From the bench of Kevin Lewis shame on you tenured professors

by on December 20, 2017 at 2:46 pm in Economics, Education, Science | Permalink

forthcoming study in the Journal of Economic Perspectives doesn’t use any of those terms and explicitly says it must not be read as an “indictment” of tenure. But it suggests that research quality and quantity decline in the decade after tenure, at least in economics.

The authors of the paper — Jonathan Brogaard, an assistant professor of finance at the University of Washington at Seattle; Joseph Engelberg, professor of finance and accounting the University of California, San Diego; and Edward Van Wesep, associate professor of finance at the University of Colorado at Boulder — started with a question: “Do academics respond to receiving tenure by being more likely to attempt ground-breaking ‘homerun’ research and in this way ‘swinging for the fences?’”

After all, they wrote, “the incentives provided by the threat of termination are perhaps the starkest incentives faced by most employees, and tenure removes those incentives.” (The question is sure to annoy academic freedom watchdogs. In the authors’ defense, they do cite the benefits of tenure, including job stability’s potential to encourage risk taking.)

Looking for answers, Brogaard, Engelberg and Van Wesep collected a list of academics who worked and were tenured in economics or finance departments at 50 top-ranked institutions at any time between 1996 and 2014. The final sample included 980 professors, all of whom were tenured by 2004.

Here is the link.

1 Phil December 20, 2017 at 2:54 pm

Evidence of the moral hazard of tenure.

2 dan1111 December 20, 2017 at 5:39 pm

Or not. Lots of good comments below.

3 Anon December 20, 2017 at 3:02 pm

Its been confirmed also that research quality and quantity decline in the decade after receiving a Nobel Prize. lets abolish the Nobel prizes.

4 dan1111 December 20, 2017 at 5:39 pm

That’s what I was thinking: regression to the mean.

5 noah December 21, 2017 at 12:11 pm

Or simple aging. No one gets younger after getting tenure.

6 Richter December 20, 2017 at 3:09 pm

Another, possibly-related question: do professors produce better/more research in an attempt to secure tenure? If so, does this outweigh the decline in research after tenure?

7 JWatts December 20, 2017 at 4:48 pm


8 aMichael December 20, 2017 at 4:54 pm

This right here. I’m not even a fan of tenure, but it seems like they’re looking at the wrong time period to identify its effects on research. Also, if tenure is about giving people to “swing for the fences”, shouldn’t there be more misses and thus fewer publications post-tenure?

9 v5 December 20, 2017 at 5:26 pm

There should be fewer overall publications but more “homeruns;” the author found overall publications went down but “homerun” publications decreased by an even larger amount.

10 Bryce December 20, 2017 at 9:26 pm

+1… I was wondering the same thing.

11 Ryan Reynolds December 20, 2017 at 11:53 pm

Me too.

Second question, if work rate rises to achieve tenure, what is the net impact? Lot’s of students were probably swinging for the fences, missed, and didn’t get tenure. There’s a lot of value in confirming that the direction is pointless to follow. Not quite so much glory though.

12 Slocum December 21, 2017 at 11:37 am

Yep. Think of it as a lottery/prize system. And what would things in higher ed look like without tenure? My guess is that it would be a lot more like K12 education — once hired, nobody would ever be dismissed unless they committed a serious crime or got into a major internal political conflict. At least this way, there is a formal system for the unproductive to get filtered out early as well as an inducement for all to work intensely for several years anyway.

13 someone December 20, 2017 at 3:13 pm

poor measure of effort and risk-taking. senior faculty engage in a lot of publishing that is different from junior faculty publishing, including writing papers that are essentially professional service, such as review articles, and articles in the JEP itself!

14 someone December 20, 2017 at 3:18 pm

also worth remembering that the composition of papers changes a lot once you have the security and social capital of tenure. e.g. a junior faculty member couldn’t have spearheaded the Oregon Experiment, too much effort for too delayed a payoff.

15 Simonini December 20, 2017 at 3:16 pm

Shouldn’t this be forthcoming in the Journal of Obvious Results?

No one expects professors to be as productive after tenure. The lifestyle of most pre-tenure professors is not sustainable for an entire career and after tenure professors are weighed down with much more service work like recruiting.

There is also a built-in selection effect. Some amount of paper quality is random rather than a reflection of researcher quality or effort. Tenure is given only to professors who meet a certain productivity bar. If you only consider professors who were tenured, some fraction will have received tenure due to the random part of success and so you would expect regression to the mean in their post-tenure results.

16 Guy Makiavelli December 21, 2017 at 3:53 am

The lifestyle of most pre-tenure professors is not sustainable for an entire career

If they can’t maintain their productivity, then toss them out. Companies don’t subsidize declining performers, why should taxpayers?

17 NPW December 21, 2017 at 6:35 am

Why should taxpayers pay for this at all? We need people to teach, not write notes to themselves.

18 aMichael December 21, 2017 at 10:18 am

I agree that there are plenty of bad teachers out there and that there’s likely an over emphasis on research, but if there’s no research being done, what will the professors be teaching?

19 Carl Danner December 21, 2017 at 10:13 am

Well put. I’m curious about Tyler’s choice of titles for this post — why “shame” for just following incentives and/or regression to the mean?

20 Jack pq December 20, 2017 at 3:29 pm

This is wrong headed. This outcome is consistent with what you’d expect from tenured professors pursuing risky research. Risky research is precisely research that is less likely to be published and less likely to be cited. What the authors call home runs are not risky research. They are mainstream research hence th high citations. A better test would be to see what proportion of Nobel prize winners did their key Nobel research before or after tenure.

21 Joël December 20, 2017 at 3:43 pm


22 wiki December 20, 2017 at 5:21 pm


Tullock’s ground-breaking piece on rent-seeking was published in a low ranked journal because the big ones didn’t want it. Seems this would have been coded in their paper as low quality.

And Coase’s paper on the theory of the firm was not only in a low level journal but took decades to pick up its by now numerous citations.

23 Rafael R December 20, 2017 at 5:29 pm

I give you the comment of the year award.

These negroes haven’t figured out that research quality is subjective and pee-tenure means that the professor is tested for being able to be accepted by its peers is the capacity to mimic what is being done. After they get tenure it means that they don’t have to adhere to the subjective standards of their peers and are able to pursue what they think is really important, which might not be the same as the opinion of their peers.

24 msgkings December 20, 2017 at 5:38 pm

“These negroes” WTF?

25 Rafael R December 20, 2017 at 5:53 pm

It’s a common Brazilian expression, it translates as a very informal way of saying “dude”.

26 A Truth Seeker December 20, 2017 at 6:42 pm

“Negos”?! It doesn’t translate well.

27 Bill December 20, 2017 at 8:03 pm

Perhaps you didn’t spell it like the commenter.

28 Rafael R December 20, 2017 at 5:55 pm

Errata: These negroes haven’t figured out that research quality is subjective and pre-tenure means that the professor is being tested to be accepted by its peers. Hence, it measures the capacity of a person to mimic what is being done. After they get tenure it means that they don’t have to adhere to the subjective standards of their peers and are able to pursue what they think is really important, which might not be the same as the opinion of their peers but might be really great (or not). Real groundbreaking research is extremely risky and 99% of the time turns out into nothing.

29 Anonymous December 20, 2017 at 7:17 pm

Glad you corrected it. Pre-tenure does sound better than pee-tenure. Now if you could also learn not to use the N-word when not in Brazil.

30 amartya sen December 20, 2017 at 9:20 pm

acacia, jonquil, sassafras, hyacinth, juno, iris
Ab + C → A–C + b

31 Frederic Bush December 20, 2017 at 3:30 pm

see also the “contract year” phenomenon:

32 Lewis December 20, 2017 at 3:40 pm

I am not really pro tenure, however, I have qualms about the idea of comparing before and after tenure performance. The reason is that people without tenure are working at an extraordinary pace, in order to get tenure. So the early pre tenure performance is motivated by the tenure. If you took a way tenure, I think later career performance would get better, and early career performance would get worse.

I think if we are going to do away with tenure, we will have to come up with some way to deal with the following fact: many people’s energy and mental faculties decline as they age, and their child demands rise. So if we are to do away with tenure we will have to come up with some assurance to junior faculty that, when they are fifty, they won’t be fired for not performing as well as the junior faculty. This is the actual motivation for tenure even if it’s not PC to say. Nor is academia special; lots of professions have evolved ways to deal with this or else they wouldn’t attract many far sighted youngsters.

In other high skill jobs, the assurance to, say, google engineers (who face a similar problem) is that they get big payouts in the future or can graduate into managerial roles. As managers, they can apply their growing wisdom and relationships to make up for not knowing the latest and greatest tech stuff nor being able to code until 11pm every night. I believe law and finance are similar: you work hard at first to get partner. Cops and firefighters and military likewise wind up in administration and also have their compensation heavily weighted toward retirement benefits, so they can dip out and become landlords.

The issue with academia is that there is not as much need for managers and such. Sure, academic administration is growing, but this is often the dumbest most useless part of the university and is not in any way related to doing research, or sometimes accomplishing anything. In any case, regardless of its utility, academic administration (e.g., dealing with a crew of nut job undergrads who won’t let white people cross a bridge, an example from the school where I work) is ill suited to some aging Russian mathematician who has spent the last twenty years dealing only with prodigies and other mathematicians. There are some managerial positions that are perfect for faculty to age into, but I think that institutionalizing these roles for everyone as part of the job would lead to copious make work. At least with tenure they can still keep doing what they were good at. I don’t know the answers; perhaps the best answer is just a somewhat weaker form of tenure.

33 Guy Makiavelli December 21, 2017 at 3:54 am

The reason is that people without tenure are working at an extraordinary pace, in order to get tenure.

Make them work that way just to keep their jobs – like in a startup.

34 Guy Makiavelli December 21, 2017 at 7:09 am

In other high skill jobs, the assurance to, say, google engineers (who face a similar problem) is that they get big payouts in the future or can graduate into managerial roles.

News flash: there is no “assurance” to Google engineers of anything. VCs make sure that that engineers in startups don’t get big payouts (other than the founders) – and certainly in Google there are no such payouts. And even if you get a managment role (not “assured”) you can only do that for a few years anyway, and once you are above team leader the skills that you need are largely orthogonal to engineering (better to just be a goon with an MBA from Wharton).

It makes little sense to do a STEM Phd, and even a career in STEM requires careful consideration. The managerial class and the VCs have tried (and often succeeded) in convincnig engineers that devoting their lives to their employers in a dead end career is a kind of self-actualization. “You are a nerd with no life – but you can change the world (while enabling the VC to earn gobs of cash)”.

35 PeterG December 20, 2017 at 3:57 pm

The advice I got when I was applying to grad schools (from current grad students) was to avoid professors who were seeking tenure. They drive students into the ground and are generally a pain to work with as they strain under the stress of the ‘up or out’ cliff they are about to go over. (This was in engineering, not econ/finance.) So yeah, I bet they get more papers out in those years but it’s because it’s a career defining and totally unsustainable period. Once they get tenure they can seek a steady-state of production for 40 years. I seriously doubt the ideas are any better in the gun-to-their-head period leading up to tenure.

36 Rafael R December 20, 2017 at 5:32 pm

Pre tenure professors are indeed almost crazy. They work 7 days a week and are desperate to get something that can be popular done. They don’t do real research but focus on trying to ape the profession to get tenure.

37 Mulp December 20, 2017 at 4:08 pm

Due to cuts in real dollar funding in research, the funding goes to the well established academics who know how the system works. These people get the most bang for the buck, especially politically, by hiring the best slave labor, lured by the real opportunity to do tenure track publishing, as well becoming politically connected and thus given the greatest benefits.

Once granted tenure, it’s time for repaying accumulated favors and debt, deferring to others on the legacy grants, and instead spending lots of time and effort finding your own funding sources, or offloading work from your senior peers.

Alternatively, if you carved out a significant niche, your tenure assumes you will create course work for it. Lectures, slides, handouts, tests, and possible a textbook, plus getting the syllabus approved as a permanent offering as elective, and in a State that other instructors can run the course.

Economists seem to ask “why cant everyone be Elon Musk?” while at the same time arguing that everything Elon Musk is promising is totally nuts and impossible.

Ie, Richard Thaler. He was the heretic, slogging away, advancing radical ideas. Eventually he got tenure in the early 90s, and has spent the time since making part of the established academic orthodoxy, not breaking new ground with more radical heretical ideas. To establish his ideas and repay his tenture, he’s taken on the burdens of the establishment, managing organizations and projects and budgets.

38 Yaleocon December 20, 2017 at 4:08 pm

DO NOT FORGET THE REPLICATION CRISIS. If part of this slowdown involves feeling less pressure to p-hack and misrepresent your results in order to obsessively chase statistical significance, then I’m all for it.

39 jorod December 22, 2017 at 12:29 am


40 londenio December 20, 2017 at 4:09 pm

Tenure professors get suck into administration work, committees, Vice Dean of X, and other school activities.

In any case, isn’t the surprising result of this analysis that tenured professors publish at all?

41 dearieme December 20, 2017 at 5:27 pm

That’s why my publication rate picked up when I retired: no more dross activities.

The only sharp change I can remember from earlier in my academic years was when I fell seriously ill: reduced energy, fertility of invention, and presumably IQ. I was bloody grateful for tenure then.

42 Anon December 20, 2017 at 7:20 pm

curious. Which discipline?

43 liberalarts December 20, 2017 at 9:13 pm

Me too. Dearieme has been a poster here for 10 years or more. Engineering?

44 dearieme December 21, 2017 at 9:11 am

Oh, I see. My use of “fertility of invention” was ill judged. I should have said something like “creation of fewer new ideas”.
Forgive me if I don’t specify discipline, save to say that it involved a lot of mathematical modelling.

45 Brad December 20, 2017 at 4:12 pm

Quantity makes sense. We explicitly try to relieve untenured faculty of the burdens (in the sense of time not spent on research) of advising, service, etc.

Alternative hypothesis for quality: in the first years post-PhD you are using cutting edge methods that are prized by top outlets. Fifteen years later you’re fifteen years behind the curve.

46 rayward December 20, 2017 at 4:21 pm

Academics adopt a certain philosophy/ideology and have a burst of creativity early on. Then it’s more of the same. How much creativity can an academic have when it’s the same old, same old. I hate to break it to our hosts, but really, what’s new around here.

47 Dave Tufte December 20, 2017 at 4:23 pm

I earned tenure twice.

In both cases it seemed to be viewed by administration as an excuse to pile sh*t on me: more classes, bigger classes, overload classes, independent studies, grant writing, and committees, committees, committees, and paperwork.

My decline in productivity is mostly attributable to that.

Some portion is also due to having kids.

Other than that, I hate the (full) professor that I am. And I daydream of getting visiting positions where I might actually do the work I’d like to.

I would love to swing for the fences. But I feel that I’d need to be more of misanthrope or a**hole to do that at the universities where I’ve worked.

48 leppa December 20, 2017 at 4:28 pm


49 dan1111 December 20, 2017 at 5:37 pm

Would being more of a misanthrope or…not very nice person…result in more value being created in your work overall? You might want to give it some thought.

50 Curt F. December 20, 2017 at 5:26 pm

I’m not sure that citations to research papers are a worthwhile metric of professorial excellence. The main purpose of most research papers seems to be to impress tenure committees. Perhaps after a need to impress such people is removed, other, more productive and beneficial activities can take the place of writing abstruse research papers that have a spectacularly narrow audience.

51 dearieme December 20, 2017 at 5:35 pm

How would universities fund the extra salaries they’d have to pay to attract and retain staff if they withdrew tenure?

52 Barkley Rosser December 20, 2017 at 6:25 pm

Something else people do after tenure but not before, although some wait for getting to full prof before doing this, is to write books. Once viewrd as the most important measure of scholarly output, now these “do not count,” with I think this implicit in the JEP paper as well. Only tenured or full prof fools write books.

53 A Truth Seeker December 20, 2017 at 6:35 pm

Such is life in America…

54 Thor December 21, 2017 at 11:34 am

Please be more specific.

55 clamence December 20, 2017 at 7:12 pm

There is also the danger tenured professors end up reading tweet-storms all day and night

56 Anonymous December 20, 2017 at 7:19 pm

……generated by tenured Presidents.

57 Mc December 20, 2017 at 8:29 pm
58 Mc December 20, 2017 at 8:38 pm
59 Mc December 20, 2017 at 8:39 pm

maybe someday put uip a website, someday maybe not

60 Mc December 20, 2017 at 8:40 pm

a cruising, out here, in this big space –cruise control baby yea ~

61 Mc December 20, 2017 at 8:48 pm

a big big speaks, not often, . . .

62 Mc December 20, 2017 at 8:54 pm
63 Mc December 20, 2017 at 8:59 pm
64 Mc December 20, 2017 at 9:03 pm

a big walks in, clears the bar, . . .

65 Mc December 20, 2017 at 9:07 pm
66 Mc December 20, 2017 at 9:09 pm
67 Mc December 20, 2017 at 9:17 pm
68 Mc December 20, 2017 at 9:23 pm
69 Mc December 20, 2017 at 9:31 pm
70 A clockwork orange December 20, 2017 at 9:58 pm

Margaret Crane had rebounded for Augustine on those mornings when his father was still sleeping and on those evenings when his father went out drinking. There was a red pole with a green hoop in their cement driveway. Margaret’s father had installed it himself after her mother was diagnosed with tuberculosis. Margaret rebounded for him too, but he stopped playing after she died. He had sold the house to Augustine’s parents when he was born.

71 Rob Powers December 20, 2017 at 9:03 pm

99% of the academics in economics never produce ground breaking “home run” research before or after receiving tenure, so the premise of the study is wrong.

72 Barkley Rosser December 20, 2017 at 9:09 pm

OK, I am just one case, and I am nowhere near being in a top 50 dept, but all of my most cited work was pubbed after I made full prof, although not in the immediate aftermath of my getting tenure, with my most cited work being a book, one that was rejected by 13 publishers before it was published by a press that no longer exists. But I guess that is part of why “books do not count” :-).

73 Steve December 20, 2017 at 10:21 pm

I suppose TC’s post-tenure cash-grabbing career is anecdotal evidence for these propositions. 🙂

74 Thor December 21, 2017 at 11:38 am

Really? Isn’t it obvious to you that Tyler loves books, blogging, having an audience etc., which means all of what he does isn’t for money. In other words, I think he’d be doing it even if he wasn’t renumerated whatsoever.

75 Guy Makiavelli December 21, 2017 at 3:50 am

Academics should be required not just to maintain the quality of their work as the age, but demonstrate on an ongoing basis that they provide significant value-added relative to the newer hires.

In other words, academia should be “up-or-out” just like the rest of knowledge worker economy.

76 Thor December 21, 2017 at 11:42 am

It is. The bigger problem is that conservatives aren’t really represented as they aren’t seen as offering anything value-added. (I.e., conservatives are dumb and dangerous to the socialist project).

77 KevinH December 21, 2017 at 9:14 am

How would one differentiate between this model and something like extra effort applied just before tenure review + selection bias + regression to the mean? You’d have to have some pretty subtle data or really strong calibrations of some of those effects.

78 Fred Thompson December 21, 2017 at 2:53 pm

Sometimes winning comes at too high a cost. In such cases, it is the winners who are the real losers. The phenomenon is known as the “winner’s curse” and it affects a wide variety of situations, from baseball free agency signings to stock market IPOs. In this case it’s the department that is cursed and paradoxically, the higher the department’s standards, the greater the pre-post discrepancy on average.

79 jorod December 22, 2017 at 12:28 am

It’s just protectionism.

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