As Columbia professor Mark Taylor put it in 2010, "Tenure decisions render illiquid a significant percentage of endowments at the precise moment when more flexibility is required."
The only way to force a tenured professor out is to close an entire department, a step a few schools have taken. But no ambitious dean likes to face the fracas that ensues.
When the State University of New York at Albany, for example, cut five low-enrollment humanities programs, an NPR story on it highlighted the "outcry" that followed which "resonated with the public and the press."
Most professors in slipping fields don't notice the effects much. Tenure frees them from worrying about student interest. They love having smaller classes and fewer papers to grade.
The standard course universities have taken is to offer buyout packages to accelerate retirements. But that old tactic may no longer work.
It's not just the bad job market. In the Fidelity survey, professors ranked personal reasons more often than financial concerns for continuing to work.
Only 55 percent declared that uncertainty over having enough money to retire comfortably was their main reason for staying, while 89 percent said they "want to stay busy and productive" and 64 percent said they "love the work too much to give it up."
What's a manager to do when an expensive and not-so-productive 73-year-old worker can't be released or reassigned?
The obvious answer is to stop the process before it starts, and use more nontenured instructors.
In 1969, tenured and tenure-track faculty amounted to 78 percent of the higher education workforce. By 2009, that rate had slipped to 33 percent, even as the number of professors over 65 doubled from 2000 to 2011, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports.
Faculty leaders complain about the trend, citing the bad wages and benefits in nontenured employment. But the Fidelity survey explains why administrators have no choice.
Tenure started 100 years ago as a way to preserve academic freedom, not to keep employees in place 10 years past customary retirement age. The continued resistance to reform shows arrogant disregard for rising college costs for students, for meritocratic decision-making and for academic innovation.
The current method of converting tenured slots to nontenured ones is too slow. We need another incentive, and there is none more powerful among selective institutions than the U.S. News rankings, which scare administrators every year.
What if the rankings included another variable, "Percentage of professors over age 65"?
No university wants to top that list, and we can be sure that once it appears, a whole new set of creative solutions to the never-retiring professor will be found.
Bauerlein is professor of English at Emory University and the author of "The Dumbest Generation." His column was distributed by Bloomberg News.