Transforming Education.

The Changing Value of Tenure

There’s something interesting happening when a professor—at a prestigious university no less—gives up his hard-won tenure to pursue an entrepreneurial opportunity in innovative education. But, as The Chronicle of Higher Education mentions in a recent piece, that’s exactly what one Stanford professor’s done :

And then this week, the Stanford University professor who garnered plenty of press attention when he taught an online artificial-intelligence course to more than 160,000 students last year, announced he had given up his tenured position to focus on his start-up, Udacity, which offers low-cost online courses.

This kind of move isn’t new, but with the constantly growing disruption happening in education, I think it will become more common. That is, I think tenure—long worth its weight in gold to academics—will, for a growing contingent, decrease in the value  traditionally placed on it.

Incidentally, the comments below this Chronicle article are, as is usual with stories of education disruption, a mix of reasonable diplomacy and foaming-at-the-mouth criticism. It’s funny how many critics attack merely the technology aspect of innovation and disruption, as if that’s the only thing anyone’s talking about or making strides in. They rebuke technology advancements as style without any substance. And, in some cases, this is true, but what can’t be ignored are more fundamental issues like this one, also from the Chronicle post (emphasis added):

[U]nless traditional colleges figure out a way to incorporate the new players and their ideas, such as MIT did recently, the innovators will figure out a way around the credentialing hurdle that will be acceptable to students, parents, and, most important, employers. And when they do, a part of the higher-ed market will be disrupted and rebuilt with students at the center.

Simply, in an environment where, as Pew recently reports, merely 54 percent of young adults 18–24 are employed—the lowest since 1948—stakeholders are demanding more from all of their institutions for learning. And they’re demanding it at both the university and K–12 level. The mode in which it’s purchased and delivered is a detail, albeit an important one. But what’s more important are solutions that work. 

These demands cannot and will not be met by technology alone, but they certainly won’t be met with a do-nothing or head-in-the-sand approach. Stakeholders will continue to demand new solutions, and for a few wise, enterprising academics, tenure might increasingly become a small price to pay to meet new demands and reap the personal fulfillment that comes with finding transformative solutions.