An undergraduate journalism student from Iowa called me recently to say he had read an article of mine on tenure and was puzzled by my views. My article defended tenure, and this student found that position inconsistent with libertarianism. This is a reaction I have heard many times.
In fact, tenure and libertarianism are in no way inconsistent. Libertarianism is a view on what policies the government should impose on society. Tenure is a particular type of employment contract that universities choose to adopt. If the market supports universities that employ tenure, that is perfectly fine with libertarians.
On the question of whether tenure makes sense for universities, I refer the reader to my earlier piece. It begins as follows:
An increasingly contentious issue in academia is the tenure system, which awards lifetime employment to faculty who have demonstrated sufficient proficiency in research, teaching, and service. Critics note that tenure does not exist outside academia, and they conclude that the degree of job security it offers must therefore be excessive. These critics also observe that even the most substantial teaching loads involve only a few hours per week of class time during about 30 weeks per year. Thus, these critics charge that tenured faculty receive an extraordinary level of compensation relative to the effort required.
Those who defend the tenure system believe tenure is essential to academic freedom, meaning the ability of faculty to teach and research the topics they find promising without fear of retribution. These supporters believe that without tenure, political views would play a large role in who is retained and who is not; they also believe faculty need job security to encourage risk-taking in teaching and research.
I argue here that the standard criticisms of tenure are off the mark and based in part on a flawed understanding of academia. At the same time, I suggest that the standard defense of tenure is unpersuasive; indeed, tenure potentially stifles the innovation and creativity it allegedly protects. I do conclude that tenure plays a valuable role in the operation of most colleges and universities, but for a reason quite different from those usually advanced in its defense.