Let’s Just Get Rid of Tenure (Including Mine)

If there was ever a time when it made sense for economics professors to be given tenure, that time has surely passed. The same is likely true of other university disciplines, and probably even more true for high-school and elementary school teachers.

What does tenure do? It distorts people’s effort so that they face strong incentives early in their career (and presumably work very hard early on as a consequence) and very weak incentives forever after (and presumably work much less hard on average as a consequence).

One could imagine some models in which this incentive structure makes sense. For instance, if one needs to learn a lot of information to become competent, but once one has the knowledge it does not fade and effort is not very important. That model may be a good description of learning to ride a bike, but it is a terrible model of academics.

From a social standpoint, it seems like a bad idea to make incentives so weak after tenure. Schools get stuck with employees who are doing nothing (at least not doing what they are presumably being paid to do). It also is probably a bad idea to give such strong incentives pre-tenure — even without tenure young faculty have lots of reasons to work hard to build a good career.

The idea that tenure protects scholars who are doing politically unpopular work strikes me as ludicrous. While I can imagine a situation where this issue might rarely arise, I am hard pressed to think of actual cases where it has been relevant. Tenure does an outstanding job of protecting scholars who do no work or terrible work, but is there anything in economics which is high quality but so controversial it would lead to a scholar being fired? Anyway, that is what markets are for. If one institution fires an academic primarily because they don’t like his or her politics or approach, there will be other schools happy to make the hire. There are, for instance, cases in recent years in economics where scholars have made up data, embezzled funds, etc. but still have found good jobs afterwards.

One hidden benefit of tenure is that it works as a commitment device to get departments to fire mediocre people. The cost of not firing at a tenure review is higher with tenure in place than it is without it. If it is painful to fire people, without tenure the path of least resistance may be to always say you will fire the person the next year, but never do it.

Imagine a setting where you care about performance (e.g. a professional football team, or a currency trader). You wouldn’t think of granting tenure. So why do it in academics?

The best case scenario would be if all schools could coordinate on dumping tenure simultaneously. Maybe departments would give the deadwood a year or two to prove they deserved a slot before firing them. Some non-producers would leave or be fired. The rest of the tenure-age economists would start working harder. My guess is that salaries and job mobility would not change that much.

Absent all schools moving together to get rid of tenure, what if one school chose to unilaterally revoke tenure. It seems to me that it might work out just fine for that school. It would have to pay the faculty a little extra to stay in a department without an insurance policy in the form of tenure. Importantly, though, the value of tenure is inversely related to how good you are. If you are way over the bar, you face almost no risk if tenure is abolished. So the really good people would require very small salary increases to compensate for no tenure, whereas the really bad, unproductive economists would need a much bigger subsidy to remain in a department with tenure gone. This works out fantastically well for the university because all the bad people end up leaving, the good people stay, and other good people from different institutions want to come to take advantage of the salary increase at the tenure-less school. If the U of C told me that they were going to revoke my tenure, but add $15,000 to my salary, I would be happy to take that trade. I’m sure many others would as well. By dumping one unproductive, previously tenured faculty member, the University could compensate ten others with the savings.

It must not be that simple because few schools have tried, and my sense is that those that took a stab at it capitulated quickly and reinstated tenure. What am I missing?


13 - I want to say Dale Galenson has an article on this - I know he has something on this regarding abstract expressionist painters vs. the pop art artists of the 1960s, finding the average age of the AE painters to be considerably higher for the most valued paintings (he used auction data for that), but much younger ages for the pop artists. But I think he also extended that work to study the same kind of differences in economists - ie, those doing theoretical work and those doing empirical work. The more conceptual the work, the more it is like theoretical physics, poetry, and advanced mathematics in that the best work is done at early ages. But in economics, most of the profession has moved towards empirically-oriented work, where the returns to experience are more important and the best work does not skew towards the very young necessarily.

I am not sure what that means for tenure exactly, though. I would be interested in seeing a model showing how the different tenure and promotion regimes mattered depending on the kind of productivity-age profile you are describing, though.



I work for Southwest Airlines in a union position, and I'd say without a shadow of a doubt that I worked much harder those first six (non-union) months than I have the subsequent 34 months and counting ...


Doesn't the tenure system solve another incentive problem though? At the end of the day, don't tenured professors hire new professors into the school (or at least have the most influence on the decision)?

If you're hiring (essentially) your competition, you're not going to make the best decision for the school, you're going to make the best decision for you. You risk leaving the entire school worse off.

Won't the lack of tenure for professors also discourage grooming and mentoring of younger Professors by senior faculty and make them much more reluctant to work/partner with them? This may end up leading to more inter-University co-operation, but I can't help feeling it'll leave the higher-tier schools like the UofC (latest college T-shirt: Hell Does Freeze Over) worse off.

Doesn't tenure try to align the incentives of Professors that have been deemed worthy of continuing at the school and the school itself? Is the system perfect? Hardly! It has all the problems described above, but isn't part of the idea that anyone who is skilled enough to reach that point in their career probably has the internal drive to keep on working, and the pressure of peers will keep them in line (rather than direct incentives)



I would say that there are some academics who hold very unpopular views on items such as Darwinism, Global Warming etc. Often the consensus turns out to be wrong, and the few who where sounding the alarms looked like lunatics for most if not all of their lifetimes.

The problem I see is that many academics have based much of their research on certain theories, If the theory is undermined much of their life's work will be discarded as well. I think both the right and the wrong should be allowed to pursue their research without risk, or there will be no more dialog, and only groupthink.

On the other hand, I think that teaching pay should be tied to performance.


EGRETMAN too late to suck up -RandyfromCanada has the best arguement against geting rid of Tenure ....besides got my own gunrack got it as wedding present from my new father-in-law , he always was my favorite uncle !

why did l loose out on that stage clock quiz again lol


Here's what you're missing. Tenure is important for society, not just individual professors. That's because tenure protects academic freedom. You'd have to be under a rock to think that neither econ profs nor profs in other disciplines need academic freedom or the tenure system that protects that academic freedom. Just look at all the attacks on the putatively "leftist" public universities these days, or the intelligent design people trying to influence a college biology department's curriculum.

If we don't protect tenure and academic freedom, then what's to stop some wealthy alumni donor, the governor, a powerful drug company, an influential think tank, or a business person sitting on a university governing board whose economic or political interests are threatened by the research findings or teachings of a particular professor from getting that professor fired? And firing that professor means all of society loses the chance to benefit from that professor's work.

As a taxpaying citizen, I sure hope the professors who have sound, even if unpopular, information about global warming, homeland security, AIDS, environmental toxins, and medical technologies have tenure!



"It must not be that simple because few schools have tried, and my sense is that those that took a stab at it capitulated quickly and reinstated tenure. What am I missing?"

You're at the University of Chicago, no? I imagine that there isn't any room for tenure at a place like the University of Chicago. But what about schools that aren't as good? Isn't tenure a tool for schools that aren't among the top tier to attract and keep professors that are better than the average at that school?


It's a good thing that there are respected individuals who aren't in the rat race. You might call their relative inactivity incompetence, but I would call it perspective. And I feel society benefits if economism (my coined phrase for the tendency of economists to see the world in only economic terms) with its attendant short-term focus, is put in its proper place.
Professors with tenure have earned the right to smell the flowers, and many of us non-professors wish we could be as free from economics some day.


What about the incentive for a department to hire good people in the first place? Without tenure, existing people have less incentive to hire people who might replace them. I could be wrong, but I'm thinking that there was a JPE paper on this point. Ah yes: http://ideas.repec.org/a/ucp/jpolec/v96y1988i3p453-72.html .

In looking for it, I came across a nice thread on tenure: http://www.marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2006/07/academic_bureau.html


Yes tenure is a problem. In India there are lemon professors in the University departments and in the absence of a hiring and firing system, they happily maximise their income.Their utility function include many items like perks,travel allowances, dearness allowances,scholarships through backdoor,foreign fellowships and travel grants earned through lobbying, book-publication grants, fellowships and endowments etc earned through strategic inter-professorial cartel like agreements ("you help me for this so that I will help you for that"; "you publish my paper so that I will publish your paper"; "you invite me for the international seminar so that I will invite you for a same event in my University" and the like policies ).They move across places within the country and between countries and make good amount of money.These incumbent professorial firms effectively limit the entry of newcomers and new ideas.



You miss perhaps the most important aspect of tenure: it allows someone to pursue a project for an extended period (years) relieved of the burdens constantly to publish and present. The tenure system obviously has its problems, and should be changed. But any change that did not allow us scholars some breathing room (say 5 years at least, mabye 10) would not be worth the benefits, I imagine.


Seems reasonable. I say this as the spawn of a tenured professor.


This idea of abolishing tenure for economists seems a little draconian and too unforgiving. Yes, you theoretically push the economists to work harder in their later years. But if you structure a contract in such a way that they get evaluated annually without any safety net, you may limit the types of research economists ever do. Economists may choose to avoid certain topics, no matter how helpful or insightful they might offer to society, because they feel the risk of not being able to publish something within a certain amount of time will lead to unemployment.

In theory, if this system is absolutely efficient with free flowing information where the hiring boards know all information regarding the professor, then this may not be an issue. But such is often not the case.

Bruce G Charlton

There is no good reason for tenure - only post hoc rationalizations.

If we didn't have tenure, it would never be introduced. If/ when tenure gets abolished, it will never be reintroduced.

The reason why tenure is near universal in academia relates not to education, nor to economics, but to the power of interest groups.

Tenure will go when, and only when, competition between universities increases - I mean real competition where those who fail go under. At present all boats are kept afloat by a rising tide of demand (and subsidy) - but that can't continue forever.


Perhaps not a tenure/non-tenure situation, but one in which a professor's ability to define and complete academic projects entitles him to get periods of tenure from his review board. This isn't a contract, but a negotiation of value with tenure as a token of faith for future value. A bit like prison sentencing, but with a positive outcome. *grin*


I have one another con:

In the short run, the effects Steven indicates might work so that the benefit will be exceeding the costs.

But in the medium-long run, the inflow of people into academia might decrease because of abolishing tenure. For some people the perspective of getting one is among the major reasons for commiting to academic world.

Hence I can imagine some really smart guys deciding on a margin between academia and industry would now rather stay away from research, should you cancel the tenure mechanism. And thus in some years the overall level in the profession might deteriorate.



I wonder if tenure works to reduce rather than increase the range of political opinions expressed in academia, particularly in the liberal arts. I wonder if people with contrary views simply select themselves out of environments in which they view potential backlash from the politically correct in crowd as too jeopardizing to their ability to get tenure.


I think you are forgetting to look at this problem from the perspetive of the university's real customer: the graduate student.

The tenure process not only creates large barriers to entry for the profession, but it also dramatically slows down hopping of professors from institution to institution, because of the cost of getting a consensus before hiring.

Graduate school can take six years or longer for many people, and students entering into such a contract do so at considerably greater risk if their faculty advisor does not have tenure. A university would not gain from abolishing tenure if all of the good prospective students shunned it in favor of the greater stability of the university next door.

I suppose that one could also either drop tuition or increase the salaries/stipends of the students in order to make up for that increased risk. But now the negatives from the professor's standpoint (less cheap labor to work on grants) increase.

Tenure is a cost-saving measure, pure and simple. Yes, its inefficient. But in a world where a single faculty member can be expected to lecture to (and grade the papers of) 400 students, how could the increased costs of eliminating tenure be absorbed?



#9 says one reason for tenure is that it creates an incentive for talented people to enter academia. The obvious response is that surely there are better ways to make academia attractive, salary subsidies for example.

#2 says one reason for tenure is that senior faculty choose which junior faculty to hire, and if the senior faculty have no job security then they have an incentive to hire bad junior faculty. This seems reasonable, but I wonder whether it might be possible to take hiring decisions out of the hands of senior professors.

The best reason for tenure, however, was alluded to by #4 and then stated more clearly by #6: the (best) reason for tenure is that it encourages people to engage in risky research--that is, research which has a small chance of coming to fruition but which has a big payoff if it does. (One dimension along which research can be risky is how long it takes: a long-term research project is riskier than a short-term one.)

Assuming academics are risk-averse, they would avoid risky topics while under the pressure to publish or perish. It seems the only way to counteract this is to remove the pressure (to publish or perish): in other words, tenure.

So, Levitt got it almost right in saying that the point of tenure is to protect (encourage?) controversial research. Just replace 'controversial' with 'risky', and you get it perfectly right!

(One example of controversial research: a recently emeritus philosopher told me that there is no way he would have written his most recent book on sexual ethics any earlier in his career than right before retirement.)



Science is all about creativity. If one observes people like Newton, Einstein and similar it is easy to conclude that the major ideas come before the age of 24. So, probably the dilemma of "To tenure or not to tenure" is not really that important. Or in Einstein's style one should not use the plural (ideas). Once Einstein was asked by a journalist how is he keeping all his ideas organized. He replied that he had only one idea in his life.

Moreover if you really don't like the tenure system that much, my suggestion to you would be that you quit your job and go to the financial industry or consulting since they pay the risk premium but don't give the tenure.