Jenna Robinson of the Martin Center asks whether now is the time to rethink academic tenure.

In a recent article for the Martin Center, Duke professor Mike Munger asked an important question: should “a political board composed of nonacademics…be empowered to evaluate faculty proposals on hiring and curriculum in the first place?”

He argued that, in practice, boards have already ceded that authority. For many years, shared governance, at least on the issue of hiring and tenure, has been reduced to faculty governance. …

… But as Munger points out, a faculty-dominated governance structure has unintended consequences. He (citing Henry Manne) notes that faculty have very little skin in the game. “The faculty gain nothing from improvements, and they lose nothing from mistakes, since costs are being paid by the endowment, and by the diligent and selfless efforts of the trustees and the president.” (And in the case of public universities, costs are also borne by taxpayers.) Faculty governance, therefore, isn’t especially concerned about academic quality or university expenditures.

To these concerns, we might add that existing faculty are prone to select and promote new faculty who are like themselves: interested in esoteric topics (instead of teaching), living in an ideological bubble, and often divorced from the alumni, students, donors, and taxpayers who pay their salaries.

This gulf between faculty and the people they serve is a problem, especially for public institutions. UNC-Chapel Hill exists, first and foremost, to serve North Carolinians. This purpose is manifested in the institution’s cap on out-of-state students and its low tuition for in-state students. And UNC receives a large part of its revenue from North Carolina taxpayers and students.

At the same time, an important group of faculty members is left out of the decision-making process entirely. Adjunct and contingent faculty make up 23 percent of the faculty workforce at UNC-Chapel Hill, but they have no role in university governance and lack the benefits conferred by tenure.