by Harry on November 14, 2003

Keith Burgess-Jackson provides an interesting defence of the fairness of tenure over at AnalPhilosopher. (You have to scroll down a bit to get to it) The defence is this: academics are capable people who could have chosen to compete in a variety of fields. Academia provides a particular mix of goods — including the ability to teach, the freedom to research, and tenure, which compensates us for our low (relative to other professions we might have chosen) pay. There’s nothing unfair about people enjoying a benefit which is part of a package which includes countervailing costs. He rightly suggests that if you really abolished tenure you would be raising the costs of competently delivered higher education.

I have made the same argument about the purported efficiency effects of privatizing schools — schools that face hard budget constriants can’t provide tenure, and without tenure you have to pay more to access the same talent pool. But, of course, we do have an example of a place where academic tenure has been abolished, but pay remains pitiful — the UK. One hypothesis would be that this has lowered the quality of British academics. I don’t really think that’s true, though certainly other factors (like the government insistence on ever more paperwork) have lowereed productivity. The other hypothesis is that tenure was abolished in name only — once you are in its not that hard to stay in, partly because the authorities simply have no idea how to measure quality. (There’s an interesting problem here in schools too — managers can identify complete incompetence with some success, but have no idea how to make comparative judgments between teachers above some quite low level of competence). I’ve experienced both the US system (with tenure) and the UK system (without it, but, I have to say, in a very priveleged part of academia). I’d be very curious what the Brits think.



deconomite 11.14.03 at 3:21 am

Tenure is a bizarre organizational form, and I would argue, a highly inefficient one.

From where I sit — untenured — I see five “bad” types for every “good” type of tenured professor. You know the ones — little research (and none of any consequence), poorly prepared lectures, no participation in the larger university community, and very few office hours.

And having perused more than my fair share of academic journals, monographs, etc…, it is my firm belief that the process of tenure stands firmly in the way of interesting and relevant research. The incentives (in my field anyway) are such that one MUST publish research that isn’t new, original, or of any relevance to contemporary problems.

So tenure actually encourages people to publish what pleases (the editors and referees must be satisfied) rather than what they think is interesting, relevant, helpful, etc…


Michael C 11.14.03 at 4:08 am

Burgess-Jackson’s defense of tenure is a pretty good one, though Deconomite’s point is well-taken: There’s not a lot of original research, but I think the phenomenon is a pre-tenure one. I.e., the tenure system encourages the pre-tenured to publish conservative, uncontroversial, by-the-numbers research in order to publish at all and thereby please tenure committees. Yet my casual observation is that people in my field often publish such material before tenure, but after tenure begin pursuing more idiosyncratic and often more challenging lines of research once covered by the protections of tenure. I’ve seen many CV’s of tenured full professors in philosophy, now in their 50’s, say, who published on mainstream analytic metaphysics, epistemology or philosophy of language when they were in their 30’s but now do more esoteric research in areas like philosophy of literature, feminism, environmetnal philosophy, aesthetics, philosophy or religion and the like.

On another note, AnalPhilosopher posted the following foolishness above the post on tenure, which I thought I’d draw attention to:

“My own profession (and discipline), philosophy, is in danger of losing whatever respect it once had. Many philosophers believe that their training equips them to take sides on controversial moral matters, such as the permissibility of capital punishment, the morality of abortion, and the moral status of animals. But where do philosophers get their normative expertise? I went through a high-powered philosophy program at The University of Arizona. In no course I took was I taught correct values. What I learned was how to analyze, criticize, and argue. These are technical skills. I can get from a normative premise to a normative conclusion as well as the next philosopher. (Every argument with a normative conclusion must have at least one normative premise; otherwise, where did the normativity come from?) What I can’t do is make someone accept my normative premise. I can show you that your norms or principles commit you to acting one way rather than another. I can’t supply you with your principles.
There has been much talk during the past three decades about “applied” or “practical” ethics. Some philosophers think this is the savior of philosophy. I think it’s the death of philosophy. The more we philosophers engage substantive issues; the more we enter the fray; the more we act as partisans for a cause; the more we play the game rather than supervising it, the less respect and authority we have. If we stayed within our realm of expertise, which is analysis, people would take what we have to say seriously. When people see that philosophers are playing the game just like everyone else, they start thinking of them as they do others: as partisans. Philosophy loses its distinctiveness. Perhaps the solution is for those philosophers who wish to be players to call themselves something else, such as “hired gun” or “spokesperson for a cause,” leaving the term “philosopher” for those of us who practice what we were taught.”

Why does this tick me off so much?!


Dave 11.14.03 at 7:34 am

Both the attack (“other professionals don’t have the same sort of job security”) and the defense (“tenure is part of a basket of market compensations”) share the same ahistoricity. Tenure is a medieval concept, and viewed from that perspective, professing fits in with other professions: priests may be defrocked, lawyers debarred, officers disgraced, and likewise faculty degraded, but all only for extremely bad behavior. Does feudal tenure provide an archetype? The untenured youth may have to suck up to the older generation for a while, but after their estates have descended, they have a certain freedom of eccentricity.

Knighthood provides an unusually close correspondence: knighthood, like tenure, was not inherited, but established by committee. Knights were fairly secure in the lands they held, but were supposed to practice for war, as an invading force (William et.al.) could turn them out; for this reason, tenured professors keep in practice at academic infighting, just in case hostile forces should try to turn them out by dissolving the Department.


Chris Bertram 11.14.03 at 8:16 am

Since you’ve asked for some comments from a British perspective….

I read the initial post here at CT, went off and eat my breakfast and only later read Burgess-Jackson’s piece. So I was already starting to formulate some thoughts before I read his comments in the expectation of what they would be. I was somewhat suprised when I finally read them.

B-J’s piece focuses almost entirely on the job security aspect of tenure. It is true that this was abolished under Margaret Thatcher, but this didn’t have the consequence that academics were fired all over the place. One philosopher was, at Hull, and there was a boycott of that department for many years. But generally, once you are in a job you are pretty secure (Doesn’t the Michael Caine figure in Educating Rita say — whilst blind drunk “They can’t fire me unless I bugger the bursar”?).

That may change in the future. If departments close people lose their jobs. But it is still extraordinarily difficult to fire academics on a selective basis for poor performance.

The reason I was surprised is that B-J didn’t say anything about the other side of the tenure system. Namely, that it provided an important hurdle that people have to get over after they are initially hired. That strikes me a good thing for quality as the initial selection process can be a bit of a lottery and the signals you get about candidates at that stage can be misleading about their real quality. UK universities typically have a 3-year probationary period for people in their first jobs. The severity of that test varies a lot from institution to institution, but nowhere is it as demanding as the US tenure hurdle. A new hire who is conscientious, reliable and publishes a couple of papers will get through their probationary period and be confirmed in a permanent job in the UK. Arguably that’s too easy.

On the other hand, the publish-or-perish pressure in the UK (even it really perishing is unlikely, it may not seem that way) is continuous because of the Research Assessment Exercise. Peer pressure, feelings of shame, competition etc etc are pretty intense.

So to summarise: UK academics have a high degree of job security, at least at the better institutions. The post-hiring quality filter is less demanding than in the US – and that may be a bad thing. But other pressures mean that there are very few free riders anywhere in the system.


dsquared 11.14.03 at 8:27 am

and without tenure you have to pay more to access the same talent pool

Without meaning this as a criticism of Harry’s comment, I find myself wanting to have a close look at the concept of a talent pool. I’m always interested in implict probability assumptions, and this one’s always bothered me ever since I came across the concept in a Glenn Loury paper on racial discrimination (and in bastardised version, in more or less every McKinsey Quarterly of the last ten years). The ideas that a) “talent” is an intrinsic property of individuals, distributed roughly normally across the population and b) that individuals are aware of their percentile in the talent distribution and that this determines their reservation wage, seems like a pretty thin theory of human capital to me, as well as not fitting in particularly well with what we’ve known since Weber about organisational and structural roles in individual performance.

What sort of philosophy of education underpins a “talent pool” theory?


tim 11.14.03 at 1:20 pm

“academics are capable people who could have chosen to compete in a variety of fields.”

Ha! Take a trip down to the English departments of third rate universities across this country, and what you will find is not a pack of highly competent people who have altruistically removed their talents from the marketplace to mentor tomorrow’s leaders, but a bunch of barely competent boobs who have won the lottery – a job for life that requires of them little more than that they show up for class, and who spend what limited intellectual energy they have on intradepartmental rivalries and scheming.

No doubt there are plenty of fine research schools with top quality academics that are properly sheltered for the value of their intellectual work, but that is such a small fraction of the US’s tenured faculty that it is impossible to stifle the giggles when reading this defense of tenure.


dsquared 11.14.03 at 1:59 pm

Take a trip down to the English departments of third rate universities across this country, and what you will find is not a pack of highly competent people who have altruistically removed their talents from the marketplace to mentor tomorrow’s leaders, but a bunch of barely competent boobs who have won the lottery

My arse. There’s a third-rate university (London Metropolitan) just down the road from me and as far as I can tell the staff are extremely able people who would hold down a perfectly fine career outside academia, but have just been beaten out for the very few top jobs available. They’re rather like third division footballers; still much better at football than you or I.


Jeremy Osner` 11.14.03 at 2:32 pm

Yeah, I don’t agree with Tim either (though not knowing whether he was writing about the U.S. or the U.K. — I am in the former). I have known a number of excellent professors tenured at Junior Colleges and 3rd-rate universities, and some poor ones as well. This tenure debate always makes me think about “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” — a movie well worth watching though it’s debatable whether it would actually add anything worthwhile to this debate.


chun the unavoidable 11.14.03 at 4:00 pm

It’s interesting that Tim chooses English Departments for his hypothetical. I believe that English faculty are generally the most learned and intelligent at any university. The overspecialization so prominent in other fields is the main cause, as I think it’s pretty clear that faculty everywhere are of comparable general intelligence except in business management.


tim 11.14.03 at 4:12 pm

I’m delighted that my experiences (through friends on faculties here in the US) are so uncharacteristic. But I’ve seen enough rhetoric and comp specialists who can’t manage parallelism or subject verb agreement in their own writing and I am too familiar with what passes for a work ethic among the bottom half of these faculties to believe that even if these people *had* chosen to compete anywhere else they would have been competitive. And I can’t believe that anyone here who is protesting has ever had a close look at the insides of a small, regional, not-very-selective school, or, god-forbid, an open-admissions college.

I certainly think that tenure has merit when the tenured faculty really are brilliant, talented people — and there are many of those, bless them all — but there are many, many more of them who are barely competent, and who are now on the dole for life.

So don’t get me wrong – there are excellent faculty at the less prestigious schools – I’m not condemning them all. But let’s not extend their well-deserved credit to their less deserving colleagues in an argument about tenure.

Tenure doesn’t exclude the weak faculty in practice (especially at weak schools), so we must consider that in an argument about tenure’s merits.

(FWIW, the argument about publications is not really an argument about tenure, it’s an argument about the criteria for tenure – since tenure need not necessarily be gated by quantity of publications.)


tim 11.14.03 at 4:23 pm

With apologies to all the true scholars of English Literature, my choice of departments wasn’t that hypothetical. My experience has not been that the English faculty are the most learned; it hasn’t even been my experience that the newer English faculty are the most well read, though I’m sure they have a leg up on the business managment faculty. But this isn’t a debate about the relative quality of scholarship and scholars in different departments, and I’m not anxious to turn it into one, so I’ll just leave it as my (perhaps uncharacteristic) experience.


chun the unavoidable 11.14.03 at 4:42 pm

I am eager to turn this into such a debate, and here are my rankings:

  1. English
  2. Math
  3. Philosophy
  4. Derrida Studies
  5. History
  6. Physics
  7. Biology
  8. Sociology
  9. Psychology
  10. Theology
  11. Anthropology
  12. Classics
  13. Chemistry
  14. Economics
  15. Marketing
  16. Advertising
  17. Exercise Science

Not receiving any votes were Political Science and Business Managment.


Nasi Lemak 11.14.03 at 6:01 pm

In my experience, people who leave the academic job path early enough are extremely employable; lots of firms are keen to take on employees with (even irrelevant) PhDs, for example.

It does piss me off that people assume that it’s so much more relaxed in a “third rate” HE institution. It’s just much easier to teach Britain/France/USA/IntroPolTheory to bright 18-year-olds with 4As at A-level in an institution with endowments and what have you than it is to teach in a more socially inclusive, minimal-entry-requirement, hugely underfunded kinda place like London Met. Equally, Roderick Floud has a damn sight harder time of it than Colin Lucas.


harry 11.14.03 at 6:40 pm

Without commenting on the quality of faculty in lower tier institutions in Britain, what Nasi Lernak says about the difficulty and rewards of teaching in one of them relative to, say, a sixth form college or a pretty good public (private) school, or even a ‘good’ grammar school sounds very plausible to me. Several conversations with british academics at high tier universities have led me to wonder whether there is a drift of talented academics back into private school teaching (which is where a lot of them came from when the big sixties expansion of higher ed happened). Any evidence on this?


Nasi Lemak 11.14.03 at 7:38 pm

Anecdata: one fellow Nuffield student went off to teach at Eton; one post-doc colleague at Cambridge ditto; one very senior academic colleague spent a year fantasising about going to teach at Winchester.

I’m not sure this shows a serious trend. However, since state school teaching salaries have gone up quite a lot recently, and private school salaries probably more so, and academic salaries hardly at all, I think it is a possible future trend especially in the more uncomfortable bits of British academia – people in part-time jobs, temporary research contracts, the unpromoted, teaching-only contracts, etc.


harry 11.14.03 at 10:09 pm

Right. I was on a search committee in a prestigous university education department (UK) and was told by my (excellent) boss that we could rule out all the good school teachers in the field because we’d not be able to afford them. I looked at him, surprised, and he showed me the figures: it is, indeed, just about impossible for a University Education Department to attract a senior experienced teacher to work in Teacher Education (salary would drop by 25-40%). Go figure.


Cara 11.14.03 at 10:47 pm

Sure, the deadwood in a lot of academic departments is a problem. But it’s not clear that abolishing the tenure system will solve this problem, and it could easily make other things worse. Would all faculty be hired on temporary contracts with a real possibility of dismissal when they are up? Who decides whether a new contract is granted? His or her colleagues who are also on a temporary contract? The administration, which can’t be counted on to distinguish good scholarship from bad? I think many university adminstrators out there would be more than happy to replace tenured faculty with scores of adjuncts. Abolishing the tenure system opens the door to this kind of abuse. I’m not suggesting that there is no solution, only that it is not obvious what system should replace the tenure system, and that just abolishing tenure and leaving everything else the same is not the solution.


james 11.14.03 at 11:58 pm

The assumption that “most” or “all” teachers could leave and obtain a higher paying job is unproven. For the purposes of this discussion we are granting that an intelligent, talented, or gifted individual will find employment outside of teaching. The crux is that the employment is not guaranteed to be of greater value than the sum total of teaching benefits. Especially when considering fields such as English. The ability to quote Great Expectations is not in high demand in the work place. The knowledge used in many fields of teaching have little or no value in a real work environment. Then there is the question of rarity. Only so many people are qualified in higher level math. Almost everyone with a law or business degree can write up a memo.


Invisible Adjunct 11.15.03 at 3:48 pm

Keith Burgess-Jackson writes, “Suppose tenure were abolished, as some people advocate. It seems clear to me that abolition would generate a mass exodus from academia.”

This does not seem at all clear to me. In many disciplines, tenure has been steadily eroded over the past twenty years (and esp. over the last decade), with tenure-track lines replaced by part-time positions. There has not been anything like a mass exodus. To the contrary, the AAUP reports that faculty teaching outside the tenure track now constitute an untenured majority:

Ten years ago, the Association reported that non-tenure-track appointments accounted for about 58 percent of all faculty positions in American higher education. As of 1998, such appointments still accounted for nearly three out of five faculty positions, in all types of institutions.7 In community colleges, more than three out of five positions are part-time non-tenure-track positions, and 35 percent of all full-time positions are off the tenure track. Non-tenure-track appointments make up an even larger proportion of new appointments. Through the 1990s, in all types of institutions, three out of four new faculty members were appointed to non-tenure-track positions.

The cost-benefits argument may work for some fields (law, economics, business, e.g.), but overall I think the economic defense puts tenure on very shaky ground. A law professor can persuasively argue that she could be working elsewhere (eg for a law firm) for a much higher salary because there is obviously an alternative job market outside the academy for legal specialists. But an English professor? Sure, the person who went to graduate school in English could have done something else instead. And certainly people with English PhDs do find work outside the academy in a variety of fields. But I don’t think there is much by way of alternative labor markets for English PhDs as English PhDs — and it is the existence of a well-established and recognizable alternative that gives the law professor much greater bargaining power with the university administration than the English PhD has (which is why law professors make considerably more money than English professors).


tim 11.15.03 at 4:13 pm

“Sure, the deadwood in a lot of academic departments is a problem. But it?s not clear that abolishing the tenure system will solve this problem, and it could easily make other things worse….”

If the tenure system were abolished, it would remove the primary protection the deadwood has, so it would at least make it possible to clear the deadwood.

As for the dangers of abuse, somehow those people in careers without tenure manage to muddle along. The dangers of losing tenure seem a little exaggerated when most people outside of academia have jobs without tenure, and when the defense of tenure begins with the assumption that all of these academics are sacrificing their very marketable talents for a career in academia. Why, if the universities practice such abuse, the academics will simply seek more lucrative careers on the outside, and the universities will have to beg to get them back. It seems to me that can only make things better for the academics.


Cara 11.16.03 at 9:34 pm

By no means am I a diehard defender of the tenure system. I just think that tenure is only a small part of the picture, and we need to look more closely at the other parts if we want to make sure faculty are not just ambling by barely doing the minimum that their jobs require.

Think of it this way: of course lots of people manage without tenure, but plenty of them do mediocre work without being fired. Of course tenure provides protection for faculty who have stopped producing, but that doesn’t mean that a university would drop deadwood faculty just because it can. I’m just not sure that abolishing tenure will really address the problem of underperforming faculty.

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