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Do We Need Tenure to Protect Academic Freedom?

In recent weeks, a number of prominent professor-bloggers have criticized the tenure system, including Bryan Caplan, Freakonomics author Steve Levitt, Brian Tamanaha, and our own David Bernstein. These writers all point out that tenure protects shirkers and mediocre scholars. I would add that it also protects professors who are bad teachers or mistreat students in ways that fall short of the very severe offenses (i.e. - serious sexual harrassment or other criminal misconduct) that would allow the school to fire a tenured faculty member. I also agree with Bryan Caplan and David Bernstein's suggestion that tenure persists despite its inefficiency in large part because universities are nonprofit or governmental institutions that have little incentive to adopt efficient policies.

However, none of these writers fully address the main argument in favor of tenure: the claim that it is needed to protect the academic freedom of professors with unpopular political views. That argument is not completely without merit, but is very much overstated.

As David mentions in his post (linked above), the 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. Tenure might also occasionally protect a professor whose views are generally acceptable to his colleagues and the administration, but who occasionally makes a stray unpopular or un-PC remark. For example, Ward Churchill's far left views were apparently acceptable to the University of Colorado administration and faculty (at least to the extent that they didn't want to get rid of him) until he really went off the deep end by calling the victims of 9/11 attack "little Eichmans." I suspect, however, that, even in the absence of tenure, it is unlikely that universities will often seek to fire professors just for making one or a few isolated controversial comments.

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.

Ultimately, tenure probably does provide some protection for academic freedom beyond what we would have otherwise. The real issue, however, is whether this small increment of academic freedom is enough to justify the very high costs of the institution. At least at most schools, I suspect that the answer is no.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Do We Need Tenure to Protect Academic Freedom?
  2. Tamanaha on Tenure:
anonVCfan:
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.

The Becker-Posner blog had some interesting discussion of this about a year ago, and Posner made this same point:

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.

Posner, Somin, Levitt, et al., are all fairly convincing on this score. Is there a more nuanced version of the academic freedom argument for tenure out there, or is it really as simple as these writers posit--that some people feel it's necessary to protect people from retaliation for expressing unpopular ideas.
5.9.2007 5:35pm
Dick King:
I'm no fan of tenure, especially in primary and secondary public schools, and whenever someone in my vicinity complains about teacher salaries I publicly make the following offer: I will vote for taxes needed to double the average teacher's salary if they agree to two chages: teachers work through the summer like the rest of us, enjoying perhaps the two or three weeks of vacation most workers get, and teachers agree to stand annual performance reviews like the rest of us.

I also describe the parable of the two new graduates. One has every intention of coasting. The other plans to be a world-beater. They both apply for a job as a teacher and an otherwise similar job where annual reviews are the norm. Who takes which job? It's not that teaching allows coasters; it's that the tenure system incentivizes coasters to take the jobs that offer it.

Having said that, the theoretical argument made in this topic doesn't cover the situation where the university gets less tolerant over time. That happened during the McCarthy Era, and that is arguably happening these days as universities drift leftward.

-dk
5.9.2007 5:42pm
cathyf:
As I commented over on Balkinization, I think that discussions about academic freedom miss what I see as the main point of tenure entirely, which is that tenure is a version of the "employee stock ownership program" for institutions which don't have owners. Colleges and universities suffer from the "tragedy of the commons" -- no one owns them, and so no one has the appropriate ownership incentives to conserve and care for the institutional assets. The most valuable asset of the institution being its intellectual reputation. In state-run colleges the government "owns" them, and we reflexively look for the common pool problems whenever the government is involved, but private institutions have exactly the same problems. Trustees don't own the institution -- even their name tells you that how diligently they carry out their duties is governed by their trustworthiness not their enlightened self-interest. College presidents now have average terms of like 5 years, so they have little incentive to take any long-term interest in the institution. Indeed the academic reputations of the places that a college president went to college and graduate school are probably more important to the president's reputation than the reputation of the institution that he/she presides over.

I maintain that tenured faculty are similar to serfs -- they are "owned" by the institution the way a serf was tied to a particular plot of land. In medieval England, the serf had a strong incentive to act as a good steward towards the land where he was tenant, because the right to be a tenent on a particular plot was a property right. So the serf acted with the long-term productivity of the land in mind -- no clear-cutting forests, no overgrazing grasslands, acting to preserve the fertility of the soil. Faculty members' tenure has no value outside of the institution that gives them tenure -- if it shuts down, or becomes intolerable, or loses its academic integrity and becomes a degree mill, then the tenured professor becomes just another entry-level candidate applying for jobs. Maybe offered 1-3 years of constructive credit towards tenure in the next place, or maybe not.

Certainly tenure as a way of getting faculty to act like owners is an artificial construct, not as effective as real ownership, but it is pretty effective. The academic reputation to the institution is the sum of the academic reputations of it's faculty, both current and historical, while the academic reputations of current faculty is partially a function of the institution's reputation. By shackling the faculty to the institution with tenure, the faculty's interests in maintaining the institution's reputation become more closely aligned. They must be more diligent in who they hire, promote and tenure, and more intolerant of slackers, because their own reputations are on the line. And if you are a tenured faculty member and there are other tenured faculty who are slacking off, then you are going to have to pick up the slack and do those people's jobs as well as your own in order to protect your own reputation. You can't just find another job and walk away without giving up all of your accumulated institutional capital.
5.9.2007 5:57pm
Ilya Somin:
I think that discussions about academic freedom miss what I see as the main point of tenure entirely, which is that tenure is a version of the "employee stock ownership program" for institutions which don't have owners.

Unlike stock owners, professors are not residual claimants on the assets of the university. True, if another professor at my school is productive, I will benefit slightly from the reputational boost to the school. But my share of that benefit is too small to get me to take an active interest in giving that person an incentive to perform better. More importantly, however, to the extent that professors benefit from their colleagues' productivity in this way, that will happen whether or not they have tenure.
5.9.2007 6:04pm
Triangle_Man:
Tenure practices vary across institutions. Some guarantee a job and a salary, some just the job but not the salary, and some merely offer a slightly longer renewable contract. There should be ample data for an analyst to evaluate the performance of a faculty in relation to its tenure status. This is exactly the kind of thing Levitt or others could do to support their position for the abolishment of tenure. So why haven't they? It may be that things become too complicated when attempting to quantify performance for academics. Is it simply a mash-up of the number of credit-hours taught, the number and quality of scholarly publications, and their hours of committee work? This is sort of how evaluations work for the granting of tenure. But then how does one weight the things that senior faculty are valued for, novel ideas based on their long experience, carrying on long-term research projects, or making insightful blog posts? Professors may not fit neatly into the corporate model of "human resources" as a commodity, nor universities into a model of institutions that exist to "increase shareholder value".
5.9.2007 6:05pm
Houston Lawyer:
I think you average large law firm has more intellectual freedom than an aspiring professor. Most schools now require rigid conformity to PC values. Failure to adhere to the written and often unwritten rules will doom your career. Law firms, who can pretty much fire at will, will put up with all kinds of unorthodox behavior and speech from anyone who can bring in clients.
5.9.2007 6:13pm
SG (mail):
I think all of these arguments (that I've seen, anyway) fail to mention that tenure actually reduces acadmic freedom because non-tenured professors feel that they can't get tenure without conforming their views to the prevailing mainstream. Why else would a Volokh conspirator feel that he needed to publish his (not all that right-wing) views under a pseudonym? One of my co-clerks is a tenure track professor at a top-25 law school, and he certainly feels that he can't write freely as a tenure applicant because he won't get the all-important tenure if he writes things that are positive for people like prosecutors or creditors. From what I can tell, that negative effect of tenure hurts academic freedom far more than any benefits that accrue later as a result of tenure. It also prevents many people with differing views from ever applying for teaching jobs in the first place.
5.9.2007 6:14pm
Abe Delnore:
I think this discussion is badly misguided. You are talking about the political freedom of academics. That's nice, but tenure principally protects the academic freedom of academics.

That is, a tenured scholar is free to investigate, publish, and teach ideas that upset orthodoxy in his field without fear of losing his job over it. Maybe we take this this for granted, but without a tenure system, there would always be the threat--at the very least--that established academics would stifle innovation by depriving the livelihoods of anyone who questioned their favored theories. (I'm not saying that intellectual conformity and sycophancy don't exist; I'm just saying they would be much worse without tenure protections.)

In practice, this grants a certain level of extra protection against political pressure, particularly if one's field is politicized, but that's not really the point of tenure.
5.9.2007 6:19pm
byomtov (mail):
I'm not sure I buy the serf analogy, but I do think cathyf makes some good points.

The tenured faculty can be viewed as the university's residual claimants. The "profit" goes to them, partly as salary, but also as perks, including tenure. Why? Maybe because too much in salary would look unseemly - think of state universities in particular. Maybe because faculty members have a strong preference for job security - in many fields finding work outside the university would be difficult or impossible - or for the flexibility that not being subject to dismissal provides. Someone wanting to explore a speculative line of research need not fear losing his job if the results are unsatisfactory. The objectives of academic research are not necessarily the same as those of commercial research.

It is also possible to see tenure as a reward - ownership - for contributions to the university's repputation made earlier. Having contributed capital the faculty member gets a payoff.

These are tentative suggestions, but I think they sugest the possibility that while the need for academic freedom is indeed the most often cited reason in favor of tenure, it may not be the most important. There may be other valid reasons for it as well.
5.9.2007 6:25pm
Delurking (mail):
You stress ideological positions and bias as the main arguments, but scientists and engineers think of it completely differently. For us, the question is: does the freedom to pursue more risky research result in a net benefit? In the context of science, "more risky" means less likely to produce scientifically interesting results; in engineering it means less likely to lead to any useful technological advance.

The idea is that there is a dispropotionate benefit achieved when a very risky project succeeds, because it is likely to yield a major breakthrough; whereas less risky successful projects yield only incremental advances.

No sane assistant prof. chooses a very risky project, because if he has no results in 5 years, he gets kicked out.
Assistant profs. choose research that has a reasonable chance of yielding interesting results in 5 years. Tenure exists to allow them to choose very risky projects once they are tenured.

However, it is undeniable that the tenure system results in there being a bunch of slackers who do nothing. So, the question is: does the small minority that chooses the very risky research once they get tenure produce enough that they outweigh those who continue in comfortable lines of research and the slackers?
5.9.2007 6:34pm
Lior:
I suspect this is less of a problem in the legal academia, but tenure has an important role to play on the science side of campus. A non-tenured professor needs results in order to continue his employment (e.g. to get tenure, or even to get a tenure-track position). This biases the choice of problems to solve. A short-term horizon means you can only tackle research projects than can be solved in that time. Theoretical science might still survive this, but experimental science is difficult to imagine when you can't have a long-term horizon to run your lab.

Even more importantly, tenured faculty can engage in long-term research projects that may not have any short-term results (e.g. design a particle accelerator that will only be built 20 years from now; spend 10 years working on the modularity conjecture without publishing much; try many compounds until you find the one that catalyzes a reaction ...). This kind of high risk-high reward science is important -- not every problem has useful intermediate results. Sometimes this will fail (after making a great breakthrough in set theory in the early 60s, Paul Cohen spend the next 40 years reputedly working on the Riemann Hypothesis), but on the balance this is essential.

I guess since law faculty take less students and can more or less tell that their research will lead to some results (not necessarily the results they expected), they can survive a non-tenured model. But you should expect much fewer ambitious long-term projects under such a regime.
5.9.2007 6:42pm
Ilya Somin:
without a tenure system, there would always be the threat--at the very least--that established academics would stifle innovation by depriving the livelihoods of anyone who questioned their favored theories.

The issues involved here are very similar to those involved in ideological discrimination and are subject to the same arguments I made in the post.
5.9.2007 6:45pm
Ilya Somin:
Several commenters claim that tenure is needed to give professors incentives to pursue longterm and/or risky projects.

I don' think that is true. If universities want professors to pursue very longterm projects, it can give them all sorts of incentives to do so short of granting tenure. When a professors' contract comes up for renewal, he can point out that he is pursuing longterm research and its potential benefits can be taken account of by the school.

as for risky projects, again there are lots of other ways to incentivize people to pursue them. For example by increasing the payoffs for those that pan out.
5.9.2007 6:47pm
byomtov (mail):
to the extent that professors benefit from their colleagues' productivity in this way, that will happen whether or not they have tenure.

Not if they get fired.

Clearly, I have a different view of the residual claimant matter than you do. A bigger reputation means more money, which goes into salaries, research money, TA's, etc. It also means better graduate students (read RA's), lighter teaching loads, etc.
5.9.2007 6:51pm
Student of Objectivism (www):
5.9.2007 6:57pm
Viscus (mail) (www):
If you all think that getting rid of tenure is so great, why don't you start your own university which doesn't offer tenure.

There is a free market in universities. After all, no one is preventing you from starting your own. =)

What is the point of having Bernstein or Somin talk about tenure generally? If they want to abolish tenure at GMU, I am fine with that. But, I don't think they have ground to stand on in suggesting that other institutions should follow their lead. Let the market decide.

If universities without tenure are so much better in terms of efficiency, then why don't new universities open that do not offer tenure and steal all the best students and scholars???
5.9.2007 7:00pm
AppSocRes (mail):
Houstyon Lawyer makes an important point. Tenure in fact discourages academic freedom and precisely at the point where it is most important - the academic freedom of young, new, junior faculty. These are the people who come up with the new ideas and attack the old, yet if they wish to get tenure they must truckle under to the outdated ideas of senior faculty. Furthermore, tenure can block the careers of young academics for a decade or more. Case in point: A while back the physics department at an Ivy League University gave tenure to a large bloc of faculty. Later the department realized it had put a ten to twenty year block on hires of promising young physicists. It would be that long before retirement and other forms of attrition was likely to open up new tenure slots.
5.9.2007 7:09pm
Stephen C. Carlson (www):
If universities without tenure are so much better in terms of efficiency, then why don't new universities open that do not offer tenure and steal all the best students and scholars???
One reason is that organizations such as the ABA are imposing tenure requirements on their accreditation. But the ABA may change its mind.
5.9.2007 7:16pm
Abe Delnore:

The issues involved here are very similar to those involved in ideological discrimination and are subject to the same arguments I made in the post.


But they are distinguishable.

In particular, the two cases that you admit tenure actually protects--hidden agendas and conversions--are much more prevalent when seen in disciplinary rather than political terms. Indeed, they may be the norm.

We pretty much expect an academic to start out with a safe and derivative original project. Now maybe this is due tenure committees forcing their ideology on junior scholars, but, let's face it, it's easier to be safe and derivative. You want to pick a finite project that you can actually accomplish, so you apply someone else's established methodology to your material and crank out a monograph, preferably based on the least soporific parts of your dissertation. The dream project that will overturn all the sacred cows of the field necessarily has to wait, because it will require many years of research, testing, and revising.

Later on, after you have spent decades with the material, some really exciting ideas develop. That's when tenure protection is important. While it's nice to imagine junior scholars coming up with brilliant ideas that revolutionize the field, in practice this sort of thing happens later on.

The solution offered--contracts that forbid firing for political or ideological reasons--does not fit this sort of case, and I don't think it can be rewritten to include scholarship as a protected category without substantially becoming a tenure guarantee.
5.9.2007 7:17pm
Viscus (mail) (www):

One reason is that organizations such as the ABA are imposing tenure requirements on their accreditation. But the ABA may change its mind.



Hopefully it does. I see this as an unnecessary barrier to entry to new law schools who would like to take another approach. Let us have other models and see how they do.

Somehow, I suspect that institutions that offer tenure will outperform those who do not. But there is nothing wrong with a little competition to test that proposition.
5.9.2007 7:26pm
frankcross (mail):
Well, I'm against tenure, I think, but it is a fair question why it persists and it may be an efficient market adaptation. I.e., offering a valued form of compensation that requires no additional money resources. And in law schools, at least, there's no great paucity of research. It may be better for law schools to have the bottom half of their faculty be slackers, covering classes without research and not getting much by way of raises. But it creates some egregious anecdotes, of well paid profs who can't research, or teach decently well, or serve a collegial role.

As to the risky research paths, it seems to me that tenure should be unnecessary. If the prospects for significant findings are great enough, the risk/reward should justify it; if not, not. However, even absent tenure, I presume the decision would be in the hands of colleagues who have an incentive not to fire a colleague for hitting a dry well on an apparently promising research program
5.9.2007 7:49pm
WHOI Jacket:
For the teachers working in summer post earlier, as the son of two teachers, let me tell you that teachers are not "paid" over the summer. They are given a set salary for the year, which is doled out in 12 installments. Also, you have to understand that to teach, you must have students. Are you suggesting that schools move to 50 week years, so that teachers will have "comparable" "vacation time". I put "vacation" in quote marks because most teachers, at least the ones I know, either volunteer their time at summer camps/similar activites or take on part-time work.
5.9.2007 7:53pm
c.f.w. (mail):
Removing tenure for law profs would be akin to making partners in law firms not real partners (terminable if they fail to perform). It looks like a good idea for the same reason why law firms should be allowed to have non-partner partners (associates with attitude, we used to say). Long term impact - law schools would not need to be as geographically centralized (break up into smaller working groups that could roam around, where law is being made). Law schools could be more multi-disciplinary (law and business, law and psych, law and public relations, law and politics, law and computers, etc.). Tenure as a marker or signal would be lost, but so what? Younger faculty would be less constrained to follow prescribed or approved research and writing paths - probably a good thing. The best profs would be identified by the salaries and pensions they pulled down. Breath of fresh air, in my view.
5.9.2007 8:26pm
Dr. T (mail) (www):
In K-12 environments, tenure mostly exists to protect the jobs of mediocre and/or burned-out teachers. It should be abolished.

In college or university environments, tenure may serve some purposes, but I think its benefits are overstated. At a previous job at a university medical center, my department chairman bragged (correctly) that he could fire any of us, tenure or not. Most of us applied for promotion but not tenure (which was a separate, laborious process of dubious value).

The idea of entrenched faculty getting rid of a younger firebrand who hopes to overturn their theories seems absurd. I'm certain it can happen, but so what? That department will wither, and the young firebrand can (and should) work somewhere else.
5.9.2007 8:40pm
Jon Rowe (mail) (www):
In law school, whenever tenure was mentioned, it was always assumed to have something to do with job security and not academic freedom. It represented that the academia, like parts of Europe, was ahead of the "learning curve" on what an ideal society should be. Most of the profs. believed that employment at will should be abolished and tenure extended to everyone.

That's the way it is in France; or at least it was until high unemployment rates lead them to begin reforming the system. As I recall, many of those young unemployed college graduates rioted because, once they get their jobs, they want their tenure too.
5.9.2007 8:55pm
Jim Hu:
Back in 2005, Orin noted a comment I made about tenure on Left2Right, which I recorded here. It still summarizes my views on the value of tenure. As others have noted, there are plenty of ways to deal with underperforming faculty if the dept. heads have the will to use them. Too often they don't because the incentive structures are tilted against dealing with these problems, just as they are often tilted against doing the right thing in other situations.
5.9.2007 9:07pm
frankcross (mail):
In my experience, there are not plenty of ways to deal with underperforming faculty, even given the strong will to ease someone out.
5.9.2007 9:45pm
GMU Humanities Assistant Prof:
There are a number of ways in which tenure plays a positive role, and that is not to deny its negatives. I imagine that everybody in every department in the country knows of the associate professor for life who has given up the research side of the job after tenure. However, tenure does provide one additional incentive in a low-paying profession. (Humanities profs are not making six figures unless they are among the phenomenally productive who are not the problem here). Although tenure is only one of the "perks" of the profession (along with the ability to exercise my mind on things that I find important), there is little doubt that it plays a role in the decision I (and many of my colleagues, no doubt) made in passing up law school for a humanities PhD, even though I knew that it was a substantial financial sacrifice. (Even many non-economists understand opportunity costs.) Thus, one role tenure can be seen to play is drawing highly intelligent individuals into a comparatively low-paying profession relative to their intellectual capacity. Of course, it is an open question if this is the most rational and efficient means of luring high quality people into academia as opposed to raising salaries or offering some other incentives.
5.9.2007 10:31pm
Donald Clarke (www):
I'm surprised to see so many people of a conservative/free-market bent dumping on tenure as inefficient. This is an institution that has been around a long time and is a product of the free market, not government regulation. The usual response of someone like Posner (for example) would be to try to show why such institutions are perhaps efficient after all despite appearances, not to assume right off the bat that there is some kind of market failure going on.

It has been argued that it is imposed by the ABA. But the institution of tenure exists in realms ungoverned by the ABA and I would bet (but do not know for sure) preceded ABA accreditation practices in the law schools.

It has been argued that it persists even though inefficient because universities are government-run or else non-profit. But government-run institutions and non-profits have to exist in a market and provide competitive, but not supra-competitive, benefits to their employees like everyone else. Non-profits can go out of business like anyone else. The state of California is of course unlikely to do so. But how many people who have worked in state universities think their professors are overpaid (relative to the market)? Moreover, if it would be efficient to run universities on a for-profit basis, why don't we see more for-profit universities? One answer might be that there is something about the existing system that really is efficient.

It has been argued that if tenure were abolished, universities and professors could come up with contracts that efficiently provided the necessary job security. But universities and professors have already come up with such a contractual regime: it's called tenure-track and tenure.

There IS a possible explanation for why tenure could persist even if inefficient (that is, even if abolishing it would lead to a regime in which everyone was better off), and that is path dependency and first-mover problems. The first university to try something new might have a hard time attracting people before enough time had passed to show that the new system really was better for professors (on the whole) as well as everyone else.

Finally, since tenure is a job benefit, let's not forget that unless the overall bargaining power of professors relative to universities is somehow reduced, abolishing tenure will require an offsetting compensation increase elsewhere in the system. Who wants to pay for it?
5.9.2007 10:43pm
pete (mail) (www):
The case of Walter Kehowski would seem relevant to this. Hre is the http://www.thefire.org/index.php/torch/of his case (this link goes to Fire's main page since the post link is too long):


FIRE's stunning case at Glendale Community College in the Maricopa County Community College District (MCCCD) continues to receive considerable notice in media outlets across the nation. The case involves Professor Walter Kehowski, who has been placed on forced administrative leave and recommended for termination because he e-mailed George Washington's Thanksgiving Address (and a source link to Pat Buchanan's blog) over an "announcements" listserv to all college employees. Several of Kehowski's colleagues complained about some of Buchanan's views regarding immigration, expressed elsewhere on his blog. As a result, Kehowski was charged with violating MCCCD's Equal Employment Opportunity policy and policies limiting e-mail usage.


So Kehowski has tenure and they are still trying to fire him because he expressed some conservative views. If the university succeeds it would seem that tenure offers no protection for conservatives at that college.
5.9.2007 10:43pm
Andrew Myers (mail) (www):
I'm with Viscus on this. If tenure is a bad idea at the university level, why haven't universities without tenure taken over, outproducing the universities full of alleged tenured deadwood and attracting the best students? Anyone proposing to get rid of tenure needs to have a cogent explanation of this.

The modern university is an complex and subtle beast that cannot even be viewed in isolation from the society it is part of. The simple economic arguments favored by those of a libertarian/conservative perspective (a perspective I am sympathetic to) are not going to capture why tenure works or doesn't work.

A couple of points to ponder:

1. Getting rid of tenure at any major university is a good way to cause total meltdown. I can promise you that faculty would leave in droves to other universities. Faculty in many disciplines (I can speak for engineering here) can get much better paying jobs outside the university. They choose not to because of a commitment to service to the students and the community.

2. Though the research productivity of senior faculty often does drop, these faculty offer other vital services to the university -- teaching, administration, fundraising. There are carrots and sticks beyond tenure to encourage this. This is one reason why institutions with tenure do just fine.
5.9.2007 11:54pm
Bruce2 (mail):
(1) Long-term research is much less prevalent outside of academia than it used to be. Even many government labs are becoming more "now-focused" than they used to be. Having tenure in universities introduces diversity of research into the overall system by allowing professors to still conduct long-term risky research even as industry focuses on short-term success.

Someone commented that long-term research could still be done without tenure -- those researchers would mention in their performance review that their productivity was low because of their focus -- but those arguments haven't saved long-term research in industry, and if academic pressures become like those of industry then professors' jobs won't be safe either.
5.10.2007 1:36am
Ilya Somin:
If universities without tenure are so much better in terms of efficiency, then why don't new universities open that do not offer tenure and steal all the best students and scholars???

Because universities don't operate in a free market. They are nonprofit institutions heavily subsidized by government. A new university without tenure probably wouldn't be able to get the same level of government subsidies - especially since existing universities would use their political muscle to lobby against it.
5.10.2007 4:01am
Zyzzogeton:
Quote from one of my tenured law professors: "This is a great job, I feel like I'm retired!"
5.10.2007 10:30am
A.C.:
Tenure strikes those of us outside of academia the same way the French labor market strikes Americans -- too cushy for the insiders, impenetrable for the outsiders. The number of applicants for tenure-track academic jobs suggests that those positions are overcompensated in some way relative to the rest of the labor market. The money doesn't appear to be that much better, and in many cases it's worse. This suggests that the perks are excessive.

The result is what you'd expect when a group of workers is overcompensated -- a two-tier labor market, with a lot of the work performed by people who don't qualify for the "good" contracts that others enjoy. Excessive reliance on adjuncts and non-tenure-track faculty suggests that something in the system is broken. We don't see many UNIVERSITIES without tenure, but we are seeing a lot of INSTRUCTORS without tenure.
5.10.2007 11:24am
ZH:
Quote from one of my tenured law professors: "This is a great job, I feel like I'm retired!"

One of my father's friends is a tenured professor of Economics at NYU and once said something to the same effect in a conversation with my father. I do not know if he is one of those economists who are opposed to tenure or not, though.
5.10.2007 12:11pm
byomtov (mail):
Because universities don't operate in a free market.

The all-purpose libertarian answer.
5.10.2007 12:30pm
Jeek:
Are you suggesting that schools move to 50 week years, so that teachers will have "comparable" "vacation time". I put "vacation" in quote marks because most teachers, at least the ones I know, either volunteer their time at summer camps/similar activites or take on part-time work.

Yes, absolutely! "Summer vacation" is a ridiculous anachronism that has no place in modern society. Students should be in school year-round, not spending three months goofing off.
5.10.2007 1:34pm
logicnazi (mail) (www):
We need tenure in universities to keep quality professors in academia. Now maybe this doesn't apply in the humanities but in mathematics and the sciences university jobs often pay less than other opportunities these professors have (I know I would have big second thoughts about embarking on this uncertain and stressful academic job business if I didn't think it would end at some point with tenure).

To a large part tenure exists because universities are poor and tenure is a psychologically desirable good. In essence they get to pay professors less by selling them an insurance policy.

Also, equally important is the role of tenure in mathematics and the sciences to let researchers pursue research that may not pay off immediatly or is more risky. At least in mathematics and the sciences I rarely see professors shirking, they are professors because they like doing research. However, professors do sometimes need insulation to allow them to take a gamble on an idea that may not work out at all but could pay off big.

Finally tenure gives universities a good cover story for 'bad' teachers. The truth is the skills needed to do research and teach grad students are often in *opposition* to those needed to excite undergrads (e.g. do you love math for itself and find abstract proof based arguments the natural way to think about things making it harder to communicate with UGs). Many bad teachers exist because the university would rather have a good researcher than a good teacher (and rightly so since a blah teacher isn't that harmful to UGs but a bad researcher is horrible for the grad students) and tenure is a good cover story that prevents them from having to come out and tell the UGs this.

Interestingly I do see tenure free research type jobs but ONLY for those jobs that don't have teaching. If you don't want to make your researchers teach undergrads then you wouldn't need to lure them with the promise of tenure.
5.10.2007 1:56pm
Jeek:
Seems to me the truly high-quality professors would not be concerned if there were no tenure. What they would do under the tenure system - producing high-quality work - would ensure they were rehired every time if they were under a non-tenure system (say, a five-year contract). It is only those who doubt their ability to perform under a non-tenure system who are desperately anxious to keep tenure.

With regards to the "good researcher but bad teacher" (or "good teacher but bad researcher") tension, a non-tenure system would grade the professor on both teaching and research during their periodic review. Strength in one category would compensate for weakness in another. One wonders, how many "bad teachers" are bad because they know they can get away with it? If a non-tenure system forced them to get their act together and learn how to teach effectively, would that be such a bad thing?
5.10.2007 3:10pm
orson23 (mail):
For example, Ward Churchill's far left views were apparently acceptable to the University of Colorado administration and faculty (at least to the extent that they didn't want to get rid of him) until he really went off the deep end by calling the victims of 9/11 attack "little Eichmans."

NOT SO.

His aspersions were rather routine for Churchil. And he was promoted to tenure without a requisite PhD apparentle because of his white/US/Euro hatred.

How would I know? I live in Boulder about ten block from the university campus, and have closely followed his career and defrocking for fraud, now climaxing.
5.10.2007 7:23pm
Atlantic06 (mail):
Here's an option for you who believe that tenure is a negative: a law school that doesn't grant tenure (and is for-profit, to boot!

I expect a flood of applications from libertarians to Florida Coastal School of Law. Their employment manual sounds positively market-driven:

Unless altered by contract, all employees are "at will." This means that your employment is for no
definite term or period of time, and either you or FCSL may end the employment relationship at any time,
with or without notice or a reason. FCSL is not required to establish cause or just cause for an
employee's discharge from employment. Your "at will" status may not be changed or modified by any
oral representation to the contrary, any practice or procedure of FCSL or in the industry, and/or any
policy manual or other document except a written employment contract executed by you and an
authorized FCSL official that specifically sets a definite term or period of time for employment. No other
person at FCSL has the power or authority, either orally or in writing, to alter the employment-at-will
relationship.

Now I know that FCSL is not a top tier law school ... yet. But just wait until law professors realize that they don't have to compromise their libertarian beliefs by drawing a paycheck from the state.
5.10.2007 10:16pm
neurodoc:
Tenure might also occasionally protect a professor whose views are generally acceptable to his colleagues and the administration, but who occasionally makes a stray unpopular or un-PC remark. For example, Ward Churchill's far left views were apparently acceptable to the University of Colorado administration and faculty (at least to the extent that they didn't want to get rid of him) until he really went off the deep end by calling the victims of 9/11 attack "little Eichmans." I suspect, however, that, even in the absence of tenure, it is unlikely that universities will often seek to fire professors just for making one or a few isolated controversial comments.

Professor Somin is very misinformed about the Ward Churchill story. Churchill's "far left views" never got him into trouble at the University of Colorado, nor were they likely to, and "little Eichmans" was not itself the immediate cause of Churchill's undoing. It was when a few faculty and students at Hamilton College, including the son of a 9/11 victim, objected loudly to a Leftie professor's invitation to Churchill to speak at their school, that the media, including Bill O'Reilly, turned the spotlight on Churchill. Then, while Hamilton's president dithered about what to do, there was more publicity and a growing firestorm of public outrage over Churchill and his shtick. Old charges of plagiarism, falsified research, and the like, including that his claim to have Native American antecedents might have been untrue, then got serious attention because the UofC was forced to investigate them, and when they did, they confirmed that Churchill was indeed an academic fraudster who should not have been granted tenure in the first place, and might not have been but for some unusual circumstances and lack of due diligence.

So, it was his "little Eichmans" remark that got Churchill the attention, but that remark did not itself make him a candidate for sacking by UofC. Rather, it was Churchill's prior academic transgressions which got attention after "little Eichmans" was publicized, caused the university to scrutinize him, and led to that happy outcome. (I'm not sure where the matter stands presently.) And in the face of everything that came out about Churchill, there were still some UofC faculty who protested that it would be a violation of academic freedom for UofC to boot this tenured professor.
5.10.2007 10:36pm
cvt:
Undoubtly, there is ideological discrimination in hiring and tenure decisions, but there will be some with unpopular political views who manage to get tenure anyway. The tenure system protects those people from further discrimination once they have shown that they are capable of contributing to their academic field. Norman Finkelstein, for example, may or may not deserve tenure, but if his university decides that he does, he won't have to worry that he will be fired simply because his opinions are unpopular. It is his academic work, not anything else about him, that puts his job in jeopardy now. If unpopular academic work is worth protecting, then it seems that the tenure system may be worth preserving, whatever its other flaws.
5.11.2007 2:10am
Scott Masten (mail):
I'm a bit late to this thread, but I just thought that I would add that a case can be made that tenure along with faculty governace may serve effiency purposes in supporting bargains between faculty and administrators and among faculty themselves (a la Weingast and Marshall's analysis of the organization of legislatures). Like everything else, it is a question of tradeoffs. In relation to that, I recently published some evidence that, though hardly definitive, is consistent with the proposition that variations in the amount and nature of faculty (democratic) governance among academic institutions reflect such tradeoffs. (Masten, Journal of Economic and Management Strategy, Fall 2006). Even state and not-for-profit organizations, it would seem, face pressures to adopt governance structures selectively.
5.11.2007 11:18am
Henry Hartley:

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.

I would suggest that there is a third case, which, although somewhat unlikely, tenure might protect the academic freedom of professors. That is, if the views of the administration in terms of what is acceptable change.

I would argue that the actual result of this is a tendency to prevent or slow any potential change in administrations' views. It therefore allows a tenured staff to restrict the academic freedom of its own administration. For instance, suppose a university president were to offer possible explanations for the underrepresentation of women in the upper echelons of professional life. Rather than being a threat to tenured faculty, it would become a threat to that university president. But I suppose that's a bit far fetched.

[http://www.volokh.com/posts/chain_1106144146.shtml]
5.11.2007 1:03pm
Justin (mail):
You had me at Ward Churchill.

No seriously, why did you think that was going to help make your point? It's not quite one of those Bush = Hitler points, but I doubt that many people who are even moderately left of center continued reading once they saw that link.
5.12.2007 1:18am
neurodoc:
You had me at Ward Churchill.

No seriously, why did you think that was going to help make your point? It's not quite one of those Bush = Hitler points, but I doubt that many people who are even moderately left of center continued reading once they saw that link.


In the context of this thread, what should we take from the case of Ward Churchill, who, contrary to what Professor Somin suggested, is in jeopardy of losing his tenured position because of much more than an
"occasional() ...stray unpopular or un-PC remark."
5.12.2007 2:43pm