24 August 2011

Academia: Tenure

Stephen Kershnar
Tenure, Academic Freedom, and Efficiency
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
August 21, 2011

Tenure in the academic world occurs when faculty are given lifetime employment after demonstrating that they have performed well enough in the past. More specifically, it is an academic faculty member’s contractual right not to lose his job unless there is just cause. A tenure-track position is a job in which the occupant either has or will be eligible for tenure. There is parallel protection for K-12 teachers.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that I’m tenured and that on some views I benefitted greatly from tenure. Also, this column reflects my view and not necessarily that of any group to which I belong.

Tenure is relatively recent. It was largely absent in the 19th Century and didn’t become widespread until after 1945, in part due to severe faculty shortages. Outside of teaching, tenure does not occur, although lifetime tenure for judges and protection of other government workers is somewhat similar. For example, NFL teams would never grant tenure to players or coaches.

Tenure is also declining. Since 1972, there has been a decline in the percentage of college professors that are tenured or tenure-track. According to the U.S. Department of Education, the percentage of professors who are tenure-track went from 56% in 1975 to 32% in 2005. It is also no longer found in some parts of the world, such as most of Europe and Australia.

Let us consider the most plausible arguments for tenure. The main argument is that tenure protects academic freedom. Academic freedom is a murky notion that refers to faculty’s opportunity to research and teach on various topics without penalty. The idea is that political forces would otherwise shut down the free discussion of ideas in the academy. Given the historical attempts by alumni and legislature to get universities to fire faculty with unpopular views, this argument has some bite to it.

The argument has a number of problems. First, even if true for professors, it is unclear why tenure-like protection should be given to non-professors, such as K-12 teachers, whose job is not as clearly tied to the marketplace of ideas and who have few, if any, research duties.

Second, consider whether the tenure system protects academic freedom for untenured professors, particular adjuncts. Adjunct professors are professors whose job is not tenure-track. If their academic freedom is protected, then tenure is likely not that important for academic freedom. If their academic freedom is unprotected, then it is unclear why so much attention should be put on a system that fails to protect more than two-thirds of professors.

Third, even if tenure does protect academic freedom, it is unclear that its benefits outweigh its costs. The cost of tenure is that people who are ineffective stay on for life. This is probably why businesses in other fields beside education don’t give out tenure. This problem is exacerbated by the lack of a mandatory retirement age, which can allow for formerly good professors to stay long after they’ve become ineffective. In the classroom, this can mean that generations of students might suffer under a bad teacher.

Fourth, if the goal is to protect unpopular lines of thought so as to promote the marketplace of ideas, there is reason to doubt whether tenure does this. Campuses are notoriously hostile both to free speech and to conservative and libertarian voices. A 2004-2005 study by professors Daniel Klein and Charlotta Stern found the ratio of Democrats to Republican among university instructors in the social sciences and humanities to be between 7:1 and 9:1 despite the fact that that national ratio is 1:1 (2011 Rasmussen Report). None of this gives us much confidence that tenure protects the robust discussion of ideas.

The second main argument for tenure is economic: tenure is justified because it is an efficient job benefit. The idea is that many professors could succeed in jobs that pay far more. This is clear in fields like medicine, law, accounting, and engineering. On this argument, tenure is a job benefit professors accept in return for lower pay. This arguably benefits taxpayers and students who pay less in taxes and tuition and, perhaps, professors if they prefer security over higher pay.

The argument is hard to assess. University of Chicago economist Steven Levitt (of Freakonomics fame) argues that tenure produces a bad incentive structure. He points out that the better professors would prefer more money over tenure because they know they’ll have a job regardless; the worse ones would prefer security over more money because they would be the ones who would be fired. As a result, he argues, it provides an incentive for less able professors to stay in academia. Boston University economist Jeffrey Miron points out that the problem is exacerbated by the incentive for older faculty to stay on despite declining productivity.

I’m not sure what to make of this argument. It is not obvious to me that better professors would prefer more pay to security. In any case, it depends on how much more pay we are talking about. For the 2009-2010 academic year, on average, SUNY-Fredonia assistant professors (junior untenured professors) got paid $56,000, associate professors (mid-level tenured professors) got paid $65,000, and full professors (senior tenured professors) got paid $86,000. I’m not sure how many would want to give up tenure for an extra $5,000 a year. Even if they would, the security-for-lower-pay tradeoff, and the army of adjuncts that comes with it, might well be good for taxpayers and tuition-paying families. This is particularly true given that college costs have skyrocketed over the last few decades.

The third argument is that the tenure system provides an incentive for professors to invest time and energy in their institution and colleagues. Tenure tends to prevent faculty from moving between colleges and universities as the latter are hesitant to guarantee lifetime employment upon hiring someone. As a result, faculty tend to stay with their colleges and universities for a long time and have an incentive to improve them. They also have an incentive to put time and energy into hiring, mentoring, and promoting talented junior faculty because they will work with them for years. Without tenure, such junior faculty might even threaten their jobs. This provides faculty with incentives similar to partners at law and accounting firms. This does seem to be a good incentive from the colleges’ and universities’ perspective, although it’s less clear that reduced mobility is good for professors. Nor is it clear that this benefit outweighs the costs of dead-wood professors.

In the end, the benefits and costs of tenure are hard to balance off against one another. The free market might do a good job of determining whether tenure is efficient. Perhaps this is the best approach as this is likely not an issue that can be determined by sitting in one’s philosophical armchair. Public colleges and universities should then likely be encouraged to follow the free-market outcome as it is the best evidence we have of the efficient solution.

10 August 2011

Budget Deal: What a Disgrace

Stephen Kershnar
The Debt Deal: Congress Sells Out America
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
August 2, 2011

On August 2nd, the agreement to raise the debt ceiling passed. This is easily the largest debt-ceiling increase in American history. It raises the ceiling by $2.4 trillion dollars. This is enough to allow the government to borrow through 2013. This is also past the Presidential election year, although I’m sure this is just a coincidence. The agreement calls for a second round of cuts between $2.1 and $2.4 trillion in spending cuts over 10 years with $900 billion to be done immediately. It then calls for super-committee made up of members of Congress to make the rest the second round cuts or, if they fail to do so, an across-the-board set of cuts of at least $1.2 trillion automatically kick in.

As with the Wall Street bailout (TARP), the massive stimulus package, and ObamaCare, New York’s worst, Rep. Brian Higgins (D-NY) and Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) voted for the ceiling increase (Gillibrand wasn’t in office for the TARP vote). Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) did not, likely because it did not have enough tax increases for her. New York voters must really be proud.

The deal is a disgrace. First, the deal didn’t cut anything. The first round of “cuts” targets discretionary spending. Yet it increases discretionary spending by 16% between 2012 and 2020 and increases it every year in between the two. A slowed rate of spending increases is not a cut.

Given how the “cuts” are calculated, if the government were merely to have kept its spending levels at current levels (in nominal dollars) for the next ten years, this would count as a cut of trillions of dollars. There is a good chance that SUNY is likely to tell professors that they won’t get a pay raise for the next two years. No professor will reason like Congress and claim that SUNY cut his salary.

Second, even the slowed rate of increases is tiny. The Cato Institute’s Tad DeHaven points out that once we exclude spending on the Afghanistan and Iraq wars because they are ending (these savings are part of the $2.4 trillion), the government will now spend $43 trillion over the next ten years rather than $44 trillion. Meanwhile, the debt will skyrocket over the next decade. Specifically, each American’s share will increase by more than 50% on the Heritage Foundation calculation based on Congressional Budget Office numbers. Given this momentous change, I can’t understand why in a recent CNN poll, Congress’ approval rating hit a record-low of 14% and lower on other polls (for example, Rasmussen Reports).

Third, even the slowed rate of increase probably won’t happen. The deal calls for a 0.6% “cut” for 2012 and the lion’s share of “cuts” to occur from 2013 onward. In 2013, there will be a new Congress and it will be free to ignore the one that passed this deal. And, of course, one Congress cannot bind another.

We’ve been down this road before. In years past, Congress promised Presidents Reagan and George H. W. Bush big spending cuts in return for tax increases. The tax increases went into effect, but the cuts never did. After making these promises, Congress told Reagan to blow it out his shorts and continued to spend more every year. They did the same to the hapless Bush. The analogy here is Lucy van Pelt telling Charley Brown to kick the football. In any case, Congress can always a label a war or other program a “spending emergency,” thereby removing it from the agreement’s cap. The fact that Congress recently labeled part of the 2010 census a spending emergency tells us that they are not above such shenanigans.

Fourth, a major cause of the present and future debt problem was ignored. Entitlements (Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid) are a large cause of the massive deficit. 44% of the federal budget is deficit spending and entitlements are roughly a third of the budget. Because entitlements have risen much faster (five times faster) than discretionary spending over the last 45 years and likely will continue to do so, they are a major cause of the financial mess. Given this, the wise men in Congress decided to exempt Social Security and Medicaid from the first round of cuts and from the across-the-board cuts if the super-committee does not reach an agreement. They also limited the degree to which Medicare can be cut.

Fifth, the urgency behind the deal was misplaced. Part of the urgency was the threat if the U.S. government losing its top-of-the-line credit rating (triple-A). Like the TARP deal used to sell the bailout to Wall Street, politicians and pundits warned of a financial catastrophe of biblical proportions. The fact that Japan lost its triple-A credit rating more than a decade ago and still has one of the lowest interest rates was apparently not relevant. Also, irrelevant is that no one knew whether the current deal is enough to prevent the credit downgrade. In fact, the credit downgrade occurred.

Sixth, if the terms of the deal were followed, taxes would increase. The Democrats will never allow entitlements to be cut and when dire stories about what an across-the-board cuts spook the Republicans, they’ll cave Boehner-style and vote for tax increases. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s public statements make it clear that in the second round, spending cuts will have to be matched by tax increases and his allies will be half of the super-committee.

The deal is worse than no agreement at all. With no deal, the American people would force their government to cut its spending by 44%/ This might prevent undeclared and seemingly endless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, unconstitutional wars in Libya and Yemen, significant U.S. military presence in Japan and Europe, the inane war on drugs, foreign aid, etc. On one estimate in Daily Kos, the U.S. currently spends roughly 50% of the total military spending in the world. Most of which has little to do with our security. According to the USA Today, the federal government is the largest source of revenue for state and local governments. Perhaps the government would stop doling out the goodies to states, particularly the childish ones (California, Illinois, and New York). The fact that Constitution requires this is icing on the cake.

Democrats should be pleased. They want increases in taxes and spending and this deal delivers both. The problem is that Congressional Republicans, particularly the career politicians, buy into the basic Democrat vision of the country. Between 2000 and 2010, the U.S. massively increased government from roughly 20% to 25% of the economy (Heritage Foundation using numbers from the Congressional Budget Office). The current level is much higher than the historical (1960-2010) average of 18%. Republicans locked in these changes by signing off on the debt-ceiling increase without even a gesture toward moving spending down to its historical level.

Sadly, it is not clear that the treacherous Republicans will pay much of a price for this deal. They sold out the country in the last budget deal too, getting miniscule “cuts” and hoping the American people are too stupid to notice. It’s likely that conservatives will hold the deal against House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), and Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), but they’ll still be in office for a while and will be treated as heroes when they retire.

Americans are in a bind. Backing the Republicans leads to the loss of ground as the Democrats continually roll them. Abandoning them would allow President Obama and company to complete their agenda of single-payer healthcare, brutally high taxes, and amnesty for illegal aliens. What a mess.