Debating Tenure

The New York Times has a forum debating the institution of academic tenure. Economics blogger Megan McArdle recently criticized the institution in this blog post.

One of the interesting aspects of the tenure system is that even many of its principal beneficiaries – tenured professors – agree that it is a severely flawed institution that should be scrapped. Several academics make that case in the NYT forum, and I gave other examples here and here; although I am now tenured myself, I still think the institution’s costs outweigh its very modest benefits. The fact that these people are arguing against interest doesn’t mean they’re right. But it is at least a reason for nonacademics to take their views seriously.

Tyler Cowen makes some interesting points in defense of tenure in this post. I remain unpersuaded, however. Tyler notes that “the schools which have done away with it — the for-profits — have carved out a big niche but they have not displaced traditional non-profit, tenure-driven higher education in most fields. Few parents dream of sending their kids there.” However, for-profit universities have many other differences from traditional colleges. They compete with the latter primarily on price rather than quality. Does anyone seriously contend that the University of Phoenix would be more competitive if it adopted tenure?

Tyler also makes the reasonable point that before we abolish tenure, we need to think carefully about what the alternative system would look like. There may not be any one system that would be best for all institutions. Competition and experimentation could lead to useful innovations. However, the basic outline of a superior alternative is well-known. As Mark Taylor describes it in the NYT forum:

It is a mistake to pose this question in all-or-nothing terms – either you have permanent tenured faculty or itinerant adjuncts. A middle ground will address most of the problems. After a trial period of three to five years, faculty members who merit promotion should be given seven-year renewable contracts. For this system to work effectively, these reviews must be rigorous and responsible.

The standard argument for tenure is is the need to protect academic freedom. Cary Nelson, president of the American Association of University Professors, restates it in the NYT debate. I remain skeptical for reasons that I outlined here:

[T]he institution of tenure is not enough to prevent ideological discrimination in academic hiring. A faculty that wants to discriminate can still do so in entry level hiring or at the point when it is decides whether or not an assistant professor gets promoted to tenure. If the faculty or administration is intent on enforcing ideological conformity, it can usually do so quite effectively even without having the ability to fire tenured professors. If it is not, then tenure is probably not needed to protect academic freedom at that particular institution.

At most, therefore, tenure will only protect the academic freedom of professors who either 1) manage to keep their unpopular views hidden from their colleagues until after they get tenure, or 2) have a road to Damascus conversion to unpopular views after getting tenured status. Such cases are not unheard of, but they are likely to be extremely rare….

There is no way of perfectly protecting professors who convert to political views unpopular with their colleagues or make controversial remarks. However, perfect protection is probably unnecessary, because cases of firing for such reasons are likely to be rare. Moreover, universities can take steps to further reduce their likelihood. For example, they can sign professors to multiyear contracts that include provisions forbidding the school to fire the person (or refuse to renew his contract) for political or ideological reasons. Such contracts won’t be perfect; a crafty administration could fire a professor for ideological reasons while concocting a plausible cover story showing that they “really” did it for a legitimate cause. However, I doubt that universities will often do this, especially given the threat that the professor in question could sue the university for breach of contract and create adverse publicity for it.

The institution of tenure gives us a possible slight increase in academic freedom at a huge cost. In the NYT debate, economist Richard Vedder points out that tenure may lead to a net reduction in intellectual diversity:

While tenure has undoubtedly protected some good people from losing their jobs, it actually may on balance reduce intellectual diversity. Many ideologically driven tenured professors use their job security to aggressively thwart efforts to increase alternative viewpoints being taught…..

The fact is that tenured faculty members often use their power to stifle innovation and change.

UPDATE: I have revised this post to fix the flawed link to my 2007 post on why tenure isn’t needed to protect academic freedom.