Tenure and Faculty Self-Selection Reconsidered

In a recent post, Orin (relying on an argument by H. Lorne Carmichael) cites faculty self-selection as an argument for tenure:

The basic idea is that tenure is a necessary evil because faculties vote on who to let join them: If professors know that their own jobs will be in jeopardy if they hire someone better than themselves, they will make sure that they only hire incompetent new people.

This is indeed a much stronger argument for tenure than the usual academic freedom rationale, which I criticized here. Still, I’m not persuaded.

Even if we need to give faculty some job security to get them to avoid hiring incompetents, lifetime tenure strikes me as overkill. Guaranteed longterm contracts of, say, ten years should greatly reduce the perverse incentives identified by Carmichael without giving people a lifetime sinecure. Furthermore, faculty incentives don’t all cut one way. A faculty that hires mostly incompetents will quickly undercut its prestige, and most academics are very prestige-conscious. Think about how badly many faculty at lower-ranked institutions want to move up to more prestigious ones.

In addition, I’m not convinced that the system of faculty self-selection is actually the best available option. In most industries, hiring labor is a management responsibility, in part for the kinds of reasons Carmichael identifies: we don’t want workers voting to hire incompetents who will make the incumbents look good by comparison. In academia, new faculty are hired by incumbents because the latter generally have more expertise on the relevant subject than administrators do. However, incumbent faculty are not the only possible source of relevant expertise. Administrators could also draw on the knowledge of relevant experts at other institutions, including faculty at other schools, scholars in government and industry, and so on. We already do this to some extent. For example, tenure committees routinely solicit reports about the candidate from outside reviewers.

Some combination of long-term contracts and increased reliance on outside expertise should enable universities to eliminate tenure without incentivizing academics to hire incompetents. The system wouldn’t be perfect. But it would likely be a lot less flawed than the perverse incentives of tenure itself.