to let co-workers know whether one is up to opening night.  But since you are not as smart as a faculty member, you, sir or madam, would be wrong.

That being said, even faculty make mistakes, and a colleague whose “fit” with the department was once like a glove may eventually find his faculty friends wishing he’d go the way of bell-bottom jeans and Nehru jackets. On the plus side, though, the survey indicates that only a trivial 62% of department chairs report such misfits in their fiefdoms.

The incidence of incompetent albeit tenured faculty drops on campuses where an administrator (a dean or a provost) has the courage to overturn unconvincing albeit positive recommendations from faculty committees.

In 2007, only a miniscule 91% of faculty up for tenure at the University of Iowa were able to meet the grueling standard.

In 2007, only a miniscule 91% of faculty up for tenure at the University of Iowa were able to meet the grueling standard.

The survey’s most disturbing finding, though, is that

whether large, medium or small, unionized or non-unionized, rural or urban, or public or private, department chairs report that their colleges and universities confront problems stemming from tenure as a protector of the incompetent.

In other words, the tenure system is seriously, perhaps fatally, flawed. In a time of scarce resources for higher education, and even scarcer public respect, even the most fervent supporter of tenure ought to be alarmed by the revelation that the most sacred of academic bovines is riddled with parasites.

Apart from the students who must sit through classes headed by incompetent faculty, parents whose tuition dollars pay the salaries of substandard employees, and alumni whose gifts also fund the payroll, who suffers the most because of the layabouts? The adjunct faculty, of course. The per-course pariahs who teach more and more students each year.  While these poor sods earn meager sums for their hard work, tenured incompetents enjoy the considerable privileges (not the least of which is not having to worry how to pay the rent) of their lifetime gravy train. Ho-hum. Life is unfair, why should higher education be any different?

I fervently hope that trustees and regents will pay attention to Professor Rothgeb’s study, then take a long, hard look at their own campuses.

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