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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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  • rheddles

    On the other hand, perhaps tenure stimulates research among those who strive for it more than any other incentive available.
    Without tenure, would that research be done?

    The cost issue is not material compared to the costs associated with administration bloat and excessive bricks and mortar. The operating costs associated with these ego trips along with declining enrollment is what will sink higher ed, not tenure.

    Retirement is a serious issue because these non-productive septuagenarians, and worse, clog the system and deny worthy younger scholars from attaining the positions and recognition they deserve. Tenure protection should end at 60.

    The most important shakeup academia needs is ideological.

    • Andrew Allison

      Or maybe 10-year terms, renewable on the basis of useful research performed? I think that the most important shakeup needed in academia is to halve the number of students. One could argue that it’s the revenue generated by the 50% who currently drop out which the excesses possible. A 4-year graduation requirement wouldn’t hurt either.

      • Jim__L

        Describe “useful” humanities research.

        Now estimate whether that research (say, based on the Western Canon) would actually get done in today’s research climate.

        • Andrew Allison

          You raise a very good point and I feel your pain [grin]. The humanities academy of today is largely a self-perpetuating fraud. Since the foxes won’t willingly abandon the hen-house, I propose eliminating the chickens upon which they feed and starving the institutions which perpetuate them..

          • Gabriel L

            I pity the close-minded people who lack the intellect to appreciate the humanities and how they make our lives worth living.

  • Fat_Man

    “Wonder Boys” (2000), directed by Curtis Hanson, based on the eponymous novel by Michael Chabon, stars Michael Douglas as Professor Grady Tripp, a novelist who teaches creative writing, Tobey McGuire as his student James Leer, and Frances McDormand as the university’s chancellor, Sara Gaskell. Grady is having an affair with Sara, whose husband, Walter, is the chairman of Grady’s department. During a party at the Gaskells’ house, Sara tells Grady that she is pregnant with his child; Grady’s student James shoots the Gaskells’ dog when he finds it attacking Grady.

    James Leer: Professor Tripp? Can I ask you a question?

    Grady Tripp: Yeah, James.

    James Leer: What are we going to do with… it?

    Grady Tripp: I don’t know. I’m still trying to figure out how to tell the Chancellor I murdered her husband’s dog.

    James Leer: You?

    Grady Tripp: Trust me, James, when the family pet’s been assassinated, the owner doesn’t want to hear one of her students was the trigger man.

    James Leer: Does she want to hear it was one of her professors?

    Grady Tripp: …I’ve got tenure.

    • f1b0nacc1

      Hell, with tenure he should have just shot her husband and simplified things.

  • amoose1959

    Jason , Botstein wants to see you in his office pronto. Berger (sic)and Mead ratted on you.

  • Beauceron

    Personally, I am of the opinion that, at least in the humanities, things have gotten so bad that issues such as tenure are beside the point by now.

    Assuming you want a system that espouses high intellectual standards and serious achievement, the higher education system in the humanities must be torn down to the studs and rebuilt. It has become so decadent and frivolous and biased that it simply cannot be saved. The rot is too deep to fix with policy medicine.

    • f1b0nacc1

      Don’t leave the studs, burn it to the ground, sew the ground with salt, then find a new location and start again

    • Andrew Allison

      Let’s not overlook social studies.

  • Stephen

    One solution might be to extend the probationary period before granting it: Link it to promotion to full professor, for example. For its advantages, one of the hinderances to mobility of mid-rank faculty is the granting of tenure after 6 years. Colleges and universities are usually reluctant to hire associate professors who aren’t already stars because it frequently requires granting tenure with the hire. Perhaps the decision on tenure is being made too early.

    • Andrew Allison

      The practice of granting associate professors tenure is just one more example of the corruption of the academy.

  • FriendlyGoat

    It’s hard not to have several thoughts on this at once.
    1) The article leads us to believe that the primary purpose of a tenured professor is productivity in research. While it might sound credible to PhD. candidates to have advisors who are leading in research, the claim does not or should not sound particularly credible to students pursuing undergraduate degrees—–or even masters’ degrees really. WHY does the average student or parent want to pay a lot to be taught by financially-stressed adjuncts in the lower courses while the real professors consume themselves with publish or perish? Why don’t we think about tenure for actual classroom teachers and no tenure for researchers in the Ivory Tower?
    2) When we talk about universities, we always need to distinguish between the name brands and the state systems which used to be more heavily supported by their states—-and which still should be if we had our political hats on straight.
    3) Even though I am known as a leftist, it is true that if you want more room for conservatism in the academy, you do have to give some cover to those who might be swimming against the liberal tide. The last paragraph mentions this and it has some merit.
    4) Given the sorry state of the understanding of real economics in our country, the economic research carried on in universities for the purpose of “citations” is evidently mostly useless. We’ve got left and right “think tanks” doing this work and there is some question WHAT purpose FOR STUDENTS is served by designing yet another study in a university to gather dust. We already know some important basics such as “poverty pockets can make a mess in your country”, “high-end tax cuts don’t really create living-wage jobs”, “there is a good chance the next 40 years will not be anything like the last 40 (per Thomas Piketty and Bill Gross), and, most importantly, “AI and accelerating automation are coming soon. What the heck are you really going to do politically to retain what we used to think were the family values of self-supporting blue collar (and similarly-compensated) families?”

  • Jacksonian_Libertarian

    Yes, these parasites should be terminated.

    • f1b0nacc1

      That is a cruel and unnecessary insult….

      …to parasites, some of which actually do serve some useful purpose

  • vb

    In the natural sciences, the older tenured professors do much more than give lectures. They spend a lot of time reviewing papers and working as editors for scientific publications. In addition to mentoring their own students, they also mentor younger profs and help them move from their own science projects to participating in administrative duties. They organize meetings and seminars for their students. Although they may not show first year students how to pipette, they do make sure that student projects have good controls and that students are aware of the current research that needs to be taken into account in designing the project.

    As to older profs, they are often go-to people for other faculty members. Sure, they give up their lab space and funding when they retire, but the good ones are highly valued for their insights and experience.

  • Mike

    My best college “professors” were adjunct faculty who worked day jobs and taught part time at night. They loved teaching and had real world experience to share. My experience with tenured faculty was not so great. I recall asking a tenured calculus prof for help with a problem. His answer “Its called the theory of staring. Stare at your book long enough and maybe you will learn something.” Well prof, I wasn’t paying $20k a year for independent study. They were mostly jerks and out of touch with reality.

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