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?

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  1. pparkmanlg says:

    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.

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    • MM McGee says:

      Professors are not free from economics. Every decision they make before they get tenure is driven toward this carrot. That means they tend to be politically correct and conformist. This training never leaves them, and they look for the same qualities in the people they hire one day. In my department, the professors are more concerned with pleasing each other’s sensibilities than fulfilling the duties of the largest, most popular classes since these classes are kind of old school. The students love them, taught well. The professors can’t teach them. What kind of system rewards NOT meeting demand? A medieval system does.

      A person who may not stay at a university past year five, it seems to me, may take more dissident positions, or may not. BUT this isn’t about academic freedom, anyway. It’s about lifetime security for a part time job that pays at an executive salary.

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  2. pparkmanlg says:

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  3. Snow_Bill says:

    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

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  4. Snow_Bill says:

    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

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  5. G.V.Varma says:

    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.

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  6. G.V.Varma says:

    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.

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  7. humbert says:

    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.

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  8. humbert says:

    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.

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