Shirking v. Intentional Bad Conduct: MoneyLaw and Tenure, Take Two
Dean Jim Chen, over at MoneyLaw’s
hall of doom headquarter’s, has responded to my post about tenure and Pat Burrell. (So has Michael Heise, at ELS). Jim gently critiques me for offering an overly simplistic view of MoneyLaw’s posture toward tenure. As he points out, tenure is “academia’s third rail,” and he’s no fool: [o]ne’s ability to accomplish things and to effect genuine change is inversely related to the extent to which one speaks one’s mind.” I take it that his message to me is: be mindful . . . young padawan. Thanks!*
Jim (unlike his commentators and some of ours) doesn’t quibble with the finding that tenure doesn’t itself reduce scholarly output. That was the relatively minor point I was making – tenure doesn’t cause shirking & negligence. Jim’s response is, essentially, well, ok, but it does “eliminate[e] meaningful sanctions against odiously selfish, institutionally destructive faculty members.” It also, by insulating faculty members from market pressures, makes us bad at helping our graduates to understand the actual practice of law.
Although I’d like to disagree, just to provoke a good exchange, I can’t. Jim hits the nail right on the head: tenure’s most pernicious consequence is that it permits some faculty to be reckless or intentionally terrible. Now, tenure doesn’t cause these bad eggs (or “rodents” as Jim calls them). It just makes it hard to get rid of them, making evident the need to do a better job in hiring and screening candidates. As a commentator at MoneyLaw notes, it’s “hard to appreciate how horrible these are or how widespread the phenomenon is.” My guess: 10-30% of many faculties would be fired, de-equitized, or otherwise let go if employed as lawyers. Of that 10-30%, some smaller percentage are “odiously selfish” or “institutionally destructive.” I’ve heard that new Deans are told that if you can count on one hand the number of faculty members who are truly problems, you are lucky. That sounds about right.
Whether that percentage would be smaller given market pressures is the open question. And we have no way of really knowing. If tenure disappeared by fiat, certainly some folks would be let go, and some would turn the corner from recklessness to mere negligent performance. But I still think that the improvement in overall output over the academy as a whole would be trivial.
Jeff H., in his comment to my post, pointed to a study he did of tenure and law faculty productivity. He found a statistically significant negative relationship between tenure and pages of scholarly work produced (R2=.25). This is an interesting preliminary result, but I have some doubts that it would hold if Jeff repeated it while controlling for professors’ age. Also, the relevant measure isn’t pages produced but impact, which should be relatively easy to measure using newly developed scales. The theory here is that long-term employment contracts do not reduce output where monitoring is easy (i.e., performance is widely measurable). Since scholarship falls in this category, I’d hypothesize that tenure doesn’t much affect its production. Since teaching is rarely publicly measured, I guess my prior would be that tenure does, in fact, have a relationship with bad teaching. (This is a good argument for putting teaching evaluations online and sharing them with the public.) But overall, the factor with the strongest influence on output should be age. This relationship isn’t necessarily linear – you’d expect a strong correlation between reduced writing and having young children at home, a rally as the kids age, followed by a decline again later in life. (Interestingly, this effect sounds something like explanations offered by some folks when discussing gender and blogging).
That doesn’t mean, as Solove pointed out in a comment to my post, that we wouldn’t expect the rare outlier: someone who really produced pre-tenure and who didn’t write much after tenure. Such outliers exist. But I bet that if you looked closely at the pre-tenure record of the “dead wood” professors you know, you’d see all the tell-tale signs. Past performance predicts, after all.
As I hoped I’ve made clear, I’m not defending tenure against all comers, just against the idea that it has measurable effects on productivity of the tenured. I suppose I should weigh the benefits of tenure (purportedly, better and bolder scholarship) against its costs (to those already discussed add increasing the cost of education, and decreasing innovation in the way it is produced). At this point, I think most folks who have thought about the problem sort of wave their hands skeptically at the benefits and then throw the issue to the comment thread. Which is precisely what I’m going to do.
(Photo credit: MSNBC, via this blog).
*Fair enough. I should disclose too. I’m up for tenure this fall. Since I see tenure as a straightforward tradeoff against the money I could be making as a lawyer, I certainly want it!