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Thoughts on Academic Tenure

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Megan McArdle writes,


When an academic starts pushing the tenure model for anywhere outside academia, I will find their defense of its use in academia more convincing.

I think that tenure is only a subset or symptom of a larger issue. The issue to me is that in the academy, the incumbents control the process without any external validation.

A while back, I ran into Olivier Blanchard. He and I do not exactly agree on the state of academic macro. He told me that he thought that I was disparaging something that had "met the market test."

Some market. Some test. If Blanchard's generation of macroeconomists have passed a test, it is one that they made up themselves.

In experimental science and engineering, these is enough external validation to keep the process honest. In other disciplines, in-breeding can get out of hand. In my opinion, macroeconomics has suffered from that.

I think that the general problem in the academy is that it is too strongly cartelized. Perhaps the most appalling symptom of that is the disparity between tenured professors and adjuncts. Such a disparity would almost surely not emerge in a free market.

Tenure is one way in which incumbents enforce the cartel. But getting rid of tenure would not be sufficient. I think that the key for fields outside of science and engineering is to create a meaningful role for those outside of a narrow field to influence hiring and compensation within that field.


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COMMENTS (11 to date)
James D. Miller writes:

When I came up for tenure in my economics department some criticized me for doing some writing for a non-economists. They didn't just give zero weight to these writings they gave negative weight to them because they believed it showed I wasn't sufficient devoted to economics. This was after my college's president told us that she wanted us to engage in interdisciplinary work. (On the plus side the president gave me tenure.)

biopundit writes:
I think that the general problem in the academy is that it is too strongly cartelized. Perhaps the most appalling symptom of that is the disparity between tenured professors and adjuncts. Such a disparity would almost surely not emerge in a free market.

What about partners in law-firm, medical practices etc?

Heck, one could even construct an argument that CEOs of major companies operate in some sort of a cartelized manner (old boys network and all).

At least tenured professors do not massively bot
ch up the handling of environmental disasters and then get paid millions of dollars to resign.

mlb writes:

I would argue that academic macro has failed the external validation test. Very few of the (handful) of great investors buy into the mainsteam academic theories. These are the people that understand the economy the best. If someone understands it better, they ought to be running a hedge fund.

rpl writes:

How do hedge funds have anything whatsoever to do with macroeconomics? The hedge fund analysts I have talked to neither know nor care anything about inflation, unemployment, multipliers, or any of the other topics studied in macro. They seem to be far more interested in the behavior of random variables.

My opinion of tenure is that on balance we'd be better off without it, but I don't think it's a hugely important issue. If we judged academics by similar standards to the ones we use in other professions, then most professors would readily pass. We'd get rid of a little bit of the dead weight that tends to accumulate as older faculty slide into working retirement, and that would be a good thing. However, I think that those guys tend to get attention far out of proportion to their actual numbers. For most faculty, it would be business as usual.

david writes:

Ah yes, the "market test".

I would suggest that the "market" in question is the market for prestige. Universities value academics that add to the universities' prestige, thus attracting better students and more funding (further adding to prestige). The primary method universities measure or demonstrate the acquisition of prestige (via "successful" academics) is to be seen to be influential in government policy circles. Economists that provide intellectual cover for government intervention become more influential than those that do not.

At least tenured professors do not massively botch up the handling of environmental disasters and then get paid millions of dollars to resign.

No, they run (and devise theories that legitimate) central banks, devise catastrophic monetary and fiscal policies and advocate the massive expansion of government to address "market failure". In other words, they are responsible for far more misery and destruction than oil spills.

guthrie writes:

Isn't one of the functions of tenure to ensure that a teacher/professor cannot be terminated or punished for teaching views contrary to those held by other faculty or the administration?

david writes:

guthrie said:

Isn't one of the functions of tenure to ensure that a teacher/professor cannot be terminated or punished for teaching views contrary to those held by other faculty or the administration?

Yes, that is the traditional explanation for it. I suppose one might ask however how likely it is that anyone who might hold such a view would ever get tenure.

William Barghest writes:

Someone needs to be Robin Hanson here.
Since tenure is an honor which raises the status of professors, so that students by affiliating with them (taking their classes) can have their own status raised, removing tenure will only hurt the value of your education by desanctifying the professors, as would paying your professor directly or thinking for yourself. Why should anyone respect your education if it's something you can just do on your own.

W.M. writes:
Tenure is one way in which incumbents enforce the cartel.

ala seniority within trade unionism.

David Pearson writes:

William Barghest,

Of course you meant to say that eliminating tenure would hurt the PERCEIVED value of your education. This might be a factor in the initial job search. After that, in terms of actually performing on the job, the value of an eduction provided by a non-tenure system could be much greater.

Besides, absent tenure, "prestige" would be paid for in a free-agent system. You would still have the "New York Yankees" of universities. Other colleges would play "money ball" and look for lower-status players that fit together to provide the best educational outcome.

Craigie writes:

More important than getting rid of tenure is getting rid of the American medical cartel which has propped up American medical salaries for 100 years by artificially restricting who gets into medical school. Unfortunately, for decades they have actually gone too far -- there are not nearly enough med school graduates to fill the available residencies, so we bring in people from overseas to fill the residencies. Instead, loosen standards for American citizens -- maybe allow some folks with 3.9 GPAs and 35 MCATs into the med schools if they show good bedside manner skills.

To argue that the tenure model is somehow unique is severely disingenuous. The guild model has been used for hundreds of years in a variety of professions. Look at the skilled trades today. Look at actuaries -- which require 10 rounds of exams for certification, thus boosting the salaries of those who are "in the club."

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