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?


feuer

Here in the farm state of Iowa there are regular calls to fire academics at the state universities who say anything unfavorable about pork or ethanol. I am afraid that without tenure the official line would be that pork is the ideal food in any quantity and ethanol is free energy.

msrpotus

The problem with getting rid of tenure is that politicians don't want to raise educators' salaries in exchange for that job security (since, although tenure may predominate in education, if professors or teachers feel undercompensated, they're free to do a job that pays them more). And since almost all the politicians I know of have seen getting rid of tenure as a one-off thing, I can't blame unions and most teachers for opposing it. It's simple economics--something beats nothing every time.

MikeB

I had pretty much the same arguments about Computer Science faculty and tenure 10 years ago. I left for the business world and never looked back. At least if someone on my staff is underperforming I can get rid of them.

The other issues is a bit more complex: what about those academics who seem productive but actually are not? The ones who publish frequently but the quality of their work is marginal.

jasonnolan

I don't think I'd bother being a prof if it wasn't for tenure. And I don't have it yet. If it was just about the job and $$ I'd be making 5x more working in the family business, and I wouldn't have had to spend the last millenium getting to where I am. It represents an investment of 2 decades more or less (I worked my way through). If an institution doesn't believe in me or trust in my work enough for me to be given tenure, then I'll go do something else. My work and the time invested cannot be relocalized without taking 3-5 years to build up the social network and relationships required to do the job right. Tenure is a commitment on the part of the institution that doesn't quite equal what I've put into it, but it is a good step. I can see how some fields are not linked to specific locations and research environments. I would say, sure, we don't need tenure for economists... actually we don't need economists at all (aside from the ones like you who see it as some form of twisted performance poetry that tells interesting stories about how our world works). And there are a lot of easily transferable fields. But you can't take a fresh water limnologist and mover her work from northern Ontario to South Dakota. Same goes for people researching in Public Health, Education, Social Work and fields that actually are bio-regionally situated.

That said, we're looking at this backwards... what is/was the purpose of academe. Is it a corporate institutional commodity. If so, treat it like one with quarterly reports, shut down the unprofitable sections and fire the bunnies you don't need. Though if that's the case, we should only keep the profs who the customers like anyway. I'd like that... I'd have my salary tripled because the students like me. As it is now, one of my courses has been cut because it is too popular, and we need students to be forced to enroll in a less popular course so it doesn't get dropped. In the context of my school, I agree, but in the brave new world where the student is customer, that wouldn't happen.

The university is a place of learning, inquiry and reflection. I'd rather let the corporate institutional commodity folks go; they can get snapped up by industry if they're hot, and flip burgers if they're not. Then we can dump all the courses that are about 'getting a job' down to the community colleges which have no research requirement. And the rest of us can stay in low-paying tenured jobs in liberal arts, basic science, and related centres where we can inquire and reflect and 'be' a university.

IMHO of course.

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RandyfromCanada

Please you are only thinking of yourself , not even the students who this system would be by far the unfair for .
Lets say l know you are U.ofC. l apply to go there because l want to study under you , course Yale makes you an obscene offer and off you go and l am stuck at U.of C. in egretman's class ?
course all you have to do is look at free agency in sports to see the "pain" this causes alot of home town fans .

InvisibleJ

I think there are several key points here as several people have already pointed out, but I think that RandyfromCanada is touching on another very important factor that no one has really covered in depth -- by getting rid of tenure, you're opening the market entirely.

Professors are supposed to be lifelong academics, but by turning them into typical corporate citizens you change them from learning-oriented to profit-oriented. They are free to hop from university to university as their pay increases. This would lead to "megaversities" (kind of like the megacorps we have now) that would soak up all the "good" professors with their enormous purchasing power. You might argue that's the state of affairs now, but with tenure, you have something to offer the professor that is, in some ways, win-win: they get job security to pursue their academic passions, you get a quality professor for "life" -- or, at least, there are larger barriers to his swift exit, since a competing university would have to offer tenure and (presumably) a better salary/position.

Of course, as you deftly point out, this system is very open to abuse. That might need some ironing out, but I think by eliminating tenure you're killing an important part of academia: allowing creative and unbounded research.

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proales

It would be great if Beckner Posner would post on the same topic... See a couple of different views on this.

http://www.becker-posner-blog.com/

mathking

Levitt wrote: "Tenure does an outstanding job of protecting scholars who do no work or terrible work." This is certainly true in the way tenure operates at most institutions, but that is a problem of implementation. As the child of a (now retired) tenured economics professor, I can recall several conversations with my dad in which he talked about friends at other institutions wondered how to deal with someone who simply wasn't doing their job. He always said "fire them for malfeasance." I know his school did just that on at least a couple of occasions.

Tenure simply needs to be implemented in a way that means you have to do your job. One of the biggest barriers to this is that college professors are so reluctant to police their own, because most schools probably already have rules on the books which would allow them to fire for malfeasance. (As a side note, if more schools really took teaching skills into account in tenure decisions there would be far fewer difficulties as well.)

As several posters pointed out, it is not at all obvious that most schools could afford the increased cost of paying higher salaries. In Ohio every couple of years some politicians get press calling for an end to tenure and the current retirement benefits for teachers (the second has always seemed odd to me since the retirement benefits are independently funded and operated). So we have a teacher shortage here, and they propose making the profession significantly less attractive to enter. Then the only way to get more teachers is going to be fairly dramatic swings up in pay.

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dph

As Levitt asked what he may have missed and I haven't seen it in the comments yet except for a mention of tenure boards, I just wanted to mention that from what I've seen all university administrators (president, provost, dean, department head and so on) are tenured. And when they leave their posts (willing or not) they return to their secure professorships (keeping whatever increases in salary they may have garnered on the way). What incentive would they have to listen to Levitt's arguments?
I'll close with a reminder that Adam Smith covered this ground long ago.

pkimelma

Although the jury is out on University level tenure (mostly due to type of research possible), it really needs to go at grades K through 12. There are some truly awful teachers in many schools that the schools cannot get rid of. My daughter has had the worst science teacher in 8th grade I have ever seen - it has turned her off science forever; the school has had nothing but complaints, but is powerless to get rid of her. These teachers do far more damage than University professors, since University students know to avoid classes and/or rely on TAs and others to work around bad teachers. If the tenured professor is just bad at research, but still a good teacher, it will not hurt the University, other than lack of publications from that one person (and they often have young pre-tenured ones making up the difference). Further, many tenured professors are moved to only teach classes in their interest area, where they are likely more effective. So, step one is to deal with tenure at the lower grades, as Levitt suggests.

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ravivar

When I was in college studying biology, I found that my tenured professors were, almost without exception, entirely useless as teachers. Lazy, dismissive, not engaged. Thoughts?

jmg

You should also mention the argument made in Carmichael (JPE, 1988). The short version is tenure is a mechanism to insure that departments hire the best possible new candidates.

New professors are potential replacements for current faculty. In academia it is the current faculty that must evaluate new candidates, outside departments (or Deans) do not have the information to know who is a good hire. Without tenure, current faculty have an incentive to not hire someone who may one day be a good replacement for them.

jcl

Without tenure, will less people will want to be academics? Tenure is similar to partnerships at law firms. Without those partnerships, not only are the incentives to work hard(er) early in the career gone, but potentially the incentive to enter that industry is also lower.

majikthise

#27: Read #s 2 and 12.

#11 and #18 raise the argument that one reason for tenure is that it keeps faculties stable, which is advantageous for graduate students. But this seems like a very bad argument. Because the way tenure keeps faculty stable is by allowing the bad faculty the stay. It doesn't give the good faculty any reason to stay, because when they are sniped by other universities, those offers come *with tenure*.

In other words, tenure is great at retaining bad faculty but does nothing to retain good faculty. Two examples would be how quickly NYU and Rutgers built up their philosophy departments in the last decade or so: they sniped some of the best *tenured* folks around.

Of course, you might respond by saying that it's in the graduate student's interest to have stability even of bad faculty, but that claim is much less compelling than the claim that it's in their best interest to have stability of good faculty.

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salgar

Oh, one more thing.
Won't more frequent reviews (and more severe consequences) encourage "safer" research from your most established/experienced researchers?

zbicyclist

The bankrupt nature of tenure justification (in terms of freeing people up to pursue long-term lines of research, or spout unpopular opinions, can be seen in the granting of "tenure" to high school and grade school teachers -- who do no research and are not allowed to express political opinions in the classroom anyway.

omodudu

I think you have wrongly assumed that academics pursuits are quite competitive and not like riding a bike. This holds for schools like U of C, but majority of the schools aren't like U of C and indeed academic pursuits in those school is like riding a bike. You gather as much information as you can in the first few years and then you can coast for the rest of your career. Since by then you will be competent enough to work students through the routine.

mcarrey

It seems to me you are discounting how much an academic's job can change over her career. The work done by the senior faculty in my department is much different, and harder to quantify, than that done by junior faculty. Things like developing undergraduate education or fundraising are never going to be rewarded to the same degree as producing papers, but are critical in maintaining the university culture and longer-term goals like producing good undergrads, who go on to become graduate students, who are able to do all that fancy research in the first place.

Of course, tenure may not be the best way to go about doing this, but I think before one calls for its abolishment one has to make sure we don't devolve into University of Phoenixes, and, if we're lucky, pure research labs.

An analogy: I like that our representative in government must be elected and re-elected, and at the same time am pretty comfortable with the lifetime appointment of supreme court justices. They do a different kind of job than legislatures and shouldn't be evaluated in the same way.

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ba11k

Thank you.

bkreit

Part of the problem with tenure is that it is based mostly on research/presenting/etc. when the greater purpose of the university is teaching (as I think someone mentioned.) I'm a grad student, and in my department, our most junior faculty member has a reputation for never returning papers by grad students because he's too busy working on publishing. The drive to get tenure, in other words, incentivizes academics to be bad teachers.