Book Review: Faulty Towers: Tenure and the Structure of Higher Education

George Leef

George Leef is the Director of the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy. He holds a Bachelor of Arts from Carroll College (Waukesha, WI) and a Juris Doctor from Duke University School of Law. He was a Vice President of the John Locke Foundation until the Pope Center became independent in 2003. Prior to joining the Locke Foundation, he was president of Patrick Henry Associates, a consulting firm in Michigan dedicated to assisting others in advocating free markets, minimal government, private property and individual rights. He has served as book review editor of The Freeman, an educational free market magazine published by the Foundation for Economic Education, since 1997, and has published numerous articles in The Freeman, Reason, The Free Market, Cato Journal, The Detroit News, Independent Review, and Regulation.

One of the wonderful things about the study of economics is that it helps you to understand all sorts of human behavior that is not usually considered to have anything to do with that fabled creature, homo economicus. Once you understand that people respond in predictable ways to incentives, human action in areas as diverse as, say, crime and dating becomes far more comprehensible. So what happens when you turn two top-notch economists loose to analyze their own calling, higher education? You get an insightful book such as Faulty Towers: Tenure and the Structure of Higher Education.

Both Amacher and Meiners, who teach at the University of Texas at Arlington, have distinguished scholarly records. As they correctly observe in their preface, “most academics are not analytical about the world they occupy.” With this short but insightful book, they turn the tools of their trade—i.e., economic thinking—on our higher education system. What they have given us is neither a hand-wringing lamentation about how terrible things are, nor the kind of rose-tinted boosterism we are so used to hearing about American higher education. Faulty Towers is a clear-eyed exposition of the weaknesses in our higher education system that stem from its structure. The authors, if we might resort to a medical analogy, aren’t interested in treating the symptoms, but want to get to the underlying pathology.

The book begins with two chapters on the tenure system in higher education, which Amacher and Meiners do not believe is a significant problem. Tenure is one of the common whipping boys for those who see deep flaws in our colleges and universities, but the authors contend that tenure is largely misunderstood. People may think that tenure means that a professor is guaranteed employment for life, but that isn’t the case. It’s worth quoting the authors here:

Most college faculty rules state something to the effect that to keep tenure one must maintain the standards of the profession. That is, one must continue to be a decent teacher of competent material and maintain some evidence of scholarly ability in one’s areas of academic expertise…. In other words, there is no legal protection for faculty who stop developing intellectually, do not meet the standards of their discipline, or become unprofessional in the classroom. The point is worth repeating: tenure does not protect faculty who become incompetent.

Legally, the authors show, tenure does not mean lifetime employment, but rather that it only confers certain procedural rights on faculty members before they can be dismissed, rights that non-tenured faculty members do not have. It’s a matter of heightened due process for tenured professors, not an impregnable fortress. For example, if a college wants to terminate a tenured faculty member for cause, he is entitled to 1) appear in person at a hearing before the decision-making body; 2) examine evidence and respond to accusations; and 3) representation by legal counsel. Amacher and Meiners went through all the reported cases involving faculty terminations since 1990 (34 federal and 38 state cases) and came to this conclusion: “so long as proper procedure is followed and a faculty member is not being fired for saying something that irritated an institutional authority, there are few legal constraints on the proper functioning of a university as a place that expects faculty to be productive, perform their duties properly, and maintain the standards of their profession.”

The trouble, then is not that college and university officials can’t get rid of faculty members who are lazy or unprofessional, but rather that, owing to the structure of our higher education system, they don’t. They don’t make hard personnel decisions (at least not very often) for the same reason that they don’t make many other decisions that would raise the value they provide and lower the cost, namely the non-profit nature of nearly all colleges and universities. “Whether state agencies or private non-profit organizations, universities do not have the kind of financial measures that organizations in the private sector rely on to drive performance evaluations,” the authors note. And why don’t college administrators develop better performance measures? The authors answer, “Performance measures can mean only increased responsibility; few people volunteer for that unless there are rewards that go with it.” In the bureaucratic, non-profit world, there are no such incentives.

Amacher and Meiners then look at the incentives that face those who are supposed to run institutions of higher education—the trustees, presidents, and administrators. For all three, the structure of higher education makes for weak governance. One consequence of weak governance is that the faculty winds up dominating policy questions. Unfortunately, observe the authors, “There is a conflict of interest between faculty’s personal interests and the college’s long-term interests.”

So, what is to be done? The authors want to see the incentive structure in higher education changed so that colleges and universities start behaving more like profit-making entities. Trustees must, in their view, take a far more active role than they have in the past, “unthwarted by faculty tantrums about change.” Among other things, they would like to see lots of dead wood cut out of the curriculum and the element of competition for resources between academic departments be injected into the budgeting process. Veteran professors and economists, Amacher and Meiners have carefully thought out the changes that higher education needs to make.

Faulty Towers is a long-overdue analysis of the structural defects of higher education in America. The book ought to be widely read and discussed among education leaders and policy-makers.

Copyright © 2004 The John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy. Used by permission.