Friday, March 15, 2013

Thoughts on Tenure

A colleague of mine recently posted the following on tenure:
Consider what tenure does. It is part of a compensation package designed to reduce mobility. It is a barrier to exit in the college professor employment market. Thus it reduces bargaining power for the professoriate effectively by reducing any holdup costs. Professors cannot make a very credible threat to leave if they feel their working conditions are bad or wages are too low.
I'm not sure this captures everything that tenure does. In fact, many professors seek (and successfully find) better jobs. Continuing,
In other words, removing tenure, like the end of serfdom, should increase the likelihood that the professoriate will innovate to keep themselves competitive and increase their wages.
I'm not as sure about this. Innovation is very risky when one's employment is tenuous and one's continued employment is determined by the noisy signal of student perceptions of teaching quality. I could see a valid transactions costs argument that would predict less innovation, lower overall teaching quality, and poorer administration of higher education as a result of ending tenure. Tenure exists to encourage professors to make institution-specific investments, including serving on administrative committees, advising students and student organizations, maintaining academic standards, and agreeing to meet help teach courses that match the needs of the students in the department or college. Otherwise, rational faculty members will have a greater incentive to spend their energy focusing on research and gaming their teaching evaluations. There are many things broken about higher education. I am not sure that tenure is highest on the list of problems.