Blog posts I wish I had written

by on February 25, 2018 at 3:05 pm in Education | Permalink

From a reader email:

I can’t seem to find it on any of the sites you write at, but I do remember reading somewhere an article on the purpose of tenure that I want to find again.

The basic gist was that people were mad that tenured academics are cowards and won’t stand up to radical segments of campus, but the author posited that this wasn’t actually strange because the purpose of tenure isn’t really to instill courage but to function as a sort of intra-university governmental gateway: this person can be trusted so he gets tenure — or something roughly like that.

It sounds like it was something you’d written, but I can’t seem to find it in your writings.

1 Thiago Ribeiro February 25, 2018 at 3:26 pm

Famous Brazilian Representative (and presidential candidate) Bolsonaro was granted a hero’s welcome in Japan. Could you people please share that information with your friends, if you have any, and acquaintances? Write your Representatives and Senators? Representative Bolsonaro is the most pro-American candidate, he favors protecting foreign investments, he favors close military cooperation with America and he wants to stand up to Red China’s imperialism. Representative Bolsonaro believes, as famous American president John Kennedy did, that “this Hemisphere intends to remain the master of its own house”. Remember what Mr. Kissinger said: as Brazil goes, so goes South America.


2 Anon7 February 25, 2018 at 4:42 pm

It was Nixon who said that back in 1971: “because we know that as Brazil goes, so will go the rest of that Latin American Continent.” (

Today it would be: As Brazil goes, so goes ALL of the Americas!


3 Thiago Ribeiro February 25, 2018 at 5:14 pm

Thanks for the correction. I was quoting from memory.and ended up conflating it with a later meeting between Kissinger and Pinochet (when America, Brazil, Chile and Argentina were building the Condor Pact for cooperation to hunt down communists in South America):“you+are+the+leader”+kissinger&source=bl&ots=aScxetckHV&sig=v0nREoNIOPVoMAmxfoFaqveOX9A&hl=pt-BR&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwi-0P2riMLZAhWDso8KHaofD98Q6AEwA3oECBoQAQ#v=onepage&q=%22you%20are%20the%20leader%22%20kissinger&f=false

My point stands. Brazil and America have been partners in freedom for a long time. Shouldn’t America support the candidate who wants to strenght that relationship? Brazil has untold reserves of niobium, gold, iron and agricultural lands. Should Red China be allowed to buy them all?! Won’t close cooperation between Brazil and the United States be key to ward off Chinese aggression? Brazil is the eight biggest economy in the world. Can America afford abandon Brazil, a key, reliable partner? The world is at crossroads. What we do this year will create the world our children will live. Are we doing the right choice?

Those are some tough questions maybe you should mail to your Senators and your representative. What are they doing to help America’s true friends in Brazil? What more can be done?!


4 freethinker February 25, 2018 at 9:03 pm

what is the relevance of Ribero’s comments tot eh subject of the blog post?


5 Thiago Ribeiro February 26, 2018 at 11:01 am

The point is, the world is at crossroads.


6 Ray Hsu February 25, 2018 at 3:33 pm

Never too late!


7 Mr. Econotarian February 25, 2018 at 3:43 pm

Supposedly tenure was originally established in the late 1700s to protect academic freedom at religious schools, although I can’t find much support for this.

By the start of the 20th Century, tenure was established by presidents of Harvard University, Columbia University and the University of Chicago to reduce the ability of university donors to influence the removal of professors.

Adoption was slow. In 1935, fewer than half of universities employed formal tenure policies, and many of these were weak and indeterminate by modern standards.

The fully developed essence of tenure was set forth in the 1940 “Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure”, which the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) jointly formulated with the Association of American Colleges and Universities. It stated that that tenure served two goals: (1) “freedom of teaching and research” and (2) “a sufficient degree of economic security to make the profession attractive.”


8 Edward Burke February 25, 2018 at 3:54 pm

Tenure, an instrument of spineless compliance?

Can such things be?


9 jseliger February 25, 2018 at 4:41 pm

Related, though not precisely on point, from Carmichael, Lorne H. “Incentives in Academics: Why is There Tenure?” The Journal of Political Economy, Vol. 96, No. 3 (Jun., 1988), pp. 453-472:

“Loosely, tenure is necessary because without it incumbents would never be willing to hire people who might turn out to be better than them-selves.

The analysis is consistent with several other aspects of the academic environment. It provides a rationale for “tenure-track” appointments and says something about the standards that can be used for tenure decisions. The job security derived here is not absolute. Incumbents (454) can be released if they fail to meet exogenous standards of performance (i.e., engage in “gross moral turpitude”) or if the separations are voluntary (contract “buy-outs” or early retirement). In times of financial crisis, when involuntary separations are inevitable, the model suggests that entire departments be eliminated. This is because the members of one department do not choose the new hires of another. The framework used for the analysis is quite general, so it also makes predictions about the form of other organizations in which members have input into overall decisions” (455).

I actually don’t fully buy this in a much more contingent labor market (which is what we have now), but it is an interesting argument.


10 Charles February 25, 2018 at 4:50 pm

This tenured professor thinks that characterizations like “tenured academics are cowards” are not even wrong. In my experience tenured faculty display a wide distribution of behavior, just like people in most other lines of work, from courageous and self-sacrificing to self-interested and greedy.

Tenure *does* insulate the faculty from the donor class. Should faculty careers depend on the whims of powerful, wealthy individuals? Powerful, wealthy individuals probably think they should. But is it in the best interests of the academy and society at large, in an age when public universities are becoming less and less public and more and more dependent on private gifts?

Tenure also undoubtedly makes the profession more attractive. The ability to convey this good brings some financial benefit to the university in the sense that it probably has to pay less to employ a highly talented individual than would a private employer who is unable to guarantee permanent employment.


11 So Much For Subtlety February 25, 2018 at 5:40 pm

But is it in the best interests of the academy and society at large

Yes. Yes, it is. Because “coward” does not adequately describe the educators who aim to produce blue haired, nose-pierced political radicals who then intimidate all the other teachers in to compliance no matter how insane their demands. See Antioch etc etc.

Given the abdication of educators from any concept of responsibility they might have, they have to be accountable to someone. The donors seem a much more sensible group of people. Probably smarter and better read too given the decline in university staff.


12 Charbes A. February 25, 2018 at 6:03 pm

“The donors seem a much more sensible group of people.”

They are surely richer, which carries weight with some people…


13 Charles February 26, 2018 at 8:38 am

“Antioch etc. etc.” is not a good way to characterize US higher education.

In my experience, which extends over a couple of decades and thousands of students but which I cannot claim to be a fair sample, the blue hair and piercing mostly happens before students arrive on campus. I have never seen a faculty member with the power to turn a student into a left-wing radical.

Also, what happens in the classroom (measured in student-hours) is mostly those irresponsible educators teaching kids the s**t that makes society work: mathematics, biology, chemistry, physics, … economics (hesitant on that last since some of that teaching is so ideologically inflected) … , business, computer science, writing. History. Statistics.

The way we do this in the US is emulated all over the world because US higher education produces well prepared students *and* does research and development that will and has transformed society (for example, by writing the first web browser).

Students also come to the US from all over the world and pay huge sums of money to be part of this educational system. The market speaks.

Although over the last year the number of foreign applicants has dropped off, for some reason.


14 JosieB February 26, 2018 at 12:16 pm

Most undergraduate courses now are taught by itinerant adjuncts. Most baccalaureate candidates are unable to think any more rigorously than they did when they arrived as freshmen.

Most research in the arts is read only by other tenured professors. Much social science research is examined by like-minded people who hesitate to challenge the dominant narrative because “Everybody knows that X is true.”

The national professoriat has sat by and watched, apparently unconcerned, as university administrative employment has doubled and tripled and quadrupled and as students are charged indefensible tuition rates to pay for the bloat.

Tenure may not have anything to do with these matters, but assuming that our colleges are as good as they ought to be is naive. We should fear the day when “the market” figures this out.


15 Charbes A. February 26, 2018 at 6:16 pm

“Most research in the arts is read only by other tenured professors.”
As opposed to those times when peaseants read them all…

“We should fear the day when ‘the market’ figures this out.”
Thanks God there are all those great profit-seeking colleges.


16 darf ferrara February 25, 2018 at 5:44 pm

It sounds a little like Armen Alchien’s “Private Property and the Relative Cost of Tenure”.


17 John B Chilton February 25, 2018 at 6:23 pm

On the gateway argument:

“The critical advantage of the tenure system is that it raises the cost of being lax in renewal decisions: if you fail to fire marginal candidates, you are stuck with them forever. Thus, under the tenure system, both faculty and university administrations impose a real hurdle for earning tenure, rather than routinely concluding that “there’s no great harm in keeping Professor X for just a few more years.””


18 Phil February 25, 2018 at 6:35 pm

Tenure’s inherent moral hazards are nothing any right-minded economist should ever endorse. Unless, of course, they are already tenured.


19 rayward February 25, 2018 at 6:49 pm
20 So Much For Subtlety February 26, 2018 at 4:16 am

The neo-Cons were never really Republicans. Fellow Travelers at best. And with the end of W’s two terms, it has come time to part ways – and for the neo-Cons to return to the Left. Let Hillary argue for endless wars in the Middle East in which Republican voters simply serve as cannon fodder.

In an opinion piece for Foreign Policy in September 2017, Max Boot outlines his views thusly: “I am socially liberal: I am pro-LGBTQ rights, pro-abortion rights, pro-immigration. I am fiscally conservative: I think we need to reduce the deficit and get entitlement spending under control. I am pro-environment: I think that climate change is a major threat that we need to address. I am pro-free trade: I think we should be concluding new trade treaties rather than pulling out of old ones. I am strong on defense: I think we need to beef up our military to cope with multiple enemies. And I am very much in favor of America acting as a world leader: I believe it is in our own self-interest to promote and defend freedom and free markets as we have been doing in one form or another since at least 1898.

Nothing in that is remotely Conservative except perhaps reducing the deficit. Which I suspect is simply lip service. I don’t recall him objecting to W’s or Obama’s deficits.

They will not be missed. Well, most of them will not be missed.


21 Thiago Ribeiro February 26, 2018 at 11:04 am

“The neo-Cons were never really Republicans. Fellow Travelers at best. And with the end of W’s two terms, it has come time to part ways – and for the neo-Cons to return to the Left.”

Lenin was never a communist. Hitler was never a Nazist. Pelé never played soccer.

Sorry, I still remember how Republicans (and their lackeys in Brazil) attacked anyone who challenged the neocons’ perpetual war. Your con may work better with younger audiences, though.


22 wiki February 25, 2018 at 7:10 pm

In a well-functioning market, firms should have a right to offer contracts with tenure or a non-tenured contract for a fixed term at a higher wage. It’s only the crazy all or nothing current system that locks us into this mess.

As it is, the US is unusual in being stingy with professorial tenure and not having guarantees of salary as part of the contract.


23 Thomas February 25, 2018 at 7:29 pm

It’s been studied in social psychology and the finding is that self identified liberals engage in viewpoint discrimination against conservatives. The thing with the left is that when progress is an ideology, the goal changes with every victory. Fifteen years ago it was marriage equality, today if you object to allowing kindergarteners to choose their gender and start hormone therapy, you’re Hitler. Progressives are cruel, brutal people. Today, we should punch Nazis and any Republican who demonstrates is a Nazi, what will it look like in fifteen years for someone who objects to reparations via identity-based tax rates? And, for the scoffing Jon Oliver viewers who might want to respond to this, explain the limiting principle in progressivism that limits leftward progress?


24 Thiago Ribeiro February 25, 2018 at 8:18 pm

“The thing with the left is that when progress is an ideology, the goal changes with every victory. Fifteen years ago it was marriage equality, today if you object to allowing kindergarteners to choose their gender and start hormone therapy, you’re Hitler. Progressives are cruel, brutal people.”

I mean, first they wanted to ban the slave trade, then they wanted to free the slaves, then they wanted former slaves to be able to vote, then they wanted to end segregation, then they elected a Black guy to be president, now they are against celebrating slavery and rebellion against the Union. Won’t it ever be enough? This progress thing is unaceptable!!


25 Li February 25, 2018 at 8:41 pm

Your use of “slave trade” and “slaves” are utterly unacceptable. They’re obvious triggers, and you obviously intended to upset people by using them. You require remedial education. Rebellion against the Union implies a violent intent on your part. You obviously require 10-20 years in prison for your thoughts.


26 Thiago Ribeiro February 26, 2018 at 11:21 am

If you fell that way, you better stay away from history books and logic books. You will do well. I heard the current Administration is hiring.


27 Thomas Sewell February 25, 2018 at 9:12 pm

first they wanted to ban the slave trade, then they wanted to free the slaves, then they wanted former slaves to be able to vote, then they wanted to end segregation

Sure, we’re all fans of Republicans and what they’ve accomplished politically in the United States over the years, by what does that have to do with his point about progressives?


28 Thiago Ribeiro February 26, 2018 at 11:16 am

The point is, sometimes, unlike what you have been told, progress is a good thing. Even if Republicans today seem to be the party of the Confederacy… Maybe they met a Russian on the road to Damascus.

“Road to Damascus (idiomatic) An important point in someone’s life where a great change, or reversal, of ideas or beliefs occurs.”


29 Dmitri Helios February 25, 2018 at 11:06 pm

+1 You’re the best Thiago! Much respect.


30 Thomas February 26, 2018 at 10:48 am

I take this as a concession that there is nothing in your ideology that would prevent tax rates based on race, sex, gender, sexual orientation, or any other characteristic.


31 Thiago Ribeiro February 26, 2018 at 11:19 am

“I take this as a concession that there is nothing in your ideology that would prevent tax rates based on race, sex, gender, sexual orientation, or any other characteristic.”
No, it is a concession that I do not like hypocrisy.


32 Thomas February 26, 2018 at 11:55 am

Where is the hypocrisy? Today’s national (I can’t speak for the backwards Republicans in some areas) Republican party is the part of equality under the law, in opposition to the Democrat party which seeks to differentiate legal standards according to immutable characteristics.

33 A.West February 25, 2018 at 7:57 pm

It’s notable that tenure seems to isolate a professor from judgement of both employer (the school) and customer (their students). This strikes me as an attempt to avoid meaningful forces almost all other labor market participants make.


34 freethinker February 25, 2018 at 9:01 pm

“The basic gist was that people were mad that tenured academics are cowards and won’t stand up to radical segments of campus, ” I thought tenure would actually instil courage in academics to take a stand however unpopular it may be. Why should tenured academics fear radical elements or anyone else for that matter?
In India teachers in government owned universities are often quiet, even when they are witness to the university authorities indulging in illegalities, until they are “confirmed” in their post ( the indian term for tenure. ). Once “confirmed”, they may even become militant teacher union members.


35 What would ernest borgnine do February 25, 2018 at 9:17 pm

I never treated school seriously (it was a long time ago, I have heard that the consequences of not treating school seriously are much more drastic than they used to be: I am aware of that, so take this comment in that light) and I noticed no difference between tenured professors and the untenured ones.

The professors that I had in small classes (less than 30, say) were a very likable group of people, overall (of the 20 I knew best, about 10 were in the comparative literature/foreign language area, 3 or 4 were in economics, and there was one really beautiful young professor who probably did not have tenure and who ditched our calculus class halfway through because she got really pregnant quicker than she thought she would).

So I have no real opinion on tenure. It cannot be easy going through life as a “teacher” at any level, so there’s that.

Here is my take: there are no little kids who say to themselves, somewhere around the age of 15 or so, “I would much prefer to be a tenured professor than to be, say, a Senator or a Fed Chairman”. So we are basically talking John Lewis-level union issues.


36 Larry Siegel February 25, 2018 at 10:21 pm

At 15, I was not a little kid – I was almost a high school graduate, about to go to the University of Chicago, and I’m pretty sure I said something like that to myself. I didn’t know what a Fed chairman was, but I knew that tenured professors had it made, or seemed to.


37 what would ernest borgnine do February 25, 2018 at 11:07 pm

Larry Siegel – when I say “here is my take” I am basically saying I could be wrong …

at 15 I knew nothing of tenured professors, with the exception of that loser guy “Professor Higgins” from “My Fair Lady” who totally did not understand how to talk to Audrey Hepburn, and that even sadder specimen Professor Kingsfield of Paper Place fame, whose wife simply could not have loved him with the love women want to feel for their mates.

(by the way, at 15, I was less than a year from high school graduation. Some of my parents’ friends were teachers, and I was -then – a naturally kind person, and I tried to alleviate the boredom when I saw it on the faces of my social studies teacher, my French teacher, my English teacher, and my “health” teacher. I tried to engage them in interesting conversation. The other kids gave me a hard time for my kindness. I graduated a year early. Well, I am not sure why I bothered – certainly nobody treated me any better because of my kindness to the bored teachers. I would have liked it if I were more popular – particularly with the females my age – because I respected the humanity of my teachers, but that was not to be. Life is hard. Well, nobody remembers – not me, not the teachers, not the kids who resented me for talking to the teachers as if they were people to whom one speaks, heart to heart, nobody. Nobody remembers, and if I were to say I remember, I would be exaggerating. Still, I would do it again. I remember so many of those teachers fondly: they are all now very old, probably not more than one out of 20 is young enough to read things on the internet. God loves us all, but life is hard (Lent is a penitential season but it is above all a season of joy – I remember).


38 mkt42 February 26, 2018 at 3:06 pm

Univ of Chicago students are not very representative of college students in general. They are the kind of students who at age 15 dream of becoming a professor — and then go on to do so (the U of C produces more future PhDs per capita than all but a handful of colleges and universities).


39 TR5749 February 25, 2018 at 9:41 pm

reads like an argument Arnold Kling might make


40 ChrisA February 25, 2018 at 10:59 pm

I thought it was clear, tenure purpose is as an incentive for non-tenured academics who are striving to become tenured. Like high CEO pay, it is not to incentivise the CEO, it is to incentivise his potential replacements. Note that you want to have lots of high quality people competing for the job of CEO, but only one of them can get it. So the job needs to be pay a lot to provide sufficient probability weighted value to potential candidates to justify their striving. Academics have to be highly intelligent, but can’t be high paid, so a non-monetary alternative needs to be provided to keep the candidate pool large enough. Tenure provides this.


41 AJ February 26, 2018 at 12:51 am

This is probably in a post commenting on Taleb. Seems very much like something he would say.


42 Linvega February 26, 2018 at 4:49 am

In my experience, tenure track profs *are* more likely to speak up about many issues.

However, the big problem with the SJW-craze is that it’s explicitly framed as a moral issue, not a regular job issue or just a ‘normal’ political position.
Any opposition is seen as evil, and while tenure does protect you from smaller mistakes on the job or fringe opinions getting you fired, it doesn’t protect your social life from getting destroyed. Which is generally the aim of SJWs. So even they can’t speak up.

This is also the reason imo why right-wing sentiments are roaring up. Even if you’re generally in the same camp as the SJW, you can’t disagree on the slightest issue without being banned. So the only option for disagreement is by framing *them* as evil instead, which the right is predisposed to do anyway. So even people who might be generally sympathetic to the left might join the right simply because they’re fed up with all the SJW bullshit.


43 jmb February 26, 2018 at 4:56 am

Tenure is just a form of compensation voluntarily agreed on by the two parties– the professor and the university. If the university is a private one, then both parties are private. I’m surprised to see libertarian types arguing without any shame that the state should (i) restrict private contracts and (ii) interfere with what the market has clearly converged on.


44 Thomas February 26, 2018 at 11:50 am

As long as there is a financial relationship between the state and a firm, the state has an interest in ensuring it is getting what it is paying for, which is the best teaching per federal dollar. When tenure committees give weight to the politics of the applicant, the marginally inferior but politically correct candidate is chosen.


45 Pete Brown February 26, 2018 at 5:27 am

Tenure is a system promoted by a self selected guild accountable to no one.


46 Ian Matthews February 26, 2018 at 11:54 am

I think it was Chris Blattman


47 SS February 26, 2018 at 7:09 pm
48 jorod February 26, 2018 at 9:43 pm

Protectionism by any other name.


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