Editorial: Students win in tenure crackdown

The Detroit News

Wayne State University started hearings this week to revoke the tenure of five professors who are “grossly under-performing” and “not doing anything,” in the words of WSU President M. Roy Wilson. Wilson is leading the gutsy move, which is rare in academia. Universities across the state should take note.

This is the first time WSU is attempting to fire several professors at once for poor performance. Only twice in the school’s history has the university sought to revoke a professor’s tenure, and in those cases the faculty won. These professors may as well; a seven-member board will decide their fate.

Tenure abuse diminishes the excellence of a university. Wayne State’s medical school — the third largest in the nation — has stumbled under a budget deficit and accreditation warnings.

In August, it announced that as many as 37 medical school professors could lose their jobs for under-performing. Two dozen of those have left. Five more are under fire in these tenure-revoking hearings. Tenure is most often awarded to full-time professors after a probationary period of seven years at four-year institutions.

At its best, tenure protects academics to think, teach, research and write freely. It provides them stability to publish and invest in a department and gives students continuity. At its worse, tenure protects incompetence and laziness, promising indefinite employment with no accountability or performance standards. Some balance is needed to ensure a robust academic environment as well as to shield institutions from faculty who take advantage of tenure.

Mark Taylor of Columbia University calculated that one tenured professor teaching for 35 years costs a private university an average of $12.2 million and a public university $10 million. Universities in 2010 averaged $168 million in debt nationwide. Removing 15 under-performing tenured professors could put a college in the black.

Students should also reap benefits of a more effective tenure system. A Stanford University researcher found replacing the lowest-performing 5 to 8 percent of teachers with an average teacher could enable American students to catch up with those in higher-performing nations. Pearson’s 2014 ranking placed the U.S. at only 14th in worldwide education system rankings.

Harvard economists came to a similar finding, concluding that dumping bad teachers would increase the lifetime earnings of students by about $250,000. Good teachers matter at all levels of education.

Fortunately, tenure is on the decline as an institution. From 1975 to 2011, the number of tenured full-time college professors dropped by half. In 2014, there were 1 million professors teaching off the tenure-track who made up 75 percent of all college professors. Financially, tenure isn’t bang for a university’s buck.

But whether tenure eventually goes extinct, it persists now. Universities should implement quality measures and basic accountability and hold tenured professors to them. Otherwise, taxpayers lose, institutions lose and students lose.

Wayne State is right to lead this charge against its under-performing faculty members. Other universities in Michigan should take a close look at their ranks and do the same.