Rohin Dhar writes:
The Priceonomics blog is doing a feature where we ask a few economists what they think of the the institution of tenure. If you’d be interested in participating, I’d love to get your response.
As an economist, what do you think of tenure? Should it be abolished / kept / modified?
My reply: Just to be clear, I’m assuming that when you say “tenure,” you’re talking about lifetime employment for college professors such as myself.
I’m actually a political scientist, not an economist. So rather than giving my opinion, I’ll say what I think an economist might say.
I think an economist could say one of two things:
Economist as anthropologist would say: Tenure is decided by independent institutions acting freely. If they choose to offer tenure, they will have good reasons, and it is not part of an economist’s job to second-guess individual decisions.
Economist as McKinsey consultant would say: Tenure can be evaluated based on a cost-benefit analysis. How much more would Columbia have to pay to attract professors if tenure were not on offer?
I have no idea, myself.
P.S. Here are a couple more thoughts from the last time we discussed this topic:
People sometimes think it’s surprising and wrong that high pay, good benefits, generous retirement, job security, and an easy workload go together. But from an economic point of view, this makes sense: all these can be considered as different forms of compensation.
Getting rid of tenure may solve some problems but I don’t know if it will help much with the slackers. After all, they already could’ve disciplined Rubinstein [a retired tenured prof who made a big splash by boasting of having beat the system by collecting a full salary while doing minimal scholarship and spending only an hour a week on class participation] by, for example, decreasing his salary and reducing his office space (perhaps appropriate giving his minimal contributions to teaching, research, and service), but I doubt they did that.
My guess is that universities might use lack of tenure to fire political nuisances and to lay off huge chunks of people for economic reasons. But I don’t see administrators effectively using lack of tenure using as a tool for getting rid of deadwood—given that they have some tools already that they don’t seem to use.
More generally, I don’t see tenure as being about “protecting deadwood” or for political freedom of expression. Rather, I see it as affecting the power balance between the employer and the employed. If your boss has the power to fire you or renew your contract, you’ll be under some pressure to keep your boss happy—and your boss will be aware of that.