While people often view academic tenure either as a boondoggle for hoity-toity professors or as a critical bulwark of academic freedom, I’ve always viewed the justification for tenure as mostly an economic one:
Consider an undergraduate who might have loans to pay off. Then add five to eight years during which, if he is lucky, he doesn’t accumulate debt, but certainly isn’t saving any money. Then add the post-doc (at least one) where, again, there’s low wages and little savings. Follow that with five to nine years of running like hell, at which point you can receive tenure. If tenure weren’t available, few people would put up with that career trajectory, unless the pay were higher…
Thoreau at Unqualified Offerings fleshes this out more fully:
Did you notice the part where I said I’d want a higher salary to compensate for having less security? Yeah. See, lots of people are willing to slave away in grad school and postdoc positions and adjunct positions in exchange for a shot at the tenure lottery. Dilute the value of the prize, and suddenly people start wanting more money in return. A lot of smart, highly-educated people will start looking at other white collar career paths if academia doesn’t provide a shot at life-long security, or at least higher pay than is currently on offer. Take away tenure, and not only do you pay more for the people that you ultimately hire for full-time positions, you also have to pay more for all of the grad student TA’s and research assistants and postdocs and adjuncts who are trying to claw their way to a full-time position.
Why, pray tell, would the administration go for that bargain?
I really think that’s the crux of the issue: universities couldn’t afford not to have tenure. Yes, sometimes you get deadwood, but it’s actually a great economic deal for universities, especially in the heavily funded sciences.