Thursday, March 29, 2007

Tenure is a contract that can be broken, part 2 

Someone pointed out to me at lunch that the Chronicle of Higher Ed had posted a series of blog posts started by Steven Levitt about tenure. In it Levitt says he'd take $15,000 in additional base salary to forgo his tenure. As I argued in another context, one can always buy out tenure but most schools choose not to: It's cheaper to let the deadwood go on being dead than buy them out. And you'd have to make it a blanket offer, and negotiate individually with each faculty member. (Look, if the university came up and gave me a private offer to buy out my tenure without buying out the others, I can pretty well guess what comes next.)

That's in fact what Greg Mankiw is saying as well. You can easily buy out the Steve Levitts of the world because they have an active market for their services. Deadwood faculty know their (lack of) market alternatives and therefore would never sell tenure cheaply. Some schools (for-profits would seem to fit) may instead use the high-pay/low-job-stability model; the question is how one deals with university governance if you had a transition period in which senior faculty with tenure are hiring other senior faculty that are not to have it. Mankiw:
Now, senior hiring is done by existing senior faculty. If those faculty could start firing one another, the political dynamics of hiring would become complicated and probably untenable. (Here is a related paper.) A university without tenure would likely have to move toward a more hierarchical system with a "boss" in charge of hiring and other major decisions. That is, one cannot abolish tenure and expect university governance to remain the same. Deans would likely have more power over hiring. In my experience, anything that gives deans more authority is a step in the wrong direction, for deans have less information about what is going on in the field or in the classroom than the faculty do.
I suspect Mankiw's department has a chair that is not very powerful; these positions could be much more powerful if decisions to hire each year were made for the entire staff rather than just the untenured junior staff. (Chairs here have no such authority, and I'm not sure I would like to have it even if it were on offer. For those of you who work in departments who have chair recommendations for merit pay raises you can only imagine how much more nasty things would get.)

But the point remains: Tenure continues to exist because there are large institutional hurdles to its removal -- I consider that argument Stiglerian in nature -- and that its existence increases the cost of its removal to the point where nobody wants to move first to get rid of it.

Thus when Hank Brown of Colorado argues that that state's university system is reforming tenure after a lengthy process, it is most likely only going to nibble around the edges. A little more lengthy process for post-tenure review, a little tighter procedure for investigating faculty misconduct. But in the end all it means is a faster track to getting a Ward Churchill deal of having your tenure bought out (in his case, at $96,000/year until they actually get around to a final settlement.)