The institution of tenure

Each week, Symposium provides a blogging forum for the week’s featured article. This week’s author is Prof. Andrew Gelman. You can read his blog here as well as his frequent posts on The Monkey Cage.My article laid out suggestions for journalists on how to be better science reporters. But what about advice for making professors better professors? So today, I’m going to turn to a uniquely academic institution: tenure.

The merit of tenure has been going on for centuries, but an interesting discussion unfolded recently on the Priceonomics Blog, which asked economists what they think of tenure. Should it be abolished, kept, or modified?

I’m a political scientist, not an economist. So rather than giving my opinion, I’ll say what I think an economist might say.

I’ve laid out some thoughts before and want to make the point that people sometimes think it’s surprising and wrong that high pay, good benefits, generous retirement, job security, and an easy workload go together. But from an economic point of view, this makes sense. All these can be considered as different forms of compensation.

Furthermore, getting rid of tenure may solve some problems, but I don’t know if it will help much with thinning the ranks of slackers. Let’s say we have a retired tenured professor who beat the system by collecting a full salary while doing minimal scholarship and spending only an hour a week on class participation. The school could have decreased his salary and reduce his office space as this problem became more and more apparent, but very few schools would do such a thing. Universities generally don’t use the tools they already have at their disposal to make sure all faculty are “efficient” in terms of providing the services they are paid for.

On the other hand, universities might look at those without tenure when they decide to fire faculty they deem to be political nuisances, or if they want to lay off huge numbers for economic reasons. But more generally, tenure is not so much about “protecting deadwood” (as its detractors claim) or allowing political freedom of expression (as its supporters argue). Rather, it’s about the balance of power between the employer and the employed. If your boss has the power to fire you or renew your contract, you’ll be under some pressure to keep your boss happy—and your boss will be aware of that.

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