Tenure and mandatory retirement

by on March 11, 2007 at 7:03 am in Education | Permalink

…Is the university tenure system compatible with eliminating mandatory retirement?

Yes.  Unproductive old people are not, in academia, a huge problem.  Most of the research value comes from a small percentage of creators in the first place, and many of those people have done their important work by age 45 in any case.  To put it bluntly, the tenure system works because for many people their "output" doesn’t matter in the first place; tenure is however wonderful for the stars.  The goods produced in academia are often symbolic goods anyway, such as prestige. 

And what is the market trend?  Private universities strengthening the real value of tenure by raising salaries and lowering teaching loads.  That’s what the market test says.  Superstars are becoming more productive, in part because of the Internet and the greater ease of disseminating quality work.  For-profit universities, which typically don’t have tenure, have failed to take over the sector, once again showing there is usually competition between different organizational forms.

#19 in a series of 50.

Addendum: Here are Mankiw and Levitt on tenure.

Gavin Kenendy March 11, 2007 at 8:27 am

Tenure was originally invented in the UK in the early 19th century to protect the faculty positions of non-conformist and jewish faculty, who could only be removed afterwards from post by the Privy Council.

Prior to that university faculty had to be members of the Church of England (or the Church of Scotland).

Adam Smith studied at Oxford to become an ordained member of the Church. When he was elected a professor at Glasgow he had to sign the Calvinist Confession of Faith before the congregation at Glasgow Cathedral.

Over the centuries this was translated into tenure long after the religious tests were abolished. They are now a protectionist device to secure employment, not all that much different from the Guilds that Smith criticised in Wealth of Nations.

After 11 years university teaching and research I voluntarily gave up the ‘protection’ of tenure on promotion to a professoship, which voluntary action surprised the Dean of Science. I felt and feel that strongly. Last year I retired after 32 years. It has not stopped my research; if anything I have more time for it.

Tenure is pernicious. To dignify it with being necessary is an insult in democratic societies, with the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary, a common feature in the UK and USA, to the faculties of those countries that still have religious or political tests, no independence in their legal systems and no freedoms.

Gavin Kennedy March 11, 2007 at 3:52 pm

That they had to be members of the Kirk and able to make the Calvinist Confession of Faith is correct. In fact the Kirk had 15 Church Ministers on the appointments committee who voted against David Hume 12-3 and who influenced the local Edinburgh Council that had powers of appointment. His appointment subsequently at Glasgow was blocked by the Duke of Argyll and a deputation from the Kirk who objected on the grounds you mention.

This situation is not the same as saying that if you were a member of the Kirk, of which David Hume certainly was for much of his life, that that was enough to become a professor. Membership was a necessary but not sufficient criterion to be appointed to a Scottish University.

If you look at the faculty roll for this period you will find almost unanimous membership of the Kirk, including many of them being ordained ministers. The ‘tenure’ act relieved them of these responsibilities in the 1820s, to allow Jews and non-conformists (Quakers, baptists, methodists, etc.,) to become faculty.

Barkley Rosser March 11, 2007 at 8:56 pm

Gavin Kennedy,

Do you have no concern for the issue of academic freedom? Perhaps in the
hard sciences this is less of a problem, but it certainly has been a
problem in economics. Some of the cases in the 20th century that led
to the strongest defenses of academic freedom have involved economists,
ones whose views were out of synch with administrators, legislators,
important donors, and so forth. In some cases, the people that mediocre
morons were trying to fire were brilliant innovaters. Just who is it who
is to fire supposedly unproductive scholars?

I would like to emphasize Tyler’s observation about the failure of profit
making institutions of higher education. Do any of you out there who have
kids that are applying to colleges really want to send them to Upper Iowa
University? Hey, it is profit making! And, it is about as good as they
get. Never heard of it? Well, I wonder why…

RSA March 11, 2007 at 10:08 pm

My impression is that in practice the tenure system isn’t all that much different from the way things work in business. Professors can be let go if they clearly aren’t performing their duties; some go unwillingly into early retirement; etc. Think of it this way: one common suggestion is that professors should be hired on five year contracts. Imagine such a system being put in place at your own job. Think you’d be happy with the idea that every five years you face a make-or-break decision on whether you get to keep your job or not? Some jobs are like that in the professional world, but not that many, I think.

Barkley Rosser March 12, 2007 at 12:19 am


Why does what state unis do have that much to do with it? We already
have competition. Salaries are already higher in the non-profit private
unis than in the state unis, and the serious non-profit privates have
tenure. If the state unis dump tenure and the non-profit privates do not,
the state unis will really go down the tubes.

Barkley Rosser March 12, 2007 at 5:23 am


And your evidence of a “near complete failure to teach anything efficiently”
by current colleges is exactly what pray tell?

Gavin Kennedy March 12, 2007 at 10:55 am

Barkley Rosser
My intervention was to show where tenure came from (the wholly admirable means to break the grip of the 18th-19th century zealots who excluded other religions and women). Nothing comparable exists today in US or UK academe.

A society under the rule of law and with an independent judiciary (as exists in the USA and the UK) entrenches the basic human rights to the freedoms we value. These freedoms are open to any citizen of the country, and I do not see why a special case for additional protection by academics is needed. The cases of challenges to academic freedom are not numerous (I know of several too, including economists; and also the ‘mob’ attempts to silence other non-mainstream academics, e.g., E. O. Wilson, encouraged to the eternal disgrace of ‘colleagues’ in the same discipline, some of whom instigated students to disrupt classes. Tenure does not prevent such breaches, but the law does, and it ought to be sufficient protection for all, whether a brilliant scientist or a car worker.

That was my point. In 32 years in academia in the UK, I know of no incidents worthy of having a self-protection condition of the nature of tenure when this is not extended to non-academics in the world of work. I live part time in France, where employment law approaches similar rigidity – and the effect is clear in the outcomes of high unemployment and a semi-permanent unemployable sub-class of people. It costs too much to risk employing them. I only made what I thought was a relevant point when debating tenure. That’s all.

Ned March 12, 2007 at 1:48 pm

About 20 years ago, when I was a tenured faculty member at a large state university,I left my position for private employment. Aside from low pay, I was fed up with the tenure system, which seem to have as its major purpose the protection of unproductive faculty members. The most productive faculty members could get jobs anywhere and didn’t need the protection of tenure. It was only the unproductive ones that used it to hang on. At least in theory, the dean and the department chair could reward better faculty with larger annual increases, but in practice this never seemed to happen. Everybody ended up getting about the same percentage increase. When I asked my department chair why my annual increase had been so small in view of my high level of productivity, he just shrugged and said that maybe he could do better next year. I didn’t stick around to find out and took a private position which eventually added another zero to my income.

As the above post describes, faculty can certainly be threatened for their political beliefs, but in my experience, I think this is pretty uncommon. Personally, I found a tenure system to be pernicious and destructive to true creativity. I’m all for replacing it with a contract system.

Slocum March 12, 2007 at 3:27 pm

And your evidence of a “near complete failure to teach anything efficiently” by current colleges is exactly what pray tell?

Oh, how about the preservation of the antiquated system in which undergraduates pay ridiculous sums to sit in large lecture halls among hundreds of others to hear essentially canned presentations of canned material that could as easily be presented in writing or on video?

This is wonderful from the university’s perspective — it generates loads of revenue for very little cost, but it is horribly inefficient from the student’s perspective (or whoever is footing the bill).

Barkley Rosser March 12, 2007 at 5:43 pm


The availability of making videos or online or by mail courses has been around for ages
(well, not the online ones).

When I was an undergrad at a big state U I had an intro psych course in which we watched
different psych profs lecture on TV about their specialties. That was not too bad. At
Virginia Tech for years Principles of Economics courses involved large numbers of students
watching a TV presentation of Mandelstam lecturing. Lots of “efficiency” I suppose. And,
maybe we should just let Greg Mankiw record himself lecturing and sell the tapes and
fire all faculty teaching Principles of Economics. Could be efficient.

But, somehow it seems that students and their parents do not like the impersonality of
such approaches. For all the ongoing hype and carrying on about such things, they just
do not catch on and spread very much. I would note that at VA Tech they reverted to
live lecturers for the Principles of Econ classes after Mandelstam retired. Was this
some kind of inefficiency plot by the administration there? Or maybe students and their
parents really prefer having a live person standing there to whom questions can be addressed
rather than some canned presentation or distant online or TV link (I have actually lectured
using a distance TV link, really a pain in the ass all the way around, frankly).

Of course this is exactly the sort of thing that many of the for-profit unis do,
online courses, huzzah! University of Phoenix whoop-de-doo! But, we are still
waiting to see the parents rushing to send their brighter sons and daughters to
these gloriously efficient outlets of higher ed. Just a labeling problem? I think
these outfits have been around too long and been at the bottom of the barrel for too
long in esteem to sustain such an argument.


I would agree that plagiarism and data fabrication are fair grounds for dismissal
of tenured faculty, and I have personally known tenured faculty who have been
dismissed on such grounds. That Churchill has not yet been dismissed suggests
that those allegations remain unproven, although I claim no independent knowledge
of the veracity or falsity of such claims. If they are true, he should go. The
fact that you have heard about them is a sign that there is a big campaign in parts
of the media to get him fired. Did you hear about this from Fox Noise? Have you
checked lately on their credibility in general, especially when they are grinding
ideological axes?

I happen to know a lot about this business of “State Climatologists.” Few of
them anywhere in the US are official state positions. Pretty much all of them
have been assigned by some academic institution, although in some states they
have received some kind of recognition or financial support from the relevant
state governments. So, your point about the Oregon case is no big deal.

What is a big deal is that in fact most of these people actually are trained
climatologists, unlike the majority of people shooting off their mouths about
climate change. A very prominent example nearby is Patrick Michaels, the
State Climatologist of Virginia, who has been very prominent in the media as
a “global warming skeptic,” altough his current position is that global climate
is warming, with this at least partly due to human action, although not by as
much as most people claim. I will also note that the Society of State Climatologists
has in general been an outfit with more global warming skeptics than many
organizations, but the fact that these people actually have serious professional
credentials is why they should be treated with respect and not condemnation and
attack by politicians. Do you think that they should have their tenure withdrawn
so that they can actually be fired for their arguments that upset these politicians?

Gavin Kennedy March 13, 2007 at 3:29 am

Steve Williams
Ascribing features to someone with whom you disagree is hardly scholarly, particularly if you have not researched the alleged ascription in the population of people with whom you disagree. If your stance is meant to exhibit scholarly qualities it might be problematical for your assessors to make a judgement with which you would be happy to receive. Unfortunately, tenure would protect you from scholarly retribution.

It could be, for instance, that some who criticise tenture (for its other effects on productivity, skewed privilge to the already privileged and those least needful of its protection – who’d sack a Nobel prizewinner, for instance) realise they live in highly unusual societies where the rule of law operates and the judiciary is independent (for life and good behaviour) and where freedom of speech is entrenched (though always under attack – we call that democracy).

In countries where this is not the case, tenure is no protection; so academics in countries that need that protection don’t have anything remotely secure enough to guarantee it and academics in countries that do not need extra-legal protection have tenure. Tenure serves other ends in countries ruled by law; it is a make work protection device self-monitored and instigated by those for ends that while understandable in some consipiracy theory, does not in reality justify it.

That is my opinion. You may not agree with it, but please keep your insults about my motives or alleged inadequacies to yourself. They demean you and your case for tenure, not those who disagree with you.

I put 32 years into teaching at British universities, 22 of them after voluntary insisting that I be allowed to give up tenure by the appointments committee (the Dean of Science was surprised but those who knew me said it was ‘OK’ and not a threat to the academics who had tenure – ‘it was just Kennedy’) [So I was told years later]. After retiring two years ago (voluntarily) I am still doing little else but research (look up my web site), and am still ‘teaching’ (I hope) something to those who read it.

I have no idea if or why you need tenure in ‘Kansas’ (is that a corner of the USA or Zimbabwe, Iran, North Korea, of Darfu?), and I suppose you feel you have a good case for it. Fine. Argue it on its merits, not in the manner of your post.

srp March 13, 2007 at 7:10 pm

I’m not a huge fan of tenure, because I think the “out or up” system applied to junior faculty is not an way to maximize research quality. That said, anybody who wants to get rid of tenure has to think through some of the predictable effects:

1) An increase in faculty salaries overall, and an increase in salary inequality within fields.
2) Hiring decisions being made more by administrators than faculty members, due to conflicts of interest for current faculty who don’t want to be replaced by someone better, with some significant information loss.
3) More external direction of research topics, especially in those areas not currently funded by outside grant money.
4) Much more pressure to pander to students in order to get higher teaching ratings (although this could be mitigated by increasing pressure to test students and gauge professors’ effectiveness that way).

There are probably some other obvious effects, but those are worth thinking about.

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