The Right Coast

October 09, 2005
Tenure woes
By Tom Smith

Like Professor Rappaport, I was dismayed to read that Daniel Dreszner was denied tenure at Chicago (political science). It's true that being denied tenure at Chicago is hardly a career ender. It seems likely he will still end up at some prestigious university and go on to have a distinguished career.

I'm certainly not in a position to judge whether Daniel 'deserved' tenure or not, but I regard his having been denied it as shedding no light on the issue. So many things can and do happen with tenure, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that it is a stupid institution. I've been told that in the past in the economics department at Chicago, for example, the cadre of aging Nobel prize winners regarded themselves as so brilliant that no young economist could possibly rise to the standard of deserving tenure at Chicago. And so nobody got it. Soon enough, they had trouble hiring economists, because no one would go there for fear of being denied tenure. So the geniuses decided maybe young economists weren't so non-brilliant after all, and modified their behavior accordingly. You might have thought with all that learning about rational expectations and the like, they would have figured it out earlier.

Sometimes senior professors vote against tenure precisely because a younger colleague is accomplished -- and threatening. Indeed, it is a little difficult to see just what the incentives are supposed to be for tenure decisions to be made in the best interests of the profession and the institution. Reputations of institutions change slowly. We can all think of departments that do not deserve their reputations any more, and ones that deserve better reps than they have. One junior colleague more or less does not have much impact on the margin. If reputation is supposed to be the incentive, it's a pretty blunt mechanism.

Tenure is an institution that seems just rife with agency costs and opportunism. Personality plays a big role, and and of course, ideology. The process is typically nothing like fair (except at my institution, of course). Note, for example, Daniel's apparently sincere shock at being denied tenure. Why would he be shocked if he had been told a year ago that his chances were far less than assured? Maybe he was, but I doubt it. Perhaps none of his colleagues wanted to go out on a limb and be critical when there would be time to actually respond. Did anyone say "He should stop blogging"? Especially if you don't like someone, it's better to hold your fire until it's too late to fix the problem. As I say, I don't know anything about his case in particular. I am just expressing skepticism about the tenure process, especially at those schools that hire outstanding people and then proclaim years later that the person doesn't quite come up to their lofty standards. Somewhat relatedly, I will just note I'm not a huge fan of life tenure for judges either.

Should untenured academics blog? I certainly would not advise it, at least not copiously and on controversial, political topics, at institutions that regularly deny tenure (which excludes most law schools). Of course elder professors who think the internet has something to do with computers will be appalled by it.

As to tenure generally, I find it hard to see it as anything but a relic that proves inefficient institutions can survive indefinitely. I think it originated as a kind of guild rule to insulate professors from dissatisfied students; it certainly looks like one. I wonder what a more market based arrangement would look like. Professors would have to be paid more to compensate for lack of security, but they would have to work harder too, to keep their jobs. Why retention decisions should be made by colleagues who have no direct stake in the scholar and/or teacher's product is unclear. Many academics seem to regard academic accomplishment as a zero sum game; it is not like a law partnership where partners share profits--not really. So why should they make the decision? The notion that the product tie-in between teaching and scholarship is efficient has always struck me as pretty unpersuasive as well. Sometimes good teachers are good scholars, and sometimes not. I suspect in my lifetime, technology driven changes will shake up institutions, and the long middle ages of the university may finally draw to a close. I hope I'm young enough to enjoy it, but old enough not to be harmed by it.