Letters to the Editor

“Perestroika” in American Higher Education

Bruce A. Elleman and Sarah C. M. Paine, May 1989

The recent changes in the Soviet Union, showing that the Cold War is over, have ramifications extending beyond international relations. During the McCarthy era, the tenure system helped protect diversity of opinion within American universities by providing job security for those who dared voice independent opinions. The negative aspects of the tenure system, however, have since contributed to the decline of higher education in the United States for two reasons: first, by encouraging intellectual conformity among young professors striving for tenure, and second, by making it impossible to remove irresponsible and incompetent professors.

Politicking for tenure often leads to obsequious behavior and homogenized opinions among junior professors who seek favor from the senior professors who will decide their fate. Moreover, the gauntlet to get tenure has become so arduous, with ever-increasing demands for publishing, committee work, and teaching, that many who succeed are exhausted by the process. The end result is the stifling of the very intellectual diversity which tenure is supposed to promote.

Once professors receive tenure, no matter how little they work, it is virtually impossible to fire them. The first responsibility to be shirked is usually teaching, once the raison d'etre of universities, and students are then left adrift to learn what they can on their own. Many professors deliver poor lectures, inadequately grade their students' work, and do not show up for their office hours; meanwhile tuition for both undergraduate and graduate students is now increasing at a faster rate then inflation.

Publishing has also suffered as quantity has become the measure of a scholar's merit—not quality. This has resulted in academic works which are overspecialized, unoriginal and—ultimately—useless, as tenured professors become less willing to face the barrage of criticism which usually awaits any truly original work. In short, the tenure system has led to the ossification of the American university system, as deadwood blocks the advancement of more capable scholars.

An example of the tenure system applied on a national scale is the Soviet Union, where government officials are not subject to public recall or criticism. Managers are not demoted for their mistakes, and employees cannot be fired. The Chernobyl nuclear disaster, the destruction of the Aral Sea, and the economic stagnation of the Soviet economy are symptoms of the same disease: people who have unchallengeable job security inevitable abuse it. Now that the Soviet Union has embarked on 'perestroika' and is starting to hold public elections, make managers responsible for their actions, and allow workers to be fired, American academia should practice some 'perestroika' of its own. The tenure system must be eliminated and professors should be made to adhere to the same standard as other professions: excellence of job performance.

Bruce A. Elleman and Sarah C. M. Paine
Graduate students carrying out dissertation research in Moscow