Academic tenure should be replaced with better alternatives, professor says

Mark Lowey
November 23, 2022

NOTE: See also main story “Academic promotion and tenure: Where’s the connection to community?”

For 10 years, Dr. James Wetherbe, PhD. has waged a costly legal battle over his long-standing public opposition to academic tenure.

“The problem with tenure is, it has this dynamic that it morphed from protecting academic freedom into a guaranteed job for life,” he told Research Money.

Wetherbe says he has seen first-hand academics with tenure not innovating in their teaching and becoming complacent — even arrogant — because tenure protects them from being fired for poor performance.

“I’ve seen situations in institutions where the student evaluations are so bad, but the dean will say, ‘Well, they’ve got tenure and I really can’t do anything about it,’” said Wetherbe, Richard Schulze Distinguished Professor at Rawls College of Business Administration at Texas State University. “We need to be able to clean house. We need to be able to innovate and use technology, as we should for teaching.”

According to him, paying academics guaranteed jobs for life also is very expensive, especially when universities are struggling to find funding. “The economics are not going to work. The costs of tuition are going up at a much higher rate than inflation. That’s where all this student debt is coming from.”

Although he agrees with colleagues who say protecting academic freedom is crucial to the mission of academics — to advance and disseminate knowledge — he recounted the long legal battle that revealed how the First Amendment in the U.S. protects academic freedom to a much greater degree than tenure.

And, he added, there are better, less costly ways than tenure to give academics who perform well in research and teaching some job security. Academics who move from assistant to associate professor — a promotion typically awarded with tenure — could be given “rolling contracts” for, say, three to five years. If terminated, the employee has the length of the specified term to pursue other employment or the employer can buy out the contract if they want the employee to leave sooner.

"The rolling contract provides much better job security without giving faculty a guaranteed job for life," Wetherbe said. Wetherbe, who has more than 40 years of experience in higher education and industry, said all he has ever asked of the universities where he has worked is a one-year rolling contract, rather than tenure. He has gone through the assessment process and been awarded tenure four times, each time resigning from tenure, and reverting to the rolling contract.

Problems with research-focused tenure criteria

Wetherbe saw problems with the criteria used to award tenure, which rely heavily on the number of peer-reviewed publications in journals deemed high impact.

“There’s an awful lot of research that has no impact,” he said. “Most faculty in a business school go through their entire career publishing articles that nobody ever funded.”

For Wetherbe, who has brought in about $20 million in funding during his academic career, the “litmus test” for research that has impact is whether it attracts external funding. “To me, the marketplace doesn’t lie to you. If it doesn’t value what you’re doing, there’s no funding for it.”

As an academic, he recalled the need to publish in peer-reviewed journals, which he has done in the form of about 300 articles, as well as 40 books. But his strategy has always been to take his articles in peer-reviewed journals and publish two or three more accessible spinoff articles in high-profile business publications and other outlets.

He is also the founding editor-in-chief of the Entrepreneur and Innovation Exchange (EIX), a free peer-reviewed online resource on entrepreneurship and innovation, which translates peer-reviewed articles in scientific journals into accessible articles for use by the general public. Wetherbe said the site attracts close to 5 million visitors a year, which indicates its impact in disseminating research and knowledge to the public.

Speaking out on tenure led to still-unresolved legal battle

Wetherbe sued Texas Tech University in 2012, arguing that he had been approved for the university’s prestigious Horn Professorship, but his views on tenure led the provost to deny him the opportunity, along with the prospect of interviewing for the dean’s position. In that lawsuit, a trial court judge found that he had been retaliated against, despite First Amendment protection.

But the appeals court reversed that decision, ruling that Texas Tech’s administrators were themselves protected by “sovereign immunity”, and so could not be sued. Wetherbe filed another lawsuit in 2015 at the state level against Texas Tech and its former and current deans of the business school, claiming he had experienced several new adverse employment events motivated by his first lawsuit and his public comments on tenure.

He had op-eds against tenure published in Harvard Business Review, The Wall Street Journal, and other outlets. Wetherbe listed the retaliation being demoted from full professor after he had resigned from tenure, being reassigned from graduate teaching to teaching the lowest-level course, and having a $100,000 grant he’d obtained from Best Buy returned by university administrators to the company. 

A trial court judge dismissed Wetherbe’s second lawsuit, ruling that his speech was not protected by the First Amendment because tenure was not a matter of public concern. Wetherbe appealed that decision to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, which in 2018 reversed the trial court judge’s ruling.

The appeals court said Wetherbe’s speech did in fact involve a matter of public concern, and that he could proceed with his lawsuit against Texas Tech’s former and current deans of the business school. Texas Tech returned to the district court and again made the argument for sovereign immunity, but lost. The university then appealed that decision to the appeals court, and a ruling is expected any day.

Although Texas Tech continues to deny it has ever taken actions against Wetherbe for his position or articles on tenure, he blamed most of the retaliation on a former dean of the business school who has since left the university. He also estimated that the 10-year legal battle has cost him about $500,000. In addition to an apology, he would like to be reimbursed for his legal costs, but “will not pocket any money from this lawsuit.”

“I’m just trying to make a difference for higher education,” he concluded, “because I think the future of higher education is just very dim if we don’t get rid of guaranteed-job-for-life tenure.”

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