Sunday, March 04, 2007

Academic tenure: to be or not to be?

Excellent post of Steven Levitt on whether giving tenure in the academic environment (in Economics, in particular) makes any sense. Of course- and Levitt should know that, but maybe he doesn't, since he does not say anything about it- both Richard Posner and Gary Becker extensively talked about this (and about tenure in general, though they did focus on the academic and judicial settings) on their common blog, more than a year ago (they also came back on the topic with answers to comments received on the initial posts, see Posner's reply to comments and Becker's reply to comments, respectively). All arguments are in there and I can really not think of anything substantive to add to what Posner, Becker and Levitt already stated so clearly. They all seem to agree (mind you, these are all Chicago people) that all universities should get rid of tenure (and they are all willing to give up on their own tenures, although, mind you, these people mentioned above would be most likely hired anytime anywhere anyway, on the basis of their academic status quo achieved already and, I'd say, particularly given they hold such opinions; my absolute respect and admiration for each of them!), that this is not necessary any longer in today's academic setting. Perfect. And I think Levitt's idea of particular universities moving alone with the decision of offering only non-tenured jobs would be worthwhile and could potentially start a "race to the top" in terms of standards (I am talking about the USA and similar systems where they still offer tenure- most academic systems in the world, basically): in my opinion, it is enough that two or three universities in the world top 5 do just that (I think the critical mass is more than 1, so a coordination of two top ones is necessary...). It is interesting though to see what was the problem with the universities that tried the system but reverted to the old one, so something must have gone wrong (Levitt mentions that in the end of his post and, if I recall correctly, Becker mentions Boston Univ. in the comments to his post on tenure)

I will just copy-paste below some short relevant excerpts from the posts linked above:
I do not think tenure makes a great deal of sense any longer in the academic setting, and I expect to see it gradually abandoned. (It has already been abandoned in England, for example.) If a university wishes to offer its faculty protection against political retaliation for unpopular views, it can do that by writing into the employment contract that politics is an impermissible ground for termination. Tenure is no longer needed because of an absence of performance measures. These measures exist in abundance. Quality of teaching is readily measurable by student evaluations, provided care is taken to prevent teachers from courting popularity by easy grading and light assignments and student evaluations are supplemented by faculty observation of the classroom. Quality of research is readily measurable by grants, prizes, and above all by citations to the professor’s scholarly publications, weighted by the quality of the journal in which the citations appear (Richard Posner)

In some fields, such as mathematics, there is generally a significant falling off in academic output at a young age, and there is fear that without tenure these faculty would be turned out to pasture long before retirement age. But this is no different from the situation in professional sports, modeling, and other youthful occupations, where it is handled by an alteration in the wage profile. If a career in mathematics entails a sharp fall-off in market wages after, say, age 40, the academic market will compensate by offering disproportionately high wages to young mathematicians; otherwise, talented mathematicians will choose professions, such as economics, in which math skills are valued but productivity does not decline steeply with age. (Richard Posner)

Perhaps the strongest argument for academic tenure is that without it academics would be reluctant to undertake promising projects with a high risk of failure. But the situation is no different in "knowledge" firms such as software and pharmaceutical-drug producers, which encourage their scientists to undertake high-risk projects--and do not think it necessary to offer tenure. If most good new ideas are produced by young academics, then an institution that raises the average age of faculty, namely tenure, seems likely to reduce academic productivity. An interesting empirical project, therefore, would be to study the effect of England's abolition of tenure on the average age and productivity of English university faculties. (Richard Posner)


The traditional justification for academic tenure is that otherwise professors would be unwilling to express unpopular views for fear of being fired. This argument for academic tenure is extremely weak in the United States where several thousand colleges and universities compete for professors. In fact, tenure only became common at American universities in the 1920's. It is possible for academics with extremely unpopular views to gain an appointment with tenure at different institutions, as seen from the tenure of faculty who deny the holocaust, or a Ward Churchill at The University of Colorado with outrageous views on terrorism and other issues. The case for tenure is stronger in countries where governments control all universities, and can block academics with unpopular opinions from gaining and keeping appointments. Yet even that argument has become weaker with the rapidly growing international market for good academics. (Gary Becker)

Are there other persuasive arguments for academic tenure? Some have been made in the economics literature, including the alleged difficulty in judging the quality of teaching and research, the non-profit nature of universities, and still others. I have not found any of them persuasive- for example, there is rather widespread agreement in most departments about which are the good teachers, and also to a large extent about who has produced the more influential research. (Gary Becker)


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. (Steven Levitt)

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). (Steven Levitt)

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 leave 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. (Steven Levitt)

Absent all schools moving together to get rid of tenure, what if one school chose to unilateerally 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. (Steven Levitt)

Late update (8th of March). Greg Mankiw does not agree with Levitt (and implicitly, although he also doesn't seem to know Becker's and Posner's stance on the topic, with Becker and Posner). I just see it as Chicago Econ vs. Harvard Econ, really :-), and here I very much support the opinions of the mentioned people from Chicago; I don't think all Mankiw's (and others') concerns are in fact concerns, though some points are valid (Levitt also mentions those in counterbalance in his post, example: if this was a better mechanism, why isn't it applied in practice already?).

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