A state legislator from Provo wants to do away with the tenure system, which grants some college professors jobs for life.

Is the bill an attack on academic freedom? Or would it bring more accountability and productivity to state-run schools?

Rep. Chris Herrod is backing House Bill 485 to eliminate new grants of tenure beginning July 1 to professors at state-run campuses. (Those who already have tenure would continue to hold it.) If the bill were to pass, Utah would be the first state to do so.

At almost all colleges, young professors are evaluated by their departments and university administrators, often over the course of six or seven years. If granted tenure, they can still be fired for cause, but the bar is very high.

According to some estimates, only about 50 to 75 tenured professors nationally lose tenured status annually, and sometimes their jobs. So a tenured professor is basically more likely to be struck by lightning than fired.

Most of us don't have lifetime jobs, but the issue comes down to whether tenure yields useful academic freedom. As the American Association of University Professors put it in a landmark http://www.aaup.org/AAUP/pubsres/policydocs/contents/1940statement.htm"> statement in 1940: "Tenure is a means to certain ends; specifically: (1) freedom of teaching and research and of extramural activities, and (2) a sufficient degree of economic security to make the profession attractive to men and women of ability."

Defenders of the system say it encourages professors to take bold stands. A special measure of job security is needed because new ideas often threaten the status quo. That can stoke opposition from politicians, university bigwigs, off-campus critics or even other professors.

As Yale University President Kingman Brewster put it in 1972, "This spirit of academic freedom within the university has a value which goes beyond protecting the individual's broad scope of thought and inquiry. ... If a university is alive and productive, it is a place where colleagues are in constant dispute; defending their latest intellectual enthusiasm, attacking the contrary views of others. From this trial by combat emerges a sharper insight, later to be blunted by other, sharper minds. It is vital that this contest be uninhibited by fear of reprisal."

Also, researchers may need to dedicate many years to studying an important subject. Professors are more likely to make a commitment if they are confident they'll hold their jobs.

As a bonus, tenure is an attractive employment benefit that can draw top minds and motivate younger professors. At least that's the ideal. Utah Commissioner of Higher Education William Sederburg has told the news media that if Herrod's measure were to pass, Utah universities would be hard-pressed to attract top-flight researchers and teachers.

At the same time, it might be doubted that either of the lofty justifications really pay off in practice.

Noted philosopher and University of California Berkeley professor John Searle put it this way: "Like the trustee system, the system of academic tenure is without adequate justification ... We do indeed need a system that protects the academic freedom of the faculty member, and we do need to make the profession attractive; but it does not follow that the best or only way to do these things is through a tenure system which may provide a lifetime job guarantee for mediocrity and incompetence."

Anyone who's been inside any university system knows that too often that's true. Some mediocre or dreadful educators are tenured; others with real ability go into cruise control once they attain it. Some good educators get bypassed.

Again, only 50 or so tenured professors lose that status in a typical year. That's out of an estimated 280,000 tenured educators. Are the other 279,950 professors all wonderfully productive and creative? The laws of probability and the realities of human nature suggest not.

If anything, a dispassionate look at American campuses will find only a few bold innovators among a sea of conformists. Tenure often seems to foster not creativity but consensus science, otherwise known as political correctness.

Herrod is one of those who think a system that removes competition also removes a lot of motivation. Under his bill, professors would be evaluated as is any other employee. The assumption seems to be that the best would be little affected, those along the middle of the bell curve would be more highly motivated, and the ineffectives would be weeded out.

"Competition brings out the best in people," Herrod has been quoted as saying. "I have a hard time believing professors don't want to compete."

In the final analysis, the pressures squeezing higher education are already under way. Note that the AAUP tenure statement above is from 1940. A lot has happened since then. The financial, technological and social pressures that are reshaping so many aspects of our lives are changing the lives of professors, too.

In 1960, 75 percent of college instructors were full-time tenured or tenure-track faculty, with a quarter of the teachers being grad students or part-time teachers. Today the percentages are nearly reversed, with only 27 percent of college instructors being tenured or being considered for it. That trend seems to be speeding up as the sluggish economy and government debt chill funding.

Tenure offers little or no protection if a university, rather than firing an individual, eliminates positions, programs or even departments instead.

No matter what Utah does with Herrod's bill, giving professors lifetime jobs in the years ahead seems likely to become increasingly rare, if not extinct.