Wednesday, August 12, 2015

College Tenure Has Reached Its Sell-By Date

[JB Question: Do really distinguished, productive academics actually need tenure? Is not their job "protected" by their talent?]

With higher education under pressure, the costs and burdens of this job guarantee need to be reconsidered.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker has come under fire from academics nationwide for calling on his state’s Board of Regents to reconsider the scope of tenure in its university system. Evaluations of faculty members “should be based on performance,” he said this summer, “they should be based on merit.”
With state universities struggling to keep up with rising costs and technological change, one would expect administrators and educators to at least consider proposals that would save money and encourage change.
Strong tenure protections impose significant costs on higher education. Although these costs were voluntarily created when universities adopted tenure in the first half of the 20th century, they were markedly increased in 1994 when Congress prohibited mandatory retirement for tenured faculty.
Guaranteed employment for life will not promote good teaching or scholarly productivity when incentive pay is limited, and employment for life can be long. Studies on the abolition of mandatory retirement have found that it dramatically reduced faculty retirement rates. In addition, surveys recently carried out by investment firms suggest that three-quarters of faculty plan to teach far beyond normal retirement age or never retire.
Research productivity declines with age and the lack of retirement crowds out younger and more-productive scholars. Worse still, tenure has evolved in a way that makes it very difficult for universities to dismiss those who engage in serious misconduct or face the loss of mental capacity that would force them out of other jobs. Even if tenure had been sensible when mandatory retirement was permitted, it may now need to be rethought. 
Tenure also makes it harder to reallocate resources to deal with the technological change that has increased demand for instruction in science, technology, engineering and math. While universities remain free to eliminate whole departments, that is rarely a good option. But tenure reduces the flexibility required to redeploy resources to hire faculty in areas like computer science, where expertise is in high demand. These problems will only worsen as exponential technological advances and disruptive changes in labor markets prompt students to shift their majors.
Tenure has social benefits along with its costs. The strongest justification for academic tenure is that it enables scholars to acquire deep expertise in specialized areas that have limited payoff elsewhere in the economy. Without job security, scholars will be less willing to make investments in fields with few job opportunities.
For people with very specific unique research agendas, such as Egyptologists, or scientists who need expensive laboratory space, even transferring to other universities can be challenging. Without tenure, universities would have substantial bargaining power over faculty members in these circumstances, making faculty unwilling to engage in potentially valuable research and teaching. Therefore the best argument for tenure is that it provides a contract that enables investments in socially valuable work with low market returns. Scholars in the humanities and pure sciences would face the hardest task in finding non-government work comparable with that in universities.
But there are other ways of getting the benefits of tenure without its associated costs. Long-term contracts can do much the same as tenure, without as bad effects on productivity or administrative flexibility. A 25-year contract would certainly achieve much of the same protection as an offer of tenure for someone age 40. We are not sure what the optimal contract length is, and the correct period may well vary according to field. What’s clear is that lifetime tenure is an inefficient one-size-fits-all solution.
Even without long-term contracts, tenure should be modified to include more liberal provisions for dismissal for cause. Contracts should spell out dismissal standards for academic and sexual misconduct, and they can also require minimum teaching and productivity standards. Contracts could require periodic review wherein performance would be investigated and such standards enforced. In particular, if research productivity declines, teaching requirements should be increased.
The frequent claim that modifications to tenure would undermine academic freedom are without merit. For state universities, like Wisconsin’s, strong Supreme Court precedents prevent state governments from discriminating against state university professors based on their political views.
Even in the absence of tenure, professors at state schools would be free to express their views, relying on robust First Amendment protections. At private universities, contracts could make clear that professors could not be disciplined, fired or not renewed on the basis of their viewpoints on political or academic matters.
There is also irony in the expressed fear that the elimination of tenure will lead to purges of those with unpopular views. Even with tenure systems in place, faculties at private universities can engage in viewpoint discrimination at the hiring and promotion stages with impunity. Given the monolithic political composition of many fields and departments, viewpoint discrimination is already a substantial danger.
All the pressures facing American higher education make this a good time to reconsider its unusual employment structure. False claims about academic freedom are not going to protect higher education from the realities of technological change, an aging professoriate, and an increasingly demanding and indebted student body. Mr. Walker is doing the educational establishment a favor by suggesting gradual reforms before a crisis necessitates more radical ones.
Messrs. McGinnis and Schanzenbach are professors of law at Northwestern University School of Law.

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