- Faulty Towers: Tenure and the Structure of Higher Education
Faulty Towers is an odd book. Although both the book's subtitle and the information on the back of the book indicate that the subject of the book is the controversy over academic tenure, that is not the focus of the book at all. In fact, authors Amacher and Meiners essentially dispensed with the problem of tenure after the first two chapters (and an appendix outlining recent court cases regarding tenure). What Amacher and Meiners really wanted to talk about is what they perceive to be the structural problems in American higher education that prevent it from changing to be more efficient and more competitive. And, despite the rhetoric, tenure is not one of those problems.
In the first two chapters of the book, Amacher and Meiners described the origins of tenure and its legal meaning. Supported by the court cases in the appendix, they demonstrated that incompetent faculty members, even if tenured, can be fired under the rules of tenure and that institutions of higher education can expect the courts to uphold these terminations. So, if not tenure, what are the sources of the problems in higher education?
Because both authors are economists, it should not be surprising that their answer is framed by an economic perspective. This [End Page 359] perspective is expressed clearly in the introduction to the book, when Amacher and Meiners described higher education as "just another service institution" (p. xiii). They urged us to look, therefore, at the incentive system in higher education and at the design of higher education itself.
The focus of chapter 3 is boards of trustees, college presidents, and upper administration. Faculty governance is scrutinized (and criticized) in chapter 4. The faculty reward structure ("incentives") is explored in chapter 5. In that chapter, the authors reminded the reader that the problem is not tenure, as is often believed, but the lack of incentives provided for faculty productivity and change; the root of the problem, they say, is the non-profit nature of higher education. Amacher and Meiners extended their business analogies in chapter 6, identifying higher education, particularly public higher education, as a bureaucracy like the Postal Service or the Internal Revenue Service. They drew comparisons to corporations, which they identified as having greater incentives to increase efficiency and quality.
Finally, in chapters 7 and 8 Amacher and Meiners identified the reforms that they believe would improve American higher education. In chapter 7 they detailed a number of internal reforms that should be led by strong boards of trustees working with administrators "unthwarted by faculty tantrums about change" (p. 65). They called for the near elimination of institutional curricular decision-making by faculty committees, placing that power in the hands of trustees and administration, while giving individual faculty members and departments greater flexibility to try new things unconstrained by the status quo. In addition, they called for dissemination to students of information about course content, approach (including professors' political approaches), and student evaluations. They also made recommendations for reeling in grade inflation and for exit interviews (rather than alumni surveys) with graduates to determine what is and is not (and who is and is not) working.
Chapter 8 focuses on external reforms. The authors rejected post-tenure review and instead made four broad recommendations. First, they recommended the elimination of centralized university systems and state boards. Such entities, they argue, drawing an analogy to the former Soviet Union, do not provide useful oversight, improved quality, or increased efficiency, but rather operate as barriers to change. Second, they advocated allowing public universities to set their own tuitions. Third, they called for a state voucher system for higher education – an idea they call "a 'GI Bill' for all students" (p. 86). Like the argument by advocates for the voucher system in K-12 education, Amacher and Meiners argued that such a system would increase competition, and therefore quality, in higher education. Finally, they suggested allowing states to decide if they wish...