Professor Taylor--whom we've encountered previously arguing for "transforming" universities by destroying them and cheerleading for Derrida, has now weighed in, with his characteristic lack of insight and knowledge, on the subject of tenure. Put aside the absurdity of a postmodernist religion professor peddling the "tough talk" of the marketplace; let's overlook too that salaries are not paid out of endowment (as he bizarrely suggests), but a combination of tuition, endowments, and research grants; and let's even grant him his make-believe numbers about what a professor costs over 35 years; the facts remain that:
1. Tenure does not mean "lifetime employment, no possibility of dismissal," it means only dismissal for cause, with associated procedural safeguards;
2. Dismissal only for cause is a less common employment arrangement in the United States than it used to be (though is still enjoyed by significant numbers of school teachers, police, firemen, and by many civil service employees, among others), but is far more common in other Western industrialized nations with stronger labor movements and established civil service systems; that it is not the norm in the U.S. is one of the pathologies of American society, to be lamented, not lauded;
3. Tenure is an important part of the non-economic compensation for academics, and its abolition would raise the costs of hiring faculty astronomically;
4. At the best research universities, the percentage of senior faculty who remain research-active 30 years after tenure is extremely high, which puts the lie to Taylor's absurd claim that "it is impossible to know whether a person's research is going to be relevant in five years let alone 35 years";
5. Taylor's claim that "in almost 40 years of teaching, I have not known a single pereson who has been more willing to speak out after tenure than before" is such obvious bullshit, it's hard to believe he had the audacity to say this in public; in 17 years of teaching, I can think of at least a half-dozen cases of faculty who, after tenure, became markedly more outspoken and undertook more controversial research. And bear in mind that the biggest threats to academic freedom are likely to come not from, e.g., state legislators pissed off by dumb or controversial reilgion professors (though without tenure there will certainly be more cases like that, as we have noted previously), but from powerful economic interests adversely affected by work on health and safety issues by scientists. (One might also think that the recent experience in the U.K. without out-of-control administrative bureaucrats would give even Taylor some pause.)
There are two real problems with the current tenure system: first, that universities are often too reluctant to seek dismissal for cause; second, that the academic freedom rights of untenured and non-tenure-stream faculty are insufficiently protected in the current system. The AAUP could take the lead on the first issue, including by standing on the side of universities that terminate tenured faculty for cause and following proper procedures. The AAUP might also help with the second, by being more aggressive about calling out universities that trample on the academic freedom of the non-tenured.
Taylor himself should be glad for tenure, since judging from the reaction to his piece I have heard, I imagine a majority of his Columbia colleagues would be glad to be rid of someone who embarrasses and endangers his institution this way.