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Steven Levitt on Getting Rid of Tenure

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7 Responses

  1. Robert Rhee says:

    The argument that faculty could get fired for petty reasons seems to depend on the premise that an entire faculty can act irrationally. This could be the case, but I hope it wouldn’t be the norm. Deans may be able to coax more production by performance pay, reallocation of teaching and administrative responsibilities, paid research leaves, etc., though these influence only so much. Also, faculty has a large influence as well. If the faculty as a whole has a strong culture of scholarship, a non-producing member may feel uncomfortable in a situation where values do not align. This may prompt more production or a desire to leave. Rather than a dramatic move like getting rid of tenure or giving the dean unfettered discretion, the solution may be a mix of dean and faculty influence to create a culture of production and excellence. Obviously, this solution is difficult (as is the problem). In the business world, changing institutional culture is a painful process. Often, it is preceded by mass firings and layoffs, which I suppose supports Steve Levitts’s view to some extent, but culture can be changed through firm leadership and “buy-in” by the major constituencies. In my view, if an institution has a large segment of unproductive faculty members, the problem goes far deeper than the motivations of the individuals. The root of the problem probably is with the institution itself and its culture.

  2. I’m puzzled as to why Levitt thinks that “really good people” will demand only “very small salary increases” to compensate for the lack of tenure. Tenure is one of the main advantages that draws people into the academy who might otherwise make multiples of academic salaries in the private sector.

    Levitt’s argument (which is rather humdrum coming as it does from a genius) also ignores incentives and morale issues. Especially in the humanities, one only gets a tenure-track job by devoting six-to-ten years to a book-length project that qualifies one to teach at a university and nothing else. Take away tenure, and only the independently wealthy (and the wholly irrational) would remain in the pool.

  3. Eric Fink says:

    The Thatcher government abolished tenure for British universities in the mid-80s. Already-tenured faculty were “grandfathered”, but new hires don’t get tenure. I would imagine that there must be some research on the effects of that change on faculty recruitment, turnover, productivity and such.

  4. Such a system, however, would create a lot of tension and strife among the faculty. Tenure denials are one of the most contentious and divisive things for a faculty. Creating more tenure strife might poison the school’s atmosphere and add institutional drama that distracts professors from their scholarship.

    But one reason tenure denials are so contentious and divisive is because the stakes are so high. In the absence of tenure, the decision about whether to hire or fire would not be a decision about whether to offer lifetime employment; it would just be a routine employment decision.

  5. I don’t know if there has been any empirical research on the effect of the Thatcher government’s reforms on the English academy. I do remember that, back when I was teaching in a history department in the mid-1990s, I came across research on post-tenure productivity. The research indicated that, on average, scholarly productivity increased post-tenure. I don’t recall how productivity was measured, and one might in any case still argue that universities should have a mechanism for weeding out unproductive faculty members. Still, why not just gather information to establish that the tenure system is broken before we fix it?

  6. Robert Ahdieh says:

    I’ve long wondered whether a periodic faculty vote on continued appointment, with a heavily weighted super-majority requirement for dismissal (perhaps 4/5 of voting faculty members) would be harmful/dangerous in the ways you suggest. As best I can tell, it is quite rare for a faculty member to be an island completely unto her/himself. Everyone, at some level, has a gaggle of colleagues of which they’re part. This is important for retention purposes, as even if I hold a petty grudge against the faculty member up for review, I’m likely to have *some* relationship with *some* member of the clique of which she/he is part. Given that, I would be surprised if a 4/5 vote could be achieved without some substantial basis (i.e., unless the critique of the relevant faculty member were based on legitimate concerns with productivity – or similar substantive concerns). Add in that the system would be a repeat-play game, in which I too will come up for review, in one of a small number of upcoming cycles (and you might fiddle with the recurrence of review, depending on faculty size), my incentives to act on my personal peccadillos would seem to fall off even more dramatically.

  7. J.R. says:

    Yes, it should be abolished! Academic freedom will be protected. I work as a staff member at a middling, average state university. I was just chewed out by a horrific business professor for — horrors! — going to bat for a student.

    In my 3 1/2 years here, I’ve heard 100 percent negative comments from students towards this “teacher.” At any other profession she’d be fired for her rude, condescending attitude.

    She’s retained here. Why? Tenure.

    She’d have a tough time retaining a job in any other profession, but at a university she’s promoted through the system for publishing tracts in obscure journals that no one reads.

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