Arthur Levine

Encouraging the Nation’s Best and Brightest to be Teachers

VTR Date: June 21, 2011

Dr. Arthur Levine focuses on questions of productivity and efficiency in the Academy.


GUEST: Dr. Arthur Levine
VTR: 03/05/2007

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind.

And all the many times over the years that today’s guest has joined me here…his introduction was as President of Teachers College at Columbia University.

Not so today, for Arthur Levine has now moved on to the Presidency of the prestigious Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, with its mission to encourage with every resource at its disposal the nation’s best and brightest to pursue careers as teachers.

So perhaps we can focus even more today than before on questions of productivity and efficiency in the Academy … as Dr. Levine did a decade ago in his Dadealus article on “How the academic profession is changing”.

Questions about how much should faculty teach? About what the appropriate balance is between teaching and research. About how much it must cost to educate a college student. About supplementing or replacing campuses and facilities and faculties by and with new technologies. About the wisdom and need for tenure, for lifetime employment for faculty.

Indeed, whatever conflict of interest surfaces here – for I am a tenured professor myself – that might best be where our conversation begins today.

So let me ask Arthur Levine – after years in the academy as an administrator AND as a faculty member AND as an educational reformer – just what HIS own fix is on the matter of tenure. Arthur?

LEVINE: Nice to be with you. That …

HEFFNER: Simple question.

LEVINE: (Laughter) … but it has a real complex answer. You have to look at how tenure came into being. And, it came into being right before World War I and that was time in which faculty were getting fired all over the United States.

My favorite case is Stanford … in which a professor said, “Railroad should be … there ought to be municipal ownership of railroads and they shouldn’t use cheap foreign labor.”

And it turned out that the Chair of that Board was Mrs. Leyland Stanford and the university was named after her son. Well, that professor … since her husband had built the railroads, using cheap Asian labor and private ownership … that professor was just fired.

Throughout the country there have been people who, in clashes between Darwinists and religion faculty, the Darwinists were fired in places like Vanderbilt. The President of the University of Wisconsin was fired for advocating abstention … that there should be no alcohol. This is Wisconsin, that’s not an acceptable position in Wisconsin the beer capital of the country.

So the reason tenure was put in place was to guarantee academic freedom for faculty. That they should be able to say things like that, that they should have what the Germans called “lehrfreiheidt”, meaning that they would have the capacity to say in their classes and to write in their research without constraint.

HEFFNER: But you said this is a mixed bag.

LEVINE: I did.

HEFFNER: So you don’t want to end at that point.


HEFFNER: What’s happened since? And is there a different way of looking at that matter of tenure.

LEVINE: Yeah, there are a bunch of problems with tenure. And a bunch of issues.

One is it hasn’t worked. Does it provide for academic freedom? No. There are questions no professor in the United States can ask with or without tenure on any campus.

Could we ask “Are Blacks genetically superior to Whites?” No, that’s not an acceptable question. Canadians to Americans? No, that’s not an acceptable. Professors who have taken on questions of genetics … like Jensen and Shockley … have become pariahs on their own campuses.

So, no it hasn’t guaranteed academic freedom. Second, in times in which the country has faced large political challenges, like the McCarthy era, there were almost 200 professors fired, who were either tenured or tenure track. Because they were called Communists, because they were too “Red” for the campuses.

So, it doesn’t guarantee that there’s academic freedom. Second, it protects a lot of people who might be called “dead wood”. And third, there are still questions we can’t answer.

HEFFNER: Now, if I add up one, two and three … what must I assume about Arthur Levine’s position on tenure today.

LEVINE: That Arthur Levine doesn’t have a clear position. Let me tell you why. I think the idea of … wrong … the alternatives to tenure don’t work.

My … there are a number of colleges around the country that have no tenure system. What they do is develop de facto tenure. So what happens is, you say, “You know, Arthur is here, he can’t write, he doesn’t teach, he’s just awful, but you know what … his daughter’s in college, this would just be a terrible time to let him go. So let’s keep him a little longer.”

The one thing tenure does do is it makes a hard decision. It’s says everybody comes up and you have to make a decision about whether they stay or go on the campus. If I could change it, I’d change it in two ways. One is I’d require more time.

HEFFNER: What do you mean “more time”?

LEVINE: Today it’s … what it’s called is “six years, up or out”. So in six years you have to prove what you’re capable of doing or you’re denied tenure. And if denied tenure, you’re given one year to straighten things out and then head off and get a new job.

I would like to see that period extended to perhaps ten years. So we really get a sense of what people do, what they’re capable of doing, what their track record is.

At the moment six years isn’t enough. Because for a Professor it takes several years to get a research agenda going. It takes another two years to get findings that are meaningful. And then journals in academia are so slow that by the time of the end of the fifth year, their first publications are coming out. So it ends up being a crap shoot. Ten years we’d have more of a basis to make decision.

The second thing I’d do though … ready …


LEVINE: What I would do is …

HEFFNER: Before I pounce on you.

LEVINE: (Laughter) … I’d go for long term contracts rather than tenure. When you come the first time you’d get three years. Keep performing you get another five years, keep performing you’d get another ten years, and ten years is there after.

And that would provide a way to get rid of the dead wood. We’re protecting many, many more dead wood than we are people who are engaged in serious scholarship that would be undermined were they to face the scrutiny of politics.

HEFFNER: Okay, that’s … that is quite a conclusion … we are protecting much more dead wood than protecting people who have ideas that are not acceptable.

LEVINE: Mmmm, yes.

HEFFNER: All right. Now. I’m fascinated by the fact that you make this all a matter of articles and other publications … put out. Articles, books … publish or perish. That’s what you’re saying. Do you want to say that? Is there not another element such as teach or perhaps perish?


HEFFNER: Be a good …

LEVINE: Right.

HEFFNER: Be good at what you’re supposed to be doing, which is teaching students?

LEVINE: I absolutely agree with you. I think that universities have put much more of a burden on research than they have on teaching. At universities … what faculty do is called a “teaching load”. Load is not a positive term.

In contrast we have our research opportunities, research agendas … all of which are very positive. So there’s clearly a disparity in the two. Absolutely. I couldn’t agree with you more.

HEFFNER: Now, what’s happening in American academic life in terms of this publish or perish or teach or perhaps perish?

LEVINE: It depends upon the kind of university. If you divide American higher education …


LEVINE: Into three categories … four. We have community colleges, we have four year liberal arts kinds of colleges, we have regional state universities and we have the more selective research universities.

Each one is moving in different directions. What’s very fashionable now at research universities for new Presidents to walk in the door and say, “We’re going to re-focus the institution on undergraduate education.”

And that claim has come for … certainly since Robert Hutchens was President of the University of Chicago, starting in 1929.

HEFFNER: But it doesn’t happen.

LEVINE: No. It doesn’t happen.

HEFFNER: Why not?

LEVINE: The norms and the values of the enterprise … the way people prepare to become college professors, focuses on research. Very few people get “goodies” for teaching … publicly. Whereas there are lots of rewards for engaging research.

HEFFNER: Now you’re talking about the large research university. But what percentage of our nation’s academics are to be found in large research institutions.

LEVINE: Very few. There are 3,300 colleges and Universities in the United States, about 150 to 200 of them are large research universities. So that if you look at other kinds of universities, the liberal arts, the four year colleges, only the elite four year liberal arts colleges, the Pomonas, the Swarthmores, the Carltons, the Amhersts focus on research in that fashion. All the rest are primarily teaching institutions. And that’s not a major issue at those schools.

HEFFNER: What about tenure at those schools?

LEVINE: Aside from the elite liberal arts colleges?


LEVINE: Tenure is largely based on teaching. And service. Doing things the university needs done. The Department in which a person may situated. In the College. Sitting on Committees. Doing public service.

HEFFNER: Now my understanding, Arthur, is that tenure is not something that you find everywhere. You suggested that. And that not all older academics, like myself, are tenured. And that tenure is something enjoyed, if that’s the proper word … by what … forty to fifty percent of American academics?

LEVINE: You know, it depends upon how you cut it. There are a lot of part-time academics. There are adjuncts, there are lecturers, there are … which aren’t mainstream, but among college professors, a majority are now tenured.

HEFFNER: Uh, huh. Okay. Let’s go to the bad side of that. You’ve sketched it. Do you think there is that much dead wood?

LEVINE: If you look at why tenure is there, there’s much more dead wood than there are people who need protection because of the innovative and challenging nature of their research.


LEVINE: So it’s a bad deal that way.

HEFFNER: Okay. What would you … to wave your magic wand, what would you do?

LEVINE: Oh, I’d do exactly what I said before. Which is longer terms to tenure …

HEFFNER: And that’s the only …


HEFFNER: Ten years …

LEVINE: Ten years and ten year contracts. So it’s long contracts rather than permanent employment.

HEFFNER: Now, are you one of those people who have been concerned in the past … thirty … twenty … thirty years … that in American industry … switching now from the academy to American industry … that we have experienced less and less … not tenure … because that’s “ours”, but less and less certainty in employment.

I mean does this not concern you that increasingly people are laid off … maybe they do work ten years, twenty years and then are laid off when economic necessity supposedly are … or economic patterns of one kind or another … lead to that. What about the word “security?” Job security.

LEVINE: That is … it’s a terrible thing when people get laid off. It does terrible things to them, it does terrible things to their family. And people around them. But that’s not why tenure was put in place. Tenure has very specific purpose. And whether we’re talking about a teaching college or a research college, the idea is to have freedom of ideas. It’s not to have job security. So that if we guarantee everybody tenure, particularly now … there’s no retirement age in academe … what’s also true is that we have the Baby Boomers coming through the pipeline. We could end up with a huge, huge tenured population and an inability to get new people, who you need to keep academics alive.

The university has two purposes. One’s conservation of knowledge, the other one is advancement of knowledge. If we have the same old people for decades and decades and decades and decades what we threaten to do is have a university which is unproductive and incapable … uncapable of advancing knowledge.

HEFFNER: Now do you think that if you eliminate … I’m not saying this was the purpose of tenure because I understand what you’ve said … if you eliminate tenure … if you eliminate job security … who will go into that well-paying profession of teaching?

LEVINE: It’s a very nice job. I found … I was President of a small liberal arts college … Bradford College, which had no tenure. We didn’t have any trouble getting people. I’ve never heard that Hampshire has a problem getting people. And I’ve never heard that the other schools that I know of have trouble attracting people. But what I’m talking about there are small liberal arts colleges.

What will not happen … I don’t know that they’ll be any state or major private university that will have the nerve to eliminate tenure.

HEFFNER: What do you mean “the nerve”?

LEVINE: They’d be non-competitive with other major research universities. If people have come to expect tenure, if major scholars expect to have tenure, then the elimination of it would put the university in jeopardy.

HEFFNER: So you think that’s where the jeopardy would come. But you’re saying in the small liberal arts college that isn’t.

LEVINE: No. No. Bennington went from a tenure system to a non-tenure system. And it permitted Bennington, which was suffering a financial crisis … to make changes in the people who staffed the college and move it forward for the future. It was very painful. But it was useful.

HEFFNER: But it was, I gather from what you say, financially motivated.

LEVINE: It was.

HEFFNER: So not the matter of getting rid of dead wood. It was a matter of doing things that were financially in the college’s interest, were a necessity.

LEVINE: Well let me differentiate between two things. Dead wood and stagnant universities. Certainly dead wood will make any university stagnant.

But also somewhat productive people who have been there for long periods of time …so that we’re not bringing in new blood, new thoughts, new ideas … is another source of stagnation. We need to find some way to turn people over at appropriate times.

The end of retirement age at universities has been debilitating to the extent that if people have tenure and they can stay forever, you begin to ask, “Who’s going to stay and who’s going to leave?”

And it turns out the people who are the most likely to stay are the least productive because nobody wants to hire them elsewhere. So that that combination is very dangerous in terms of leveling quality.

HEFFNER: So what do we do, Arthur? I hear you again about ten years. But you’re saying that’s not going to happen.

LEVINE: I think that … if I were asked to put my money down on what’s going to happen, we’re going to see more liberal arts colleges … four year colleges … particularly in the Midwest, New England and the middle Atlantic states where there are more colleges than students …

HEFFNER: That’s …

LEVINE: … begins to make hard decisions.

HEFFNER: … that’s a mouth full.

LEVINE: Yeah. Begin to make hard decisions regarding tenure. What I expect we’ll also see is that governments become increasingly critical of higher education. Demanding greater accountability. And I think often unfairly. But I think it’s only a matter of time until some state decides to eliminate tenure in higher education public institutions. How long? Maybe a decade.

HEFFNER: Where will it happen first?

LEVINE: No idea. The most innovative changes. Innovative … I wouldn’t call this innovative. The most dramatic changes have tended to come out of the Southern universities in recent times.


LEVINE: You know, I try to guess … I tried guessing about it a while ago. And, for a while I thought it was a source of inferiority. What I think now is they’re universities that saw they needed to change, to bring in some excellent leadership for those universities. They have Governors who’ve been providing appropriate appropriations to build those universities and that may be part of the reason. So I’d watch the Sun Belt. Could be the West as well.

HEFFNER: You’ve been traveling a very great deal lately.

LEVINE: I have.

HEFFNER: Is that what you pick up? Do you pick up vibrations? Do you pick up change? Notions of changes?

LEVINE: The issues that I’m seeing … from different places … so that world of higher education is becoming far more complex to this extent. That we’re seeing kinds of providers of higher education we’ve never had before. For profits who are looking at higher education, saying, “This is the gold at the end of the rainbow. That the place for entrepreneurs is doing to higher education what they did for health care.”

HEFFNER: But, Arthur, you know, you said that at this table ten years ago. I don’t mean only at this table. But you were writing that and you were saying that. Is that the way it’s moved?

LEVINE: I think so. I mean if one looks at places like the University of Phoenix …


LEVINE: … which is taking in … I, I think it’s three to eight thousand students a month … new students … that’s fairly extraordinary. What’s also true though is … I don’t know if I told you this last time I visited you.

I went to visit a publisher and I was sitting in the anteroom, the anteroom is covered with books. And the publisher comes out and says, “You know, we’re not in the book business anymore.”

I’m looking around, it’s all books. And he said, “We’re in the knowledge business.” And I think he saw me roll my eyes. And he said, “Let me give you an example.” (Subtext, “let me give you an example, even you can understand.)

And he said, “We are in 12,000 schools providing teacher education and professional development for teachers.” Now, no university in the United States has that kind of penetration.

I asked what his plans were and he said, “Well, we want to put the company’s band name on professional development.” He could do that. Professional development is like chicken before Frank Perdue.

HEFFNER: (Quiet laughter)

LEVINE: I said, “Where do you get your content from?” Thinking he’d have to tell me a university. And he tells me, “I hire full time content providers.” Since I didn’t know anybody who was a full time content provider, I asked him, “What is that?” And I realized we just had different names; I called them Professors. We were competing for the same people, but he could give stock options.

I asked about credits and degrees. He said, “We’re still working on that.” They finished working on it, they now grant them. We’re seeing more people like that enter higher education.

HEFFNER: Am I wrong, however, in my feeling that in the past year there has been more criticism of the enterprising university, so-called, or the enterprising company that is offering degrees. The University of Phoenix included.

LEVINE: I think there has been more, but they’re also growing. So that, I think that they can be criticized for all kinds of reasons, but they’re a fact, they’re a reality in higher education today and they’re not going away.

So I think that at outside of higher education, there are enormous experiments taking place. And dramatic changes. Uses of technology, online students, twenty four hours a day, seven days a week. All that’s becoming available. An inside we have in higher education is an academy that’s in some ways bewildered about being wrapped with demographic change, technological change, economic change, globalization, trying to figure out which way to turn. And what faculty talk about increasingly is the corporatization of the university. As Boards are trying to push universities to respond to the times; Presidents are pushing and faculty are trying to hold on to what they’ve always believed in the values they’ve always had. And we have to find a way to make universities adapt to new realities.

HEFFNER: You mean those awful people, faculty members.

LEVINE: Oh, come now, come now. How can one possibly say that? Faculty and students are what universities are about.

HEFFNER: Yes, but there certainly is a feeling that I’ve always had when I’ve spoken with … present company excepted, of course … people high in administration … that the enemy, of course, is that tenured professor.

LEVINE: The one thing that true of faculty is … in an organization that needs to change rapidly now. Faculty and … it’s not only the faculty, it’s our style of governance which is entirely collegial, is very, very slow and the new competitors that we’re facing have more money than us and can move rapidly and that’s an unfortunate set of circumstances.

One of my colleagues at Teachers College, a fellow named Jim Borland, said that, “You know, once upon a time, Tyrannosaurus Rex was a great brand name.”

HEFFNER: That’s mean. Mean, mean, mean.

LEVINE: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: But didn’t that brand name carry with it a value that perhaps deserves to be preserved. You say we should move with the times. That’s one of the problems with the faculties, they’re certainly slow to move and as the collegial nature of them, you have to wait for this committee and that committee and the other committee … that’s why I was always grateful that when I went back to teaching in 1964, Mason Gross my old teacher from Columbia and the President of Rutgers and my colleague, former colleague at Rutgers who said, “No committees. That’s my commitment. No faculty meetings.” I understand what you’re saying, but there’s a value there that may go out the window, too.

LEVINE: And that value can’t be allowed to go out the window, there’s a wonderful report, that was written by the Yale Faculty in 1828, under duress to change by he State of Connecticut … and become more vocational. The Faculty created a Committee and the report was, said, “In this time of dramatic change, how much should we change? A lot? Or a little?” And they said, “That’s the wrong question.” The right question is, “What’s the purpose of a college?” And that’s the question that all of American higher education has ask today. Not simply holding on to what we’ve been doing for the longest period of time, maintaining those values that are central to what we do and moving the university forth in a way that will allow us to preserve our history and traditions and at the same time meet the new intellectual challenges of the future.

HEFFNER: Arthur, do you think that can be done? We just have … less than a minute left … within the context of a for-profit configuration?

LEVINE: No. That’s why I wouldn’t like to see the for-profit community triumph. What I’d like to see us learn from is the reasons that students choose that kind of education and what kinds of pedagogies, schedules and other kinds of activities are going to work best for the university. Not to sacrifice our principles for the dollar.

HEFFNER: Arthur Levine, I like hearing what you have to say.

LEVINE: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: Thanks so much for joining me again here on The Open Mind.

LEVINE: I enjoyed it. Thank you.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time, and if you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send $4.00 in check or money order to The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150.

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.