Thursday, October 28, 2004

No, They Can't Take My Job Away From Me

Economics professors are some of the best people to ascertain how to go about economic expanse. Not only have they spent their lives studying the subject, they have little incentive to lie. It’s not like their job will ever be in danger of being outsourced (at least with current technology) and they don’t have to worry about the politics of pleasing those that feel that’s something they do have to worry about (justified or not). Academics have the knowledge and incentive to determine economic policy in all sorts of areas. In many ways, that’s exactly what their job is (they just don’t tell anyone already in power about it).

But no one is an angel, not even me.

As someone who aspires to be a professor of economics some day, tenure is incredibly seductive. The idea that I could have a job I love and I can’t get fired (barring extenuating circumstances) fills me with joy. As an economist, however, it sickens me.

Talk about a crazy incentive structure! Do well for a few years (if even that) and we won’t ever fire you. You don’t even have to show up to class, as long as you do the absolute minimum required. Then go on sabbatical.

Granted, each school has their own expectations from their professors and there are costs to not meeting them (if there are any professors reading this, I’d love to hear how your institution handles tenure), but it’s still silly.

One of the unfortunate consequences is course evaluations. In my experience, good professors also have evaluations religiously. Bad ones rarely have them (and those that do probably don’t pay much attention to them). Yet it’s this latter category that really needs to take the time to use them and the former that could spend their time with something else. Ironically, the institutions that are built around self-discovery and improvement and learning have a system that incites their employees to avoid exactly those things.

It doesn’t stop there. The economy of any type of professor changes with the economy in general. If biology professors are in short supply because drug companies are hiring en masse, schools have to hire someone who isn’t as good. After a few years, that person is expected to get tenure. Now fast forward a decade. The economy is different and drug companies aren’t hiring as much. More people want to be a professor but because the bad ones can’t get fired, there’s no room for the good ones. Firms are literally stuck with employees they don’t want. No economist would call this a good thing.

So what’s the deal with tenure? If it’s so bad, why not get rid of it? There are advantages to it: academic freedom, for one. Professors can teach strange courses and challenge the status quo without fear. This can be a good thing. It can also be bad. Beloit has offered courses in comic books and basket weaving. I don’t know if any or all of these courses are “bad” but I can’t believe that all of them are “worth it.” I can’t believe the opportunity cost is that low.

Not surprisingly, tenure is fraught with the libertarian’s kryptonite: politics. Professors up for tenure enter a world where capability is put aside in favor of other reasons. Beloit had a particularly messy situation in the political science department a few years back. I was in Turkey at the time so all the details were handed down the following semester. But the basics were conflicts over whom the students wanted to have tenure and promises for tenure by the college to another person. In the end, the college won and the students have resented the outcome ever since. From what I understand, those promises were politically based; the students were more concerned with job performance. (If there’s any Beloit student reading this, please weigh in with any details you can remember; I sure you’ve heard about the incident.)

There’s been some progress in the education market. Some states require post-tenure reviews of faculty and others establish campuses without tenure options. Professors are increasingly being hired on a contract basis, allowing for removal if warranted. Still, tenure remains the standard and as long as it is, (some) professors will stand like Supreme Court justices: watching on their secure perches with all-too-proud eyes.


Mike said...
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Anonymous said...
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Chris said...

What was this all about here with the comments being removed? My God, what if nobody sees this!

David said...


The comments were removed because they were in reference to a factual error (and in error of judgement on my part) on the original post. Because we want the discussion to be about posted topic and not about my poor taste, we removed the posts (comments about my poor judgement can be handled in a later post). We take comment removal very seriously and you can trust me that they were nothing of consequence. I still want everyone to comment on the issues at stake; they are important.