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.


The Objectivist said...

To test the efficacy of tenure, what is needed is a school that pays professors very well and has good or great students, but that does not have tenure. This might be a good way to put a non-tenure system in competition with those with it.

I believe that two of the military academies do not have tenure, but given their unique role and set of rules and that they are flooded with money, it is not clear how to compare them to other universities.

The Objectivist said...

Also, there is an interesting issue as to how some similar government jobs are to tenure. If they have a requirement that people be fired only for sufficient cause and a very high bar for sufficient cause then they begin to look like tenure positions.