Tenure and economic envy

It seems like every day since I actually got tenure there’s been somebody on the web screaming about tenure. This may be simply be perception, but I don’t think so: Slate recently started in on it, arguing that tenure is bad for professors, too, making the system too rigid, scaring bright people away and into industry and sucking up endowments.

I think most of the arguments are a crock, made made by people who don’t understand labor markets very well, and who want to curry favor with a public that is resentful–the economic envy argument–about the veneer of a potentially unproductive person having a job for life when they, supposedly to have to fight to keep their jobs. This particularly gleeful piece in GOOD annoyed me mightily, as his argument is that tenure and its focus on research promotes poor quality education.

Yeah, right, because you know, the absence of researching responsibilities has done just wonders for K-12 teaching in the US. There are many many universities across the country that tenure is based on teaching rather than research. So what does that mean for the connection between teaching and tenure?

Mark C. Taylor in particular seems to have no idea what he is talking about:

Mark C. Taylor, chair of the Columbia University department of religion and author of the forthcoming Crisis on Campus: A Bold Plan for Reforming Our Colleges and Universities, calculates that someone who serves as an associate professor with tenure for five years and then becomes a full professor for 30 years costs a private university $12.2 million.* Public universities pay $10 million over the same period. And because most universities pay tenured professors out of their endowments, each professor freezes up tens of millions in otherwise-liquid endowment money for a generation. University debt jumped 54 percent last year, with an average debt of $168 million. If the average university tenured about 15 fewer professors, they’d be in the black.

link: The case for getting rid of tenure. – By Christopher Beam – Slate Magazine

For anybody who actually understands labor markets, this whole paragraph makes your eyeballs cross with its illogic. Tenure isn’t costing the university millions; employing faculty is costing the university. Yes, we all know that employees cost money, we didn’t need a proffie of religion to point that out.

Because tenure eliminates some risk for the laborer, the actual salary renumeration that they command is lower; so yes, the lifetime salary commitment freezes up money, but it probably freezes up *less money over time* than market-rate wages for the same people would. In other words, tenure probably saves the university money at the same time it makes funds less liquid. And you can *seriously* discipline an unproductive faculty member with tenure. If you are unproductive after tenure, your ability to move becomes very limited. Suddenly, you start getting 0.5 percent raises year after year and what seems like a great job you can’t get fired from is a lousy-paying job you can’t really leave.

Tenure benefits both universities and faculty in different ways, but the result would be a wash in the labor market between higher-paying private industry jobs with more risk and comparatively lower paying, higher benefit university jobs.

And everybody knows that you can save money by running out and hiring cheap adjuncts. We’re talking about what it would cost to keep people like Gen Giuliano or Richard Green or Dana Goldman around without tenure.

No matter how much little reporters from GOOD seem to think faculty are like teachers who merely teach 13th grade and squander their time on silly books and articles, tenured faculty at the Columbia level are a highly specialized labor force who do a lot more than show up in the class room. Research *is* worth money to the university; I pay for my salary and more out of the external funding; I strongly suspect that even though Robert Service does not get a lot of external funding, the fact that he’s a super-duper famous historian who writes best-selling books attracts lots of check-writing students to Oxford. The faculty are the premier talent of the university; as a result, those of us who are really premier can charge economic rents–regardless of whether an angry public likes it or not.

Not everybody can do what Robert Service or Elizabeth Currid does–even if, as an exaction, universities make them teach 13th grade as well. For people like Robert Service, tenure is a good deal for the university: it’s why universities are risk averse about handing tenure out; it can be expensive to them if they make a bad choice, but it’s probably an economic benefit if they bet on a star.

The other major myth is that “you’d no run no other business in this way.” Please. Can the rampaging neoliberal ethic of the world take a break, just for a second, and get over itself? Regular businesses operate this way all time and hides it under the rubric of seniority and contracts. Yes, you can fire adjuncts. And yes, you can fail to promote junior faculty. Try firing an incompetent staff member at any public or private university. Just try it. You’ll be told in hushed tones that “it’s impossible because…”

So in other words, my job protection may have an easy-to-pronounce label like tenure, but there are plenty of bone-idle incompetent people in the US labor force who are protected by their buddies, seniority, or institutional position. Can we say: run company into the ground, I-banker still gets $15 million bonus? I think we can. You think that’s not a corrupt labor market but tenure is? And if the business world is so rife with cutting-edge competitiveness, why are the archetypes of Dilbert so familiar–to everybody?

What Taylor really wants–and what Gordon Gee wants–is the power to further bully faculty–because they are both administrators and once you grant tenure, your ability to screw your faculty goes down by a lot. They also want to save a quick buck and make their deficits go away. They’re right, tenuring fewer people would make that happen. By all means, Mr. Taylor, you go ahead and try it. USC would be on Jeffery Sach’s door the next day with an offer of tenure and a raise and a house for him.

The other thing I don’t understand is why anybody in the world thinks that deconstructing a system with job stability is a good idea given what we know has happened to US workers more generally in the last, corporate greed riddled decades. Yes, by all means, let’s make government and university jobs lousy just like corporate jobs–rather than the other way around–to make sure that dividends never suffer ad tax bills in no way cut into in the top fifth’s money for island villas and designer handbags. That’s justice, right there.

I have always contended that tenure protects departments–departments like Mark Taylor’s, in particular. Tenure keeps ambitious provosts and administrators from cutting departments like religion and turning universities just into giant training schools for businesses. It’s keeping civilization alive, albeit in deeply flawed way.

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