Reconsidering tenure’s costs

As we rocket into the increasingly globalized and integrated economies and societies of tomorrow, our institutions must avoid frameworks which inherently resist efficiency and inevitable revolutions. The institution of tenure is just such a restraint – a relic of the past that must be discarded in order to allow for the world of academia to evolve effectively through the 21st century. Much as science, industry, and governments have revolutionized, adjusted, and adapted to the post-modern era, academia, which lies at the very heart of so much in our lives, must follow suit in order to remain significant and pertinent. Tenure restricts creativity and ingenuity, imposes high fixed costs upon colleges and universities, inhibits intellectual mobility between institutions, and generates disincentives for productivity and effort.

Tenure restricts ingenuity and creativity in the world of academia. Professors are less likely to explore new fields of study that would open their students’ minds to new dimensions of analysis because of the disincentives that tenure has built into the system. A professor on track for tenure in a chemistry department would understandably devote all of her time, energy, and resources exclusively towards a specialization in the field of Chemistry. There are no incentives under the status quo for the professor to explore fields that intersect with chemistry, or to explore and establish a new niche in chemistry. The professor’s incentives rather track her into a previously scripted position. This system of inheritance creates a total void of creative energy whose impetus can be traced directly back to tenure. Tenure is inhibiting groundbreaking, creative energy that could create entirely new fields of study.

Tenure also imposes an unnecessarily high fixed cost upon colleges and universities, thus driving up the cost of education for students and limiting higher education to the affluent rather than to the most deserving. By ensuring lifetime employment to tenured professors (the costs of faculty represent 64 percent of the cost structures of the top colleges and universities), universities effectively disable any significant cost-cutting during turbulent times, leaving them with only tuition prices to raise – effectively killing off many hopes and dreams of poor and overwhelmingly minority students who would have otherwise benefited from a college education. Even the most conservative estimates from studies find that the abolition of tenure would result in a 50 percent drop in tuition and room and board rates. One can only imagine what this implies for education rates across the country.

Tenured professors are imposing unnecessary high costs upon students while also limiting intellectual mobility within colleges and universities. Tenured professors have few reasons to surrender their job security and work at other institutions better suited towards their expertise, thus clogging the efficient flow and allocation of labor. Worse yet, younger faculty members are also caught up in the logjam, as tenured professors tend to cling to their positions as long as possible, inhibiting the flow of younger professors who might be better qualified, more energetic, and more capable.

Mobility of labor is essential for the cross-fertilization of ideas and effective utilization of resources; because of the rigidity imposed by the tenure system, universities risk being frozen in time like bustling hierarchical anachronistic insect colonies.

Under the status quo, little can be done to address the languishing tenured professor whose inspiration, intelligence, and energy have long since dissipated. Worse yet, the system of tenure not only protects “dead wood”, but it also doesn’t generate any incentives for productivity or effort. Any incentive to research, teach, and inspire must be self-motivating, for after tenure is awarded there is no external driving force to motivate the faculty member. A professor who balances work with leisure might rationally select more leisure after receiving tenure – a high cost to the university and her students. The notion of lifetime job security is inimical to the health of any institution – it is curious that it has survived only in academia.

Perhaps most frustrating is the fact that tenure’s most convincing defense – the protection of academic freedoms – has been rendered superfluous in the 21st century. In the information age, a university that restricts a professor’s intellectual freedom and academic exploration in any way will be effectively blacklisted by professors throughout the country. As in any efficient labor market, employers (the university) are forced to check certain behaviors rather than risk losing valuable employees.

This model has not work efficiently years before (when tenure did protect academic freedoms) because of asymmetries of information. Institutions could fire professors at will without much public notice. Today however, universities risk losing prestige, integrity, and even valuable faculty members if they restrict their faculty’s academic freedoms. As the realities of the market change, so must the institutions. For universities and colleges to not react rationally and abolish the institution of tenure would hinder the real potential for academia in the 21st century.