The Hidden Costs of Tenure

The secret costs of the faculty cartel
by 

Conversations I’ve had with non-academics about university employment practices usually evoke surprise and skepticism. Most people have a hard time understanding the point of a system that makes it so difficult to dismiss faculty members who are not especially good at their job. 

The recent motion in Wisconsin to remove state laws that protect teacher tenure has re-ignited the debate over providing special protections to teachers—protections that don’t apply to journalists, gardeners, or bloggers who are occasionally fired for expressing unpopular views

In some ways, regulations that determine how university professors are hired and fired in the United States are analogous to the restrictive labor laws in Spain and Greece. By raising the cost of firing bad workers, they increase the relative cost of hiring good ones. 

The consequence is persistent unemployment and low productivity in Greece and Spain. The consequences of our tenure system are the proliferation of poor teaching and arcane research in university departments that are immunized from market forces. 

Those who pursue a career as a university professor are mostly incentivized to produce specialized work aimed at impressing people who may end up on their promotion committee rather than a wider audience. 

In the sciences, this may be a good thing, since one’s peers are likely doing narrow but important work that uncovers the basic structure of the universe. But in the humanities and social sciences, it often leads to the pursuit of bizarre research that is inscrutable to outsiders and of little value even to scholars in related fields. 

Another hidden effect of the tenure system is that it often sifts out the very people it is supposed to protect: those with unusual or unpopular ideas. The original justification for tenure was to protect teachers and scholars who hold unpopular views by making it difficult to fire them. But when tenure is the main game in town, the stakes associated with hiring a new faculty member are high, making departments risk-averse. Thus, in order to be considered for tenure-track jobs, candidates have strong reasons to conceal unpopular political beliefs and to pursue relatively conservative lines of research. 

By “conservative” I do not mean politically conservative. Quite the opposite. 

If most people in a department where you’ve applied are progressives, it is not likely that your allegiance to any non-progressive views will help your cause. Tenured faculty members who make those decisions are often unwilling to take a chance on somebody with eccentric or politically unpopular views, since when a tenure-track position is filled, the candidate who fills it will probably be a colleague for life. 

This is not only unfair; it is contrary to the mission of most universities. Research by Professor Jonathan Haidt suggests that political bias negatively impacts the quality of research by stifling open debate. But it’s one of the unintended results of tenure. 

Tenure can, of course, protect people with unpopular views. Consider Edward Wilson and Arthur Jensen, eminent scholars at Harvard and Berkeley who have argued, among other things, that different groups of human beings exhibit average differences in genetically-mediated characteristics, including general intelligence and impulse control. Tenure protected their careers, although it didn’t protect them from death threats and intimidation. 

On the other hand, it is likely that many more controversial scholars will never be hired in the first place because those on the hiring committee are hostile to their ideas. 

Tenure also makes it much harder to terminate faculty members. It was never supposed to be a guarantee that one will never be fired. According to the American Association of University Professors, tenure can be revoked if members of a department can demonstrate that a colleague exhibits incompetence, or engages in academic fraud or seriously immoral behavior. 

But even when these things can be shown, it is often easier for faculty and administration to ignore the problem than to mount a costly battle to fire a colleague. 

This is one reason many tenure-track jobs are being replaced with adjunct positions, which is a temporary fix for a deeper problem. In the long run, it is likely that the quality of student education and faculty research would increase under a system that offered faculty a greater diversity of contracts, reflecting a faculty member’s ongoing accomplishments, experience, and contributions to the university. 

In effect, tenure is a barrier to entry in the academic job market that makes it difficult to replace poorly performing faculty with better alternatives. We should applaud rather than protest the recent decision of the Wisconsin legislature to force the University of Wisconsin to experiment with new ways of conducting the business of hiring and firing faculty.

This post first appeared at the John William Pope Center. 

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