Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Public Intellectuals and Tenure

The NY Times had a recent forum on tenure for university for professors. Of the five people who wrote pieces for it, I think all five are tenured. If you look around economic blogs, most of the top academic blogs are written by tenured faculty.

I think it's worth contemplating tenured prof. Tyler Cowen's thought experiment in response to the article.

Take a 53-year-old professor, at a moderate quality university, who goes from publishing three articles a year to one article a year, and in somewhat lesser journals than before. His teaching evaluations slip steadily, though he never becomes a disaster in the classroom. In the no-tenure world, does that person get fired?

Looking at Cowen's CV, that might be close to the truth on the research side for him, although his CV also reveals he's a few years younger. I don't know about the teaching side. What it misses is that Cowen has produced a textbook and I think some decent selling books, plus a really well read blog.

Most of the public intellectuals in economics (Cowen, Mankiw, Krugman, DeLong, Becker, Levitt ect.) have tenure. It could be that tenure professors have more experience so are better writers and have gained a larger audience.

But I think back to the two stars of the year I was on the job market: Emily Oster and Jesse Shapario. When they were on the job market they were in quite a few articles and seemed to try to participate more in the public discourse. But I haven't heard much from either of them lately except press releases of their research. My guess is that they are working as hard as they can to get tenure by publishing articles. In a few years I wouldn't be suprised to see them more in the public discourse.

Without tenure the people I've named would still be at top schools. But professors at smaller schools make contributions at a more local level in OP-EDs and speaking to local groups.

I see the obvious arguments that some professors with tenure will slack off and not be very productive. But I think without tenure many professors would decrease their contribution to the public discourse.

From a personal standpoint, I don't have tenure. I'm not sure how my effort in research, teaching, and blogging will change once I get it. My guess is not very much, but I hope I get to make that choice.

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Britt said...

My gut feeling is that it's hard enough to get a PhD, get a job on the tenure track, and then get tenure that it weeds out pretty much everybody except the people who are going to push themselves to excel over their whole career.

I mean, we all joke that as soon as we get tenure we're going to stop killing ourselves to publish, stop grading homework, start wearing pyjamas to our 8 AM classes like our students, etc.

But everybody knows we're just going to keep on keeping on, with, admittedly, a few exceptions.

At every institution I've been at, the tenure profs who you wish they could fire are usually people with personality / mental health issues, rather than people who are just slackers.

rjgitter said...

In the interest of full disclosure, I am Seth’s father and a Professor of Economics at Ohio Wesleyan University. I was tenured almost 30 years ago. So, with that out of the way, here are some thoughts.

Some of the reasoning behind the financial arguments against tenure is just off the mark. Yes, it would be less expensive for the university if they did not keep on bumping up my salary and could replace me with less expensive new faculty. But, let’s go back to the Dark Ages when the dinosaurs roamed the earth and I was on the job market. Would I have accepted the job at OWU or some other school knowing that I could be dismissed at any time? Perhaps, but jobs in the government sector would have looked more attractive and I might have taken a more secure one with the Department of Labor. Could OWU have gotten me to come? Well, if they offered me more money. Hence, less of a savings. Further, I would have had second thoughts about even going to graduate school in the first place if at age 40, 50 or 60 I could just have been cut loose. Yes, I know that is the way in the private sector and I would have asked for wages to compensate for this possibility.

(By the way, the forum did not have the best of columnists. Taylor notes the cost of fringe and benefits for 35 years is $12.2 million which works out to $350,000 a year. Maybe at Columbia with sufficient inflation but this figure is much too high for the rest of us!)

OK, another factor. I am the senior person in the department and chair. Last year we hired a new economist. What would my incentive be to hire a crackerjack young economist to come in and take my place? (A new theory of second best or worse?) Further, I try to mentor the junior faculty. What would be my incentive to mentor them if they can take my job? We see things like internal labor markets that use rules to allocate promotions and lay-offs just so workers will train others. Take away my tenure and I will think twice about hiring good people and mentoring them.

(Oh, if you want to just let the administration hire faculty you are setting up a recipe for disaster. Usually there will not be a senior administrator in the field that where there would be a hire so they won’t really be able to judge a candidate. Further, I shudder to think of an HR Office making faculty hiring decisions.)

Is tenure needed for its original intended purpose, i.e. to preserve academic freedom? I would argue yes. Would a board of trustees try to get rid of a professor they don’t like? I like the vast majority of OWU trustees I have met, but could envision a situation where at a school trustees in this (or any) day and age would influence a retention decision.

Does tenure keep deadwood around? Probably some, but there are some hidden benefits to tenure. I know I can stay at OWU as long as I want. I am in it for the long run. So, do I do things above and beyond my contract? Absolutely! I just received a request to serve as academic advisor for the son of a former student. What is my compensation for one more advisee? Zero. But, for Randy’s kid I do it gladly. The same with working at admission events, alumni reunions, parents meetings, etc. There is a bit of a social gift exchange. OWU gives me tenure and in return I help it for the long run.

Yes, I know I have it good, but I think the pluses of tenure outweigh the negatives.

LE said...

There's a ton of stuff that T and TT faculty members do to help their departments and colleges. Some of it might transfer nicely to a different school; most of it won't.

As a non-TT faculty member, I get to choose which departmental and institutional service is interesting to me because I'm not expected to perform any service, so whatever service I perform is gravy.