Bryan Caplan  

Two Cowenian Tenure Claims

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Tyler has chimed in on tenure with a bizarre dadaism and a serious challenge:

Bizarre Dadaism:

To put it bluntly, the tenure system works because for many people their "output" doesn't matter in the first place; tenure is however wonderful for the stars.

Right... Tenure is "wonderful" because it infinitesimally raises the job security of the stars, and sharply raises the job security of people who don't produce anything of value anyway.

Serious Challenge:

For-profit universities, which typically don't have tenure, have failed to take over the sector, once again showing there is usually competition between different organizational forms.

My reply: Non-profits are heavily subsidized by both governments and private donors. This hardly shows that non-profits are more efficient than for-profits in any non-trivial sense.

P.S. Tyler and a co-author have a whole paper on "Why are Most Universities Not for Profit?," (abstract viewable, paper unavailable) but I think they hastily dismiss the obvious explanation.

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COMMENTS (14 to date)
Barkley Rosser writes:

Well, the few for-profit universities that I am aware of really lousy. Do you want to send your kid to Upper Iowa University? Is it only a lack of subsidies that make such places a worthless joke?

There is also the little matter of academic freedom that goes out the window when you end tenure. A lot of really mediocre administrators, legislators, and powerful donors have gone after some pretty brilliant and productive academics, with some of the most famous cases involving economists. Or maybe you guys are not interested in these as most of them have involved left-wing economists like Richard Ely, the institutionalist founder of the American Economic Association, and the Marxist economist, Paul Sweezy?

Ajay writes:

It's good to see that Bryan, an academic at a public university, can still rationally think about the failings in the system and swat down the dumb arguments made by Tyler, who is presumably too biased to view the system objectively (maybe he should start reading Overcoming Bias?). However, I wonder why Bryan doesn't vote with his feet and go to the private sector, or just a private university if he wants to keep teaching? As for Barkley's dumb argument about the tenure system protecting productive academics from administrators with a grudge, yes, why don't we institute a system to guarantee everyone a job, just in case one or two people are unfairly treated. By that rationale, we should pass laws requiring that every company must keep any employee who has managed to stay with them for 3-5 years employed forever (as some other countries do), just in case some company somewhere decides to fire a worthy employee for flimsy reasons. Never mind that a worthy academic or employee will presumably always be able to find a job elsewhere, let's just put in these inflexible systems, just in case.

Barkley Rosser writes:


The US higher education system is widely recognized as by far the best in the world. It got that way with tenure. Do you seriously think that getting rid of tenure will improve it? I don't, although that may make me dumb. But then, I have seen dumb administrators do a lot of dumb things.

Ajay writes:

Barkley, your claims get ever more ludicrous. Now tenure is the basis of quality education? Perhaps you could explain what tenure has to do with education, as opposed to the main function of most academics, research. As for the US education system being the best, I will restrict your comment to the college system as the K-12 system is horrible, as has been shown on standardized tests and other surveys for years. There's no argument there and the tenure system in K-12 is one of the main causes of that failure. The college system is also pretty bad, it might be marginally better or worse than other college systems around the world but that's not saying much considering how bad it is here (the reason you think the college system here is the best is that people sometimes say that and are usually referring to the research function of universities when they say it, not education). As for improving it, it's going to happen in many different ways as I noted in the comments here. Regarding your being dumb, you make some dumb arguments but I didn't say you were dumb. I'd have to hear more of your arguments before I'd decide that.

Barkley Rosser writes:


The point is that there will be suppression of research and new ideas if there is not academic freedom. One current example? The governor of Oregon is trying to fire the State Climatologist because he is a global warming skeptic. That guy will lose his State Climatologist position, but he has tenure at a university. Now, he may be wrong about the climate issue, but do you really want academics having to kiss the asses of politicians and donors and lie about their views or their research?

There is more here, much more, than just protecting a few mistreated people. Yes, there is a cost to tenure, but this can be overcome to a substantial extent by using merit pay and altering teaching loads. Also, just for the record, I do not see a need for tenure at the K-12 level where research is not an important product.

The US is universally recognized to have the best higher education system in the world. It achieved that after tenure was instituted, not before. Does not seem to be such a bad thing.

Ajay writes:

Barkley, great example, a guy in a government position being fired by a politician (he wasn't fired from his academic position nor can you claim he would have been if he didn't have tenure, you just don't know). Of course you want people in academia to ask tough questions, the question is how do we set up a system that lets them do that? I argue that a tenure system is an incredibly stupid and inflexible way of doing that. Not only does it not accomplish that goal, it hinders it. Someone on a tenure-track has to be careful not to rock the boat, or the tenured people who decide on his tenure will not grant it (also, the peer review process is very prone to groupthink, adding to this effect). The long academic selection process that runs a decade or more (time in grad school + pre-tenure positions) effectively weeds out anyone who won't follow the prevailing winds of academia. And the evidence to prove this is all there, academia is a fairly conformist place that doesn't generate much new thought. Rather, academics attempt to obsessively analyze the innovative thought that comes from outside academia and to construct unnecessary technical jargon (not only that, but too much of it!) that is claimed to describe the subjects studied. This overuse of technical jargon can be easily explained as an attempt to obfuscate subjects so as to create more work and jobs for themselves, so they can proceed to explain the topics they just obfuscated! It is fascinating to see the logical leaps you make in stating that tenure is not necessary in K-12 as they do not do research but that the US has the best education system because of tenure, which you just tried to defend solely on the basis of it helping research and academic freedom. You have yet to make an argument for how tenure helps education (and only accepted that it hurts K-12). Any inflexible system like tenure or strict labor laws are not just a bad thing, they're horrible things, as they effectively kill all the change and improvements that would have taken place if these straitjackets had not been placed on the populace.

Barkley Rosser writes:


You do not cite sources for a lot of your assertions. I would note that you undercut your own argument. Non-tenured faculty are more servile to everybody, not just tenured colleagues: administrators, outside powers-that-be, and so forth. They have to kiss everybody's collective asses.

There are some objective measures of socially valuable research that comes out of academia, such as patents based on academic research and Nobel Prizes. These have come to be dominated by US academia during the period since WW II when US academics have had tenure and the academic freedom that goes with it. I think you need to look at some data before you bloviate further on this topic.

John Thacker writes:

The US higher education system is widely recognized as by far the best in the world. It got that way with tenure.

True. Though it also got that way by having more prominent private universities than most places, albeit not-for-profit.

There are, I think, benefits to tenure, but I agree with Bryan that the first argument of Tyler's doesn't make that much sense.

Caliban Darklock writes:

Output is not the only thing of value in the field. There are a great many people whose primary value is not in what they produce, but what they retain. Tenure is one of a very few ways these people are recognised and permitted to make a living doing what they do best: parrot the works of others.

I'm not saying this is where one's aspirations should necessarily lie - but dammit, if that's what you do best, there needs to be a career path for that. It's telling that the people who are very good at this tend to be unappreciated by those they benefit for many years, but then suddenly present themselves as the critical point where they made someone the person they are today.

Ajay writes:

Barkley, Ah yes, that old academic trick, asking for citations. I'm making general observations based on my experience and reading; I have not made any numerical claims. Let me explain something to you about citations. Citations are for when you give specific data or conclusions reached by others and you want to give the reader a link to the original data. Well, I did not cite any datasets or refer to others' conclusions, so there is no need for any citations. It's pretty sad that I have to explain this to a professor from "the best higher education system in the world." Also, I have not undercut my argument (it's pretty rich for you to claim this considering the logical leaps you take, as I pointed out before) as I have noted that the long academic selection process before tenure is granted effectively weeds out anyone who would need the protection of tenure. Even if this selection process didn't exist, tenure is the equivalent of strict labor laws that don't allow you to fire employees (such as those laws in Japan or other countries): these supposed solutions are much worse than the problems. I have not provided an alternate solution to promote academic reearch freedom because I don't believe research should be done in academia. There should be researchers who do research in research institutes and academics that teach, there is no need to combine the two. The current system is horribly flawed because you end up with researchers who are forced to teach. Most of the time you end up with people who do neither well.

As for your supposed objective measures of socially valuable research, if you don't know how the patent system is horribly broken, you obviously don't understand these issues at all. As for prizes, such as the nobels, given internally by the academic community, wow, that's a real objective measure! According to the wikipedia page on tenure, de facto tenure was fairly widespread from the beginning of the century (the only reason to make tenure formal after WWII was as a side benefit, to attract more professors to teach the masses of GIs going to college after the war). So why didn't US academia start dominating from 1900? As for the dominance after WWII, that had nothing to do with the intelligentsia from Europe leaving the postwar rubble to emigrate to the US, right? No, it couldn't have anything to do with that. As for data I'm supposed to look at, what data? The one that definitively ties tenure to the dominance of US academia, where would that be? You couldn't even get the date right on when tenure was widely used so I'm not waiting for any data from you. And this discussion deals with generalizations about an entire system, we've not talked about specific data, so your call for more reading of data is meaningless.

I read your comment on the other post about tenure last night and I googled you; I see that you come from an academic family that has spent a long time in academia. I don't expect to convince you of the failings of the system since you have spent so much time there and are oblivious to its failings. But I do expect you to make cogent and rational arguments, you've failed on both counts so far.

Caliban, it sounds like you're saying that teachers who retain and transmit knowledge should have a place to work and that academia shouldn't be primarily geared towards researchers. I agree with this and have proposed that academia be only for teaching. However, as even Barkley has admitted, tenure is unnecessary for teachers; I'm not sure why you support it.

Bill writes:

academia is a fairly conformist place that doesn't generate much new thought

I've had a number of jobs with for-profit companies. None of these firms was as conformist as the two higher-academic institutions I attended. Surely, this is only anecdote, but it does support Ajay's view. (My opinion: Tenure is like belonging to a labor union; it protects the mediocre and incompetent, and restricts the truly excellent and innovative.)

Barkley Rosser writes:


You don't like citations, "an academic trick," you say, because they will not support your arguments. So, from Table 795 of the 2001 Statistical Abstract of the United States, the one I happen to have a copy of sitting around in my wicked academic office, comes the following data on Nobel Prizes in the hard science disciplines of physics, chemistry, and physiology/medicine by country for 1991-1999.

US: 39
Germany: 3
France: 3
UK: 2
Other countries (one each): 7.

All but a handful of those 39 were in US academic institutions, and that predominance by the US over other countries has only increased during the post-war period, well after the immediate postwar surge of European refugees.

The climatologist in Oregon has an academic position at Oregon State. The governor can fire him from being State Climatologist, but cannot get rid of him from his academic position. Do you support the governor having a right to do so? That is the bottom line here.

There are other prominent academics whom politicians and other outsiders are trying to have fired because of various statements they have made, people who are authors of several books. Two that are being defended now by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) are, on the left, Ward Churchill, and on the right the libertarian economist at the Unviersity of Nevada-Las Vegas, Hans-Hermann Hoppe. Probably you think Churchill should be fired, but do you support the firing of Hoppe for making reputedly anti-gay remarks in a classroom?

There is a major organized move right now coming from the right ("Accuracy in Academia," brainchild of former leftist, David Horowitz) to rein in political statements by professors, although mostly perceived leftwing statements.

I happen to think that professors should as a matter of professionalism minimize the political statements they make in classrooms, and they absolutely should not grade students on their political beliefs. But sometimes discussions of politics are relevant to particular courses. But currently we have students demanding that professors be fired for expressing political views the students disagree with. I just read a column advocating this in the student newspaper here at JMU. Do you support this, Ajay?

Would you support firing professors who engage in research on stem cells because of pressure from fundamentalists? Just when and for what do you think that professors should be fired, sir? There is a lot more pressure for this sort of stuff than you seem to be aware of, and the minute tenure goes out, all these assholes are going to come out of the wordwork and start purging anybody they do not like or disagree with.
And, if you do not think that this will stifle creativity and innovation, then you are terribly naive. Vague statements about the conformist nature of the process of getting tenure will not cut the mustard on this.

Ajay writes:

Barkley, you continue to make logical mistakes. The academic trick is in asking for citations (which is what I said), citations themselves are not the problem. As I've said already, this discussion mainly deals with our own generalizations about the current academic system, citations are for data or conclusions reached by others and are therefore irrelevant to those assertions. If you believe otherwise, perhaps you could point to some assertion of mine that requires citation? You can't because they don't. The old academic trick is in ignoring an argument made by someone and asking for citations, even if they're irrelevant, which is especially ludicrous in a case like mine when I did not refer to any outside datasets or conclusions.

You raised the nobel statistic as an objective measure when it clearly isn't and now proceed to detail the statistics, even though I have already pointed out that it's useless as an objective measure of socially useful research. Still, let's look at this statistic. Since the dataset is so small, I compiled it myself by looking at the wikipedia pages and nobel autobiographies of the winners. Here's what I got along with some notes in parentheses:

  • 26 native-born americans (1 whose parents came from russia because of anti-semitism, 1 probably for the same reason as it's noted that his relative was a famous zionist in russia, 1 spent most of his early career in europe)
  • 11 foreign-born scientists who came to the US

    • 9 came to the US before their nobel-prize winning work was done (1 came because of bell labs, 1 did work in bell labs, 1 because of WWII)

    • 2 came somewhere in the middle of their career

  • 17 foreign scientists

I'm not sure why my numbers on foreign versus US scientists differ from the abstract (their 39 and 15 versus my 37 and 17), my guess is that they have opportunistically included 2 scientists who have some minor US connection as being from here. Most of the foreign-born scientists who emigrated came after graduate school, a few came sometime during graduate school. More than half of the prize-winners are foreign. However, US over-representation is understandable because for the first half of the 20th century the US was the one stable rich country, the rest of the world was wracked by world wars. These awards were all given for research done in the 50s and 60s (some in the 70s), the postwar years. During this time, the US was the sole rich country that wasn't demolished by WWII so it's understandable that a majority of the research was done here (you can't support research unless you have a surfeit of resources, which most other countries didn't have after WWII). Still, almost a third of the US prizewinners emigrated from abroad, mostly because the research money was here. Your counter-argument that US dominance only increased even well after the postwar emigration is nonsensical. Of course it increased, the emigrants stayed here and did research! Also, it's interesting that you would raise the nobel statistic considering I have never questioned the post-WWII research dominance of the US. Instead, I questioned the use of nobel prizes as a useful metric, stated that US dominance was helped by post-WWII emigration, and stated that there is no connection to tenure and that you could neither make any logical argument that it was related to tenure nor refer to any data that showed it. Yet, with all this, you chose to highlight the nobel statistics.

As to your other argument about patents, I thought your claim sounded suspect so I looked it up. According to this report, although patents granted to academic institutions doubled from 2000 to 2005, as academia increasingly began to capitalize on publicly funded research, the percentage of worldwide patents granted to academia only grew from 3 to 5%. So even according to your flawed metric, the data doesn't support you! To summarize, you refer to the number of nobels, which is not an objective measure of research as you claimed, in order to show US dominance, although US dominance was never questioned. You refer to patents, another useless metric as patents are granted needlessly by mostly broken patent systems, and the data doesn't even show what you claim! Worse, you cannot make a single argument that any of this has anything to do with tenure. Instead, you make diffuse and deluded arguments and it's obvious to see that you believe tenure is necessary and are arguing backwards, trying to find arguments that support your claim. Well, your arguments are flimsy at best so you flit around from argument to argument: one second it's education, next it's research, now it's political freedom.

So, let's get to that last argument. This is in fact the best argument, as tenure has nothing do with research or teaching. However, most academics, most of the time, have nothing to do with politics. If the best argument is that academics have to make political arguments in a tiny minority of instances, you have no argument to make. Let's look at your examples.

Why would the governor have any power to fire the climatologist from his academic position, even without tenure? Does the governor have the right to fire anybody in his state or did I miss some important law? While the governor can undoubtedly bring some limited pressure to bear on a public university's overall budget, he has no power to fire every public employee. That is decided by the bureaucracy, in this case the administration and board of trustees of the university. As implied in my first comment, I believe public education should be eradicated and be replaced by private education, so even the extremely limited power the governor has over academic institutions would be removed. I'm not going to go into the details of the Churchill and Hoppe cases but employees get fired all the time for making inflammatory statements in front of their customers (as Hoppe did in talking to his students). I don't see why academia should be any different. It all depends on what they said and how bad it is. You really have no argument here. Are you saying that tenure grants academics the power to say ANYTHING they want and that it should do that? As for the students at JMU, students do stupid things all the time. Without the details of the case, no discussion can take place. Was he trying to enforce his views on the students or simply claiming that one political argument had more merit than another? It all depends on what was done and how. How would fundamentalists have any power to fire researchers in the first place? The university bureaucracy decides that, just like any other institution. You seem to think that if one doesn't have tenure he will immediately be "servile" to everyone and anyone, a laughable assumption, and one indicative of a certain negative viewpoint common among certain leftists and academics.

Anyway, the vast majority of research and education has nothing to do with controversial politics. Therefore, you want to institute an inflexible system that stifles creativity and growth on the off chance that someone, somewhere will be fired for political reasons. The solution you espouse is far, far worse than the supposed problem. It's all not going to matter anyway as the public education system will be destroyed over the coming decades.

Barkley Rosser writes:


Bumped from plane in Eur

So foreigners came to US unis
Showed we did it right

teaching hard to measure
people no research go stale

i doubt all better if for profit
without tenure
have to pay more lots more to get same

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