What if universities get rid of tenure?

Here's an NYT forum on the issue.  Here is a recent Megan McArdle blog post.  Traditionally I've been sympathetic to tenure (disclaimer: I have it), in part because the schools which have done away with it — the for-profits — have carved out a big niche but they have not displaced traditional non-profit, tenure-driven higher education in most fields.  Few parents dream of sending their kids there.  My point today is simply to note that tenure critics have yet to spell out what the alternative — and thus the debate — really looks like.

If you argue "abolish tenure" the real question is this: under what conditions will professors be fired?  For instance, if you abolish tenure but never fire a professor, the change is maybe not so large (though the threat to fire still can change equilibria).

Here's a thought experiment: take a 53-year-old professor, at a moderate quality university, who goes from publishing three articles a year to one article a year, and in somewhat lesser journals than before.  His teaching evaluations slip steadily, though he never becomes a disaster in the classroom.  In the no-tenure world, does that person get fired?  (And what's his chance of finding another job?)

If firing is in order, how much higher do initial wage offers have to be?  (Recall that you're asking the new hire to take a $$ wage lower than his human capital would otherwise indicate; btw Megan covers that query here.)  Is this deal worth it for universities?  If that guy doesn't get laid off, who does?  Only the convicted felons?

If you believe in abolishing tenure, and yet tenure won't go away, do you also think schools should cut entry-level wages for new professors, as a second-best means of lowering their total compensation?  How do you feel about the achievement paths of the schools that are already trying this strategy?  Will abolishing tenure involve any compensation scheme other than that already used by current for-profits in higher education?

With the pro-tenure arguments, you might wonder how higher education is supposed to differ from other sectors of the economy.  I believe it is this: given that higher education is in part about signaling and certification, socialization and networking of students, "warm glow" of the donors, and research superstars, the later-period shirking of the typical laggard doesn't hurt actual productivity nearly as much as the schools themselves might like to think. 

This also suggests that schools themselves will never make an intellectually convincing case for tenure, since they can't come out and admit that "in the longer run, most of us don't really matter, we only pretended our productivity was worth something in the first place."  Education as theatre, and all that; see my The Age of the Infovore.

When I hear answers to the above questions, namely what the alternative to tenure looks like, then the tenure debate will be getting somewhere.

To some extent the proposed gains from abolishing tenure can be reaped simply by increasing teaching load, relying more on on-line instruction and/or reintroducing mandatory retirement.


"Here's a thought experiment: take a 53-year-old professor, at a moderate quality university, who goes from publishing three articles a year to one article a year, and in somewhat lesser journals than before. His teaching evaluations slip steadily, though he never becomes a disaster in the classroom. In the no-tenure world, does that person get fired? (And what's his chance of finding another job?)"

And how would this be any different from the experience of a 53 year old in the ordinary job market? Say as a CPA, salesman, or otherwise?

The answer, as always, is that the market would step in. He would be forced to compete and if more productive and better educators could take his place, they probably would. What's wrong with that? Why is university education different than anything else?

Tenure has been made possible by ever-increasing government subsidies for ever-rising tuition. Once universities have to deal with volatile and declining revenues, tenure will come under increasing pressure. You can't guarantee lifetime employment at stable salaries in a business where labor comprises nearly all costs and revenue is declining.

So, the next depression (already starting) is probably preparing the end of tenure.

Here's a question: if the professor's teaching skills are declining and tuition is rising, aren't you asking students to pay more each year for a depreciating asset? It just seems a fairness issue.

"When I hear answers to the above questions, namely what the alternative to tenure looks like, then the tenure debate will be getting somewhere."

But that's exactly the thing. Greg makes this point above: how is a recently fired PhD any worse off than any other similar fired worker of their age? Most other professions are un-tenured, and they seem to get along all right. That is the alternative example.

Here's what "the alternative to tenure looks like:"

From the HR Office of the University --

Dear average or excellent tenured professor: "Look, we feel that your contribution to the university is valuable. If you keep it up, even though you don't have tenure, we'll be glad to keep you on. And honestly, if you're a top-notch name in your field, like we assume that prestigious universities would have, you will have just the same kind of job security as you would under tenure, because we don't want the reputation hit of losing you!"

Dear bad (or perhaps just controversial) professor: "Sorry, we're letting you go. You have been taking long sabbaticals, not producing much research or teaching, so we feel it's just not worth it any more. If we're unfairly judging you, I'm sure you can find a job at one of our competitors, just like a prominent PhD researcher could if let go from a regular company. If you aren't that good, well, then I don't know what to tell you. You may have to change your career or goals, like any other person. But hey, at least you have a better education and have had more years to build up a safety reserve of wealth than the average unemployed person."

Dear young tenure track professor: "Well, good news! We don't have tenure any more, so you can stop working 80 hr weeks and killing yourself to endlessly churn out papers and meet service requirements, and going easy on your students so they give you favorable evals, because we don't have to be as stringent in accepting you into tenure -- since we can fire you later if it turns out you weren't that good. So, here's our institutions research and educational goals, let's see if we can find a way that you make yourself useful in achieving them!"

'under what conditions will professors be fired?'
Well, DeLong believes a torturer should retain tenure, as long as said torturer (a member of the law school of the university to which they both belonged at the time) has not been convicted of a criminal act (regardless of what that faculty member previously wrote as a member of the government), so as to preserve academic freedom. After all, just because a faculty member publicly defends the idea that crushing a child's testicles because the president has authorized it, it is not forbidden is no reason to have that professor lose his position because of his opinions or writing.

That is, until a new administration comes in, and a new chorus against torture seems to be swelling. Which leads to DeLong then calling for the loss of Yoo's tenure - even though none of the previous, principled conditions DeLong had set for a torturer to actually lose tenure had been met.

In other words, if someone like DeLong is in a position to make such a decision, it seems clear that being a Schreibtischtäter is not sufficient grounds to lose tenure, based on the idea of free inquiry. It seems equally clear, however, that advocating the loss of tenure for someone without a criminal conviction is fine, as long as it serves to place the advocate closer to the perceived judgment of a new administration.

Even with its flaws, tenure is worth retaining, especially if people like DeLong (whose belief in free inquiry most certainly does not extend to the comments of his web site) would be in a position to decide.

Tenure provides a bulwark, and even when it may allow a torturer to continue to teach law students, a principled defense is possible. But when that principled defense crumbles, there is nothing left to stop anyone holding a very unpopular position from being fired - as DeLong then advocated.

Of course, a law professor who writes documents which clearly go against American law and practice in regards to torture would not seem worthy of retaining tenure, but that is more a question of basic human decency than one which places tenure in a bad light. Tenure isn't about 'productivity' - it is about allowing those with tenure to be placed in a position where free inquiry is not overshadowed by concerns of losing their post merely due to the expressed ideas. In a similar vein, federal judges have life long tenure for essentially the same reason - it is not a question of productivity in their case, but is related to the question of justice, and how justice can be achieved in a setting where those in power may oppose the judgments made by people who make such decisions.

Why worry about firing professors? Sign them to contracts like sports stars. At the end of the contract, the professor is a free agent. If the professor is really good, big money offers will come in from high powered universities. The lower power schools can replace middling professors with cheaper, younger talent on the rise.

I feel very lucky to have tenure myself, but I do also have an increasingly strong (and unpopular!) conviction that the only people benefiting from tenure at this point are tenured professors them- (our-)selves. Two specific issues that give me particular cause for concern: tenure without mandatory retirement is a recipe for disaster in an era when many people who are able to will choose to keep working well into their eighties; tenure is a huge obstacle to getting more mobility into the job market for both early and mid-career academics. More mobility would surely benefit everyone, including students, but it is particularly valuable to child-rearing two-career couples who prefer to avoid a long-distance/absentee relationship over the long term. The distortions the need to obtain tenure seem to me to introduce into the first 15 years of one's professional life really do seem to me unacceptable, but that is a more personal point!

Given that most colleges seem to be run by the Borgias, I'm not sure how to improve their management.

I think tenure is a bigger issue for the humanities and social sciences. Absent tenure and being a leading expert on ancient pottery would get the unemployed 53 year old professor what kind of job?

Tenure allows some freedom of speech but mostly it allows people to dedicate their lives to a skill and knowledge set that may have limited value outside - in the "real" world.

Greg suggests: "The answer, as always, is that the market would step in. He would be forced to compete and if more productive and better educators could take his place, they probably would. What's wrong with that? Why is university education different than anything else?"

And JolietJake avers: "Does that person get fired?". It depends on whether they can be replaced by someone who can do a better job (inclusive of the option value of each choice of employee). If the answer to *that* question is in the affirmative, they get fired. That's the way the real world works, Mr. Cowen."

The key questions, here, from an economists' perspective, are how you determine "more productive" and "better" in the context of higher education. Greg and JolietJake assume either (a) the answers to these questions are transparent, or (b) that a fluid market in educators is the best way to resolve these questions.

The first assumption strikes me a simply false. The "productivity" of educators is hard to measure, and the "productivity" of scholars even harder, because contending systems of measurement based in incommensurate standards are involved.

The second assumption treats markets as a "black box" for optimization of all value questions. Sometimes in some circumstances, markets really do function this way: where a 'commodity' is involved, markets apparently work better than most rival systems of valuation, history shows. But history also shows that market fundamentalism and market efficiency theories must be framed rather carefully to avoid catastrophic screwups. Notably, when a value question does not involve something commoditized, market outcomes may be far from optimal. Even commoditization (say, of sub-prime mortgages) does not guarantee an optimal outcome.

Moreover, this perspective simply ignores (or stuffs into the black box) institutional factors. As other commentors note, the idea that in the 'real world' employees are always rationally valued is absurd. Corporations can be good at valuing employees, but they can also be terrible at it: cf. Circuit City, recently. (Yes: the 'market' then punished Circuit City. But would bankruptcy if they guess wrong be a socially efficient outcome for universities? Really?). Even in a pure retail environment, it turns out, properly valuing employees is difficult. In an educational environment that institutionally attributes value both to diffuse outcomes ("education"), and to labor whose future value is extremely uncertain ("scholarship"), there's no particular reason, a priori, to insist that markets will do a better job than tenure processes (or, for that matter, a worse job -- it's simply not a question that can be answered a priori, as Greg and Jake think we should).

So on this one, I'll go with Tyler: until the alternative is spelled out (and tested), the value of tenure remains open for debate in policy. Moreover, given the fairly strong short-term adverse effects to be expected at any branded university that abolished tenure (that is, they would be at a major competitive disadvantage in hiring faculty, junior or senior), there are rational reasons for even the most adventuresome administration to be hesitant. (Brands are market realities, too, right?)

By the way, I do admit that tenure (which I, like Tyler, possess), may lead to the payment of rents, and to some rent-seeking behavior. But if anyone claims that, say, the modern financial sector involves no rents and rent-seeking, I'll laugh out loud. The better question is to ask what the negative burden of rents in universities is compared to potential benefits of a system that awards some kind of tenure. Given that few university professors make very much money, my first guess (no doubt shaped by self-interest) is that tenure is a relatively inexpensive way to achieve certain hard-to-value-but-real outcomes.

"In the no-tenure world, does that person get fired? (And what's his chance of finding another job?)"
Yes and zero.

Tenure gives you job security, but salary depends on subsequent performance. In some universities, faculty need not get cost of living increases and in many other universities there is a steep income gradient that arises from successful merit reviews. In my university, there have been few surprise downward shocks in a person's productivity after tenure. And in such cases their salaries reflect their productivity. At least in economics, beginning assistant professor salaries can exceed salaries of weak performers who have been around for twenty or more years. So in the end, the few tenured disasters are paid what they are worth.

The traditional story that tenure was designed to solve the problem of academic freedom is akin to many other stories economists love to debunk. I think tenure has very little to do with academic freedom (it would be relatively easy to write an alternative contract that granted academic freedom without granting lifetime employment). The first thing to realize is that academics are not the only agents to receive a form of permanent job tenure (some lawyers, doctors, etc., have a form of tenure when achieving partner status). Such arrangements are more widespread than most people think. Second, that tenure has survived competition with alternative models for (in some cases) centuries. I start with the principle that a widespread durable institution, especially when in direct competition with alternative institutions, must be efficient at solving some problem. There may be exceptions to the rule, but I think it is a good starting point (especially for economists).

I used to teach a theory of the firm course in which we went over tenure as an efficient organizational form. Following a story I first read in the Milgrom-Roberts textbook, "Economics, Organization and Management" I would argue tenure solves at least two important problems faced by academic institutions:

Hiring: Evaluating a good hire into an academic department is expensive. It would be very expensive for managers (Deans, Provosts, etc.) to evaluate the contributions of an academic to a literature. Hiring an outside firm would also prove a challenge given the huge variance in academic performance and the length of time it takes to determine whether a good hire has been made (it can often take 6+ years for agents to fully realize their research potential). Academics within a discipline have a comparative advantage in making such determinations (as an economic historian I would be at a significant disadvantage in evaluating, say, a new econometrician). Further, since the quality of their department stands to gain the most from making a good hire, academics within the department have an incentive to maximize the quality of hire. But imagine that the people in charge of the hire may be fired. In practice decisions to fire an academic will always be made in part relative to the standards of a department/institution. An agent that is performing poorly relative to their colleagues is more likely to be let go. A 50-year old academic, who might lose their job if faced with high performing colleagues faces perverse incentives in the hiring process. Tenure renders the agents who are best able to evaluate talent with the good incentives to hire the best possible fit. This effect is even more important if we consider other elements of an academic hire that make "insiders" better at evaluating potential fits: What types of courses would the existing student mix best benefit from, what comparative weaknesses in the curriculum should be addressed with a new hire, what is the culture of the department? Good answers to these questions are often hard to answer by simply accumulating the kind of data a third party (recruiting firm or Dean) could cheaply secure.

Bargaining: What is the outside value of a PhD in an obscure area of 16th century French literature in the broader job market? (not to pick on any discipline here) The truth is that it is probably not too much higher than a good BA. But acquiring that PhD is a costly activity, and universities and colleges have an interest in ensuring agents continue to invest in acquiring such an asset. In the absence of tenure we have a classic holdup problem in which academic institutions face a large number of agents who possess firm specific assets, driving their wage down to their next best alternative. Knowing this agents would never invest in such PhDs and the French literature offerings suffer. Tenure allows an institution to make a credible commitment: We will hire you on a six year contract and if you meet a couple of agreed to mileposts, you will be granted a permanent job with an attached wage premium. The institution will be unable to fire the agent and force them to compete with other holders of the PhD. Not only is the agents asset firm specific, but the University's hire has become agent specific (many works in the theory of the firm literature concern when two parties may wish to shield themselves from reconstructing pressures or other market mechanisms in order to ensure investments in relationship specific assets). Such tournaments, under some well-known conditions, are an efficient way to ensure a steady flow of agents investing in a firm specific asset with little outside value in a decentralized manner.

These ideas are testable. Academic institutions, or programs within academic institutions, which stress teaching alone, or minimize complementarities between research and teaching, will be the first to move to other models (and many have, teaching schools often do not grant tenure, and many nontenured faculty will teach great books courses at schools like Columbia).

Long lived institutions (that regularly compete with other institutions) rarely survive if their only reason for existence is to benefit one side of a competitive trade. It is surprising to me that so much of the discussion around tenure has ignored these issues. Maybe universities should stop awarding tenure and simply make faculty "partners."

I'd argue that tenure is especially valuable to libertarian and conservative academics outside b-schools and econ departments. And if you think those voices ought to be part of the intellectual conversation in political science and other fields, then that would be at least one other good reason to retain tenure.

Most of the comments on this thread are excellent. I'll try to add a few things that were touched on only once or twice above, or not mentioned at all.

The arguments for and against lifetime tenure for professors seem to be similar to the arguments for or against lifetime tenure for judges. In favor, lifetime tenure promotes or protects independence, which is important for both professions. Against, it enables senile professors/ judges to keep working, and it makes the competititon for tenured positions intense.

Too much competition can lead to adverse selections. With professors, the intense competition for the limited amount of tenured positions leads makes academic politics even worse and leads to a "publish or perish mentality". With judges, it leads to prospective judges developing the skill at talking at length in their confirmation hearings while saying very litte, the selection of candidates with impressive resumes but not much in the way of published opinions, and the development of fake "gotcha" controversies to give the non-presidential party an excuse to vote against.

I've also had the misfortune of taking classes under quite possibily senile professors, and there is reason to believe this problem will get worse.

The benefits of tenure, independence, are much more important for judges than for professors. However, most countries other than the U.S. don't have lifetime tenure for judges. They rely instead on long terms of office, or tenure until some sort of mandatory retirement age.

It seems to me that most of the value of lifetime tenure can be preserved with the sort of long term contracts David Pinto suggested, or even keeping tenure but instituting a mandatory retirement age.

It may be relevant that the U.S. military relies on medium term (eight years) contracts for its enlisted soldiers, while officers are generally not fired until they get passed over for promotion. It also uses mandatory retirement dates. The system does create overcompetition for promotion among officers, at least during times when the military is shrinking. Active duty officers are up for promotion every four years or so.

I also think the idea that tenure is a way of increasing professors' salaries is precisely the wrong way to look at it, partly because part of the compensation in any salary scheme is actually compensation against the possibility of being fired, and partly because tenure is exactly the sort of benefit that employers promise employees when they want to retain them without actually giving them more cash.

As Cliff Bekar pointed out, academic jobs are different because even to qualify for a job as a university professor basically requires you to spend your twenties working ninety hour weeks for poverty wages, often without health insurance, maternity leave, or anything else even remotely like that. I'm entering my ninth year of grad school, in one of the best programs in my field, and after periodically qualifying for food stamps, I'll be on the job market in the fall, competing with dozens to hundreds of other applicants for each job that's available.

I'm not complaining and I'm not bitter. I knew what the odds were, I knew what the trade-offs were, and I chose to do this job because doing the work was more important to me than a career which would be more economically satisfying. But without the prospect of some possibility of job security -- whether you call it tenure or something else -- there is no way I would have spent my twenties working my ass off and living on peanut butter sandwiches. I would have gotten a job that paid a living wage and could support a family. But if the only light at the end of the tunnel was a decade or so of gainful employment followed by unemployment (and unemployability), no one in their right mind would ever choose this career path.

In other words, if you care even a little about higher education -- and frankly, most of the "abolish tenure" people seem like they could care less and are just enjoying a bit of spiteful schadenfreude -- you have to ask yourself how exactly you're going to staff universities with qualified professors. If the system doesn't offer some form of compensation for people who have to spend their twenties living extremely modestly even to qualify for those positions, it will become the kind of job which only the independently wealthy could ever afford to aspire towards (and we're already halfway there). If there is no job security once you get a job, who's going to choose to spend 7-10 years working in poverty to get the qualifications for it?

But, of course, most people don't want to actually think about problems like that; much easier to complain about the problems without actually coming up with a better system or understanding why we have the system we have. So tenured college professors become easy targets for lazy arguments.

I have little to add, other than observing that a world where we kick to the curb anyone at the beginning of their long, slow decline seems awfully Brobdingnagian, don't you think?

Does it matter that research is a zero sum game?

Another point, on tenure more specifically:

If tenure is abolished, a lot of power within the university shifts to the administration. I suppose this is both a good thing and a bad thing. On the plus side, administrators are much more cost-conscious than faculty. On the negative side, administrators often don't understand the specialized fields of their faculty very well. They tend to be captive to whatever flavor-of-the-month educational theory is currently in vogue. They are the ones, much more than faculty, who are pushing grade inflation. (Students who receive poor grades drop out and stop paying tuition.)

Tenured faculty have the power to just defy or ignore a lot of this. Non-tenured faculty (and I am speaking as one), have to go along.

Food for thought on the issue of tenure. The case of an OK professor with tenure getting slapped around by the administration (but not fired) for his political views:

"So tenured college professors become easy targets for lazy arguments."

LOL, this coming from someone who offers up the equivalent of a "think of the children" emotional appeal
to "higher education" as a rationalizations for why he has leeched off the welfare system for nine years
instead of getting a job that might actually contribute something to society. Loser.


Shut your trap.

I was going to say McArdle doesn't understand what she's talking about but I'll say it to you. I financed my "education" by working before coming back, else I'd be in the poorhouse too. And why do I do it? So I can provide research to free-riders like you. You're welcome.

There's no bigger and more consistent critic of academia around here than me, but I know what I'm talking about.

Just like the problem with public schools, it's not the teachers.


I wonder if you know what free riding and public goods are? What is your solution to that problem? I think that is the economic problem, if you want to know the truth.

Here's an analogy It's like coming into a discussion, not understanding anything about it, and crapping all over it and then leaving and never being heard from again.


Thanks for proving my point about lazy arguments. Feel free to explain how being paid to teach a class filled with students who pay for the instruction is "leeching." My classroom is filled with 20 students, each of which is paying, to be conservative, at least a thousand dollars for the privilege of being there. So the fact that I get paid 7k to teach it seems sort of like a bargain for the university, doesn't it?

But the larger point is really just that you don't have any idea what you're talking about, and you don't mind that; you have an opinion, and you enjoy spouting it. Why let facts get in that way of that?

In most fields, a single academic job can receive hundreds of qualified applicants. Which is to say, there are many *many* more extremely qualified people than there are positions for them. There simply is no problem of supply in the academic labor market; there's such an oversupply, in fact, that the real problem is that academics with half a brain choosing any other field than academia, which degrades the quality of the institutions in much more fundamental ways.

Hey Flattus, even if you don't believe they are economic problems, you still have the political problem that the vast majority of people don't agree with you.

I happen to agree, I think, but you are paying for it anyway, and noone cares that you don't think it's a problem, because, well, you are incapable of communicating.

"Secondly, for someone to not accept something offered to them for free tells me that person is not to swift."

Assuming, of course, that the thing being offered has at least some value. Your research doubtless doesn't qualify.

Read it again, I think you'd be hard pressed to find any comments from me that truly appeal authority.

Ad hominem attacks however are kind of like appeals to authority.

"and after periodically qualifying for food stamps"

If you're just saying you could have received welfare, but declined, then I apologize for saying you leeched off
the system. If not, my comment stands.

"So the fact that I get paid 7k to teach it seems sort of like a bargain for the university, doesn't it? "

Maybe it is, but so what? That's your choice. Don't self-righteously talk about "higher education" to rationalize your
decisions in life.

It's the amount and size of schools that concern me (seems there are too few, and they are too large)

My guess is that most people become better teachers as they have more experience. Possibly not so glitzy but probably more focused on the important stuff.

If tenure goes away, lot of potentially brilliant researchers,etc , on the margin, may not enter academia because of loss of job security..it might have to be compensated for higher wages even. If you believe in reference pricing, then there definitely should be a short term shock to supply of researchers since kids who wanted to be professors,etc will have one more reason not to be a professor ,lowers wages in general plus no job security.... in the long term things may look better but not as much better then they are now, ceteris peribus.

I first got tenure in Scotland in the 70s. The University, an ancient institution, had a clause requiring "efficiency", and managed to sack a tenured Lecturer (Associate Professor in your parlance) for being inefficient, because he turned up to lecture unreliably, and then, too often, drunk. Most academics seemed to approve - tenure was usually justified in conversation in terms of (i) defence of academic freedom, and (ii) the need for people to specialise in areas with no obvious demand elsewhere, the idea being that no-one would dare to do so if they could be fired easily. Neither was seen as relevant to someone who let his drinking interfere with his duties.

In the 80s I was tenured for a second time, in England, in a second ancient institution. I don't know of any sacking there on personal grounds, and if any occurred it must have been silently. (A thief, perhaps? A rapist? But I speculate.) However, Mrs T has a law passed that allowed Universities to "make people redundant" as we say in Britain, i.e. to lay them off if there is inadequate demand for their subject. This wasn't retrospective - your contract was safe, but a suitable clause became effective if you got a new contract e.g. on promotion. So, if your University no longer wanted to teach Physics, say, you and your colleagues with the new style of contract could be "declared redundant" and off you had to go. My own University would, in fact, have made every effort not to get rid of you but to find you a berth in a surviving department, where you would be expected to modify your teaching and research accordingly. It would fear that if it didn't do that then it would have found it harder to attract the calibre of academics that it wanted to recruit in the first place. In other words, it knew very well that it would be foolish to look at tenure in isolation.

As for the USA, the abolition of a retirement age (retrospectively, I understand?) seems to me to make tenure much harder to justify. The one thing that outsiders may find hard to grasp, though, is that one ill consequence of tenure that I haven't seen myself is widespread laziness.

I want to spotlight Cliff's comment that Tenure arrangements exist more than we think in the "real" world. Professional firms as well as Japanese companies have implicit tenure and lifetime employment. While there are cases of the other partners in a law firm forcing out an underperforming partner, they're rare and generally the firm is happy with a partner that's been thoroughly vetted through the up-or-out process.

So I think the fears of tenure advocates are somewhat overblown. Word would get out if a school's management often fires faculty and the school would quickly lose the ability to hire people who have slaved away their whole 20's. Like Japanese companies, schools would use salary and promotion incentives instead of threats to motivate performance. The result wouldn't be too much different from what we have today.

What WOULD be different is for the fraction of cases where firing really would be necessary, where the firing would not damage the school's reputation among grad students and post-docs. Such a case would be the 75-year-old soil science professor mentioned earlier, somebody past retirement age in a dying field draining University resources. Done carefully, academia would be better off to have the option to make cuts.

By the way, "All British Universities are State Universities" seems to me to be quite wrong. British Universities simply don't fit into the American distinction between Private and Public; it's a worthless vocabulary to use of them.

Should we be surprised that one of the few pro-labor arguments on this blog directly concerns you?

A lot here have dismissed the academic freedom argument, which may not seem like all that big of a deal because we have it and thus do not realize what it is like not to have it. I shall simply point out that some of the more important cases in the past of professors being fired for their political advocacies or efforts to do so that led to the push for tenure involved economists, including some quite famous ones, such as Richard Ely, the founder of the American Economic Association. It is very easy to take for granted something that one has and ignore the consequences of giving it up.

Re. academic freedom:

Why shouldn't professors be fired for their opinions, political or otherwise? This is a risk in any other profession, what's so special about academia?

private universities are in not coerced to keep the tenure system around, and yet they do. why exactly do we assert it's suboptimal again? seems like some of you just dislike academics generally. if universities could do better by eliminating the tenure system they would have done so already.. tyler is otm on this one.

I don't know Barkley, how about, whoever pays the faculty's salaries? But, that's not really what I asked, is it?

Getting rid of tenure would make political correctness even worse. Scientists like Arthur Jensen, Richard Herrnstein, Linda Gottfredson, and so forth would have been fired without tenure.

Any change is likely to be gradual. Something like loosening the terms under which tenure can be revoked. I'd be surprised not to see some movement along these lines.

My point today is simply to note that tenure critics have yet to spell out what the alternative -- and thus the debate -- really looks like.

"Dead Dad" gets closer than almost anyone else in this post on how a transition might work. In addition, I posted variations on this comment on Confessions of a Community College Dean and Megan McArdle's posts:

I think tenure will remain as a lure for superstars in the profession if nothing else: for schools that are competing to get the best faculty, tenure will remain a strong draw.

In addition, I still haven't seen anyone address Lorne Carmichael's argument in "Incentives in Academics: Why is There Tenure?":

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).

(Carmichael, Lorne H. "Incentives in Academics: Why is There Tenure?" The Journal of Political Economy, Vol. 96, No. 3 (Jun., 1988), pp. 453-472)

If—and this is a big "if"—only people within the discipline can evaluate others within the discipline for hiring and promotion, then tenure will probably remain far longer simply because it will be the only way to get coherent departments together. Note that Louis Menand deals with this issue in The Marketplace of Ideas, which is worth reading for anyone interested in higher education issues.

Until you get past the hurdle of having only people within the discipline being able to evaluate others within the discipline and those in a department not wanting to hire themselves out of a job, I don't think you'll have a sufficiently persuasive case to get rid of tenure altogether, whatever the benefits.

If you want a copy of the paper, send me an e-mail. In all the discussions about tenure rolling around the Internet and magazines, I don't think I've ever seen this paper discussed, which means it's either a) not good / been refuted and I'm unaware of it or b) no one knows about it.

In any event, for non-research institutions the excellence-in-research issue that this presumes won't matter. Maybe the real bifurcation will be in research-heavy institutions that need tenure for good research departments and non-research-heavy institutions that don't because they'll judge faculty more on teaching/service.

Tyler wrote: "Here's a thought experiment: take a 53-year-old professor, at a moderate quality university, who goes from publishing three articles a year to one article a year, and in somewhat lesser journals than before. His teaching evaluations slip steadily, though he never becomes a disaster in the classroom. In the no-tenure world, does that person get fired?"

Among the many fatuous foibles in this are:

1) Tyler assumes that "lesser journals" equate to lesser quality articles: Does this make sense? In economics, I'd say no. Take 30 random articles from the AER and 30 from the SEJ, take off the journal identifiers and put them in the same type form, then ask the faculty at GMU which are the better articles. I don't know how this would come out (no one does; this is also a conceptual experiment); still I'd bet $1000 that there would be either no difference perceived, or that the SEJ would be rated as having the better articles.

2) Tyler assumes that "teaching evaluations" are an accurate measure of teaching quality. Teaching evaluations, taken in isolation, are useless, and possibly inversely related to the value that a faculty member adds to his/her students. One of the most unfortunate things that has occurred in the acadame over the past 5 decades is overreliance upon teaching evaluation by administrators and accrediting groups. The result has been what Walter Williams aptly labeled "inflated grades". These are so widespread that it is a national scandal.

3) Tyler omits entirely from his "thought experiment" other aspects of faculty responsibility: Service. Who does Tyler suppose will screen young faculty for promotions? Who does Tyler suppose will evaluate faculty teaching (oh, I forgot, Tyler thinks that student evaluations do that; so silly)? Who does Tyler suppose will oversee Ph.D. dissertations? Who does Tyler think will constrain the university administrators from doing even sillier things than they already have done?

No institution is perfect; tenure is no exception. But it is a way to allign faculty interests with the long term interests of their institutions. In this era of 5-year-turnover-administrators, without tenure what makes anyone think that short term administrators will do what is in the long term interest of their current institutions?

Some years ago my graduate adviser speculated that (in physics) you'd have to double salaries to attract similar talent without tenure (at least at top universities). I would guess second-tier universities would follow through to signal they are a top university. Considering the actual decline in professor productivity late career, it would seem to cost more to eliminate tenure than to keep it.

The analysis may not be so complicated. Without tenure, many academic jobs look a lot like certain industry jobs. For instance, an experimental atomic/molecular/optical physicist can take work in both academia or the private sector, the difference being tenure (and other idealized associated values that I suspect would go with tenure... note for most physicists the opportunity to teach is not a significant positive benefit). In this case, I would guess the 2:1 salary rule roughly applies.

Is Brad DeLong 53 already?

You handle professor performance the same way every other organization handles it:

1. Merit pay (or demerit)
2. Counseling
3. Performance Improvement Plan
4. Disciplinary actions up to and including being fired.

But the whole paradigm of "professor" is misaligned.

Assistant Professors should be working on research like crazy, teaching occasionally.

Associate Professors should be mentoring grad students, teaching grads and undergrads, and co-authoring with Asst Profs.

Professors should be editing journals, mentoring Asst. Profs and grad students, representing the university, and teaching grad students and undergrads, publishing very little.

Expert, permanent Lecturers should be handling all the Principles courses.

Specialization and division of labor. At what level of experience to the great researchers produce their best work?

Most "research" is garbage, the result of 'publish or perish'. In the Golden Age of scholarship, a professor might turn out one magnum opus his entire career. Now tenure and status are treated like sports statistics.

Tenure is a sham, giving people an excuse for becoming dead wood and rotten teachers who indoctrinate students.

My salary bargaining in the late 70s:-

Proposed new industrial boss: "I'll pay you twice your academic salary. How much do they pay you?"

Me: I told him.

New boss: "Bugger me! I'll pay you thrice your academic salary."

Me: "Done."

The roots of most of the "academic profession" are in one of original professions: the clergy (for a modern manifestation, look at the robes worn at the academy's sacramental rituals, such as graduation).

And the academy bears a striking resemblance to me of monasticism.

Monks sign up for life, and are usualy taken care of for life.

Tenure is an outgrowth of monasticism, without the vows of obedience or poverty.

Those who say no one would spend years studying some obscure (to most people) topic they are allegedly passionate about if they weren't rewarded with tenure are ignoring centuries of people who did and do just that.

Think of the monks, dedicated hobbyists, etc., etc.

"Why shouldn't professors be fired for their opinions, political or otherwise? This is a risk in any other profession, what's so special about academia?"

Because people often are not fired for their opinions. These are the politically acceptable excuses used to assuage potential supporters. It is the blood in the water for sharks to start a feeding frenzy. Even in tenure decisions you see this. Tenure is partly a fireable moment in a job that has few short of axe murder because it is so independent.

Only a couple of comments have even alluded to one of the biggest issues here - Tenure would NEVER have become "the norm" without mandatory retirement. When that became illegal in 1994, tenure became unsustainable. As in many situations when an industry is thrown into structural disequilibrium, the shift can take a very long time. Maybe so long that in the long run, all the folks opining on this will be dead. But it is silly to think that any sort of quality-based arguments can save tenure.

Only a couple of comments have even alluded to one of the biggest issues here - Tenure would NEVER have become "the norm" without mandatory retirement. When that became illegal in 1994, tenure became unsustainable. As in many situations when an industry is thrown into structural disequilibrium, the shift can take a very long time. Maybe so long that in the long run, all the folks opining on this will be dead. But it is silly to think that any sort of quality-based arguments can save tenure.

This is horrendously stupid:

"It seems to me a rebuttable bright line rule of forced retirement at 30 years makes sense, (rebuttable for the minority of professors that are still highly productive). That should open up more spots and pay for younger professors."

Forced retirement at 30? Laws against age discrimination are an interesting phenomenon you might be incredibly ignorant of.

Likewise, there are productive people who get PhD's after 30. It's not calendar age that matters, it's that once you have tenure your incentives to publish fall. The fact that many new Phd's are people in their twenties just means that's when most people do it.

This conversation is full of people who think you can replace individuals with population averages, and that is distressing.

Professors, properly considered, are people whose unique and incisive analysis and long study has given them something to profess. These people simply don't exist in community colleges, for-profit colleges, and most second and third rate universities. And not everyone who has tenure and is listed as a professor has something to profess.

However, I've met many actual professors (with something profound to profess) and I think it's extremely important that they be given the freedom to study and research what they want in the way they want, without having to think about being unemployed or looking for other jobs and uprooting themselves and their families. Without this sort of freedom, real universities wouldn't exist.

The other teachers don't really need this kind of freedom, although they should be paid living wages and their work hours should be limited to a normal work-week.

Quick points from a *tenure-track beginning professor* (no, I don't have tenure yet):

(1) Humanities + Social Sciences are VERY DIFFERENT from grant-supported basic research. My MAIN responsibilities (as outlined in my offer letter) are to bring in external grant money and run a multi-person lab which is funded by that grant money. So I am the head of a laboratory... yes, teaching is secondary.

(2) Read point #1 above. Pretending the med school and engineering school are like "faculty of arts and sciences" is simply crazy. (I am med school faculty).

(3) You need to think about DISEASE. Sure, the best people may study the basics of DNA, neuronal function and networks, etc. (i.e. basic questions). But what if you want to know something about RareWeirdDisease? Believe me, these people studying basics are not going to go to the effort of dealing with RareWeirdDisease. And companies are certainly not interested at the beginning. So yes, you need the "mediocre people" to find out something about RareWeirdDisease. It is STRONGLY in society's interest to study RareWeirdDisease. So getting rid of all the "below superstars" will decrease research productivity enormously in my field.

(4) I applied to FamousUniversity for a non-tenure track position as a research fellow and told them I would come, even though I had tenure-track interviews (I didn't get the fellow position). I would be very happy with a five-year contract if I didn't have to spend ~70% of my mental energy strategizing about grants.

I really don't care about tenure. I really care about having the resources to do great science. And the time to do great science.

Someone wants data or an experiment? How about this? The US system of higher ed is unquestionably by far the best in the world, and it has tenure. Why are people in such a hurry to fix something that ain't broke, particularly when it is obvious that there all kinds of loudmouthed politicians who would just love to start going after loudmouthed profs they disagree with?

I suspect Art History departments bring in money to universities, helping fund productive research in less sexy fields.

English departments? My sense is there's a lot of deadweight there -writing centers for the most part seem to me to offer more efficient value.

Ethnic studies? I'm not sure. On the one hand I get the game theoretic element of minorities supporting ethnic studies departments and white guys opposing them. So the conflict predictably distorts our analysis. On the other hand, there are 30+ million people who identify as black in the USA and often move with high levels of coordination. Same with Hispanics. It's worth studying, although I understand studies' departments may become refuges or indoctrination tools rather than places for empirical inquiry.

This conversation is full of people who think you can replace individuals with population averages, and that is distressing.

Posted by: perko at Jul 24, 2010 5:11:34 PM


"Um, excuse me, but why? Many of us, certainly me, happen to think the most important reason was to defend academic freedom"


It's not a scam or a lie, it is sales and marketing. Tenure exists FOR what perko says, that guy at the tail end of the distribution. But WHY it is exists is that 'academic freedom' sounds good to the majority.

As a tenured professor, I can tell you that I and most of my senior colleagues who earned tenure would give up tenure immediately for a fair system that would permit us to eliminate the worst performing colleagues that we have.

That "fair system" could be something that is not enjoyed by any other profession... a three year appointment, with some certainty of re-appointment assuming that you actually continue to do your job well. Those who were not reappointed would be given a 2-year trial period in which they could either fix the specific problems or be let go.

We have faculty who have tenure for over 20 years. And have done little or nothing to publish, write new courses, improve the courses they do teach. You might respond, if you are an ardent unionist, that there are systems in practice wherein such a colleague may be dismissed. There are. But those processes are so difficult, both for the department and in terms of providing written proof of poor practice, that in the actual academic world the processes are rarely started. So my students are paying their tuition to be taught by poor teachers who do not do research.

The solution I propose will not be instituted. Unions representing faculty are far too strong to give up the idea of tenure, even if that were better for students and the great majority of hard-working faculty. I'm a member of one of those unions. Was a Vice President. But recognize that a bureaucracy dedicated to safeguarding the poorest teacher is not productive for the students or the faculty.

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