Higher Education Watch
Does Tenure Work?

Few professionals have it as good as tenured professors at top universities: These princes of the Ivory Tower enjoy total lifetime job security, generous compensation, high status, and freedom to study whatever they wish. It’s a strong incentive for talented people to enter academia, a field otherwise fraught with risk, and, for all but the brightest stars, relatively lacking in rewards.

But what if tenure-for-life is actually not the optimal system for encouraging research productivity? That’s the implication of a new paper by three economists from the University of Washington, UC San Diego, and CU Boulder. The authors (Jonothan Brogaard, Joseph Engelberg, and Edward Dickersin Van Wesep) measured the quantity and quality (as measured by number of citations) of economists’ work in the years before and after they earned tenure. They found that, in general, tenure appeared to cause scholarly output to decline:

The results are most consistent with academics increasing effort over time up to the tenure year, and reducing their efforts thereafter. Further, the reduction in effort is not driven by reducing the number of lower quality publications, and focusing upon higher quality work. Instead, it appears that academics can exert effort toward both quantity and quality, and reduce both post-tenure.

The potential impact on research productivity isn’t the only reason universities might benefit from reforming their employment and retention programs. As we’ve written before, tenure contributes indirectly to other ills plaguing academia: “The American Association of University Professors’ resistance to any alterations to the tenure-for-life system drives up costs (by limiting universities’ flexibility to shift professors and resources around) and forces campuses to either hunt for corporate sponsors, hire low-paid adjuncts, jack up tuition still higher, or go hat-in-hand to the federal government.” This is especially the case as a growing number of faculty are staying on the job for as long as they can, rather than retiring at age 65 (which used to be required under many tenure contracts).

That’s not to say tenure doesn’t do any good. For example, the tiny minority of social scientists who are politically right-of-center feel more comfortable speaking out about their views after they have attained lifetime job security. But there is enough evidence about the pitfalls of academia’s one-of-a-kind employment ladder to think that a shakeup of some kind is overdue.

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