Tenure Should Retire

In this post I will provide some reasons for why schools (and governments) should stop providing tenure to professionals.

Tenure is a guarantee of permanent employment—unless you do something heinous. Most full-time professors at colleges and universities have it, and public K-12 schoolteachers also have it. But is it really a good idea? Sure, it feels nice to know you don’t have to worry about losing your job, but what sorts of consequences come with this? I can think of at least three: the inability to replace bad teachers, disincentivizing hard work, and higher costs.

I’m not sure about you, but I certainly had my fair share of poor teachers both in my public education and in my private, collegiate education. One of the chief problems with the tenure system is that it makes it extremely difficult to fire teachers for being…well, bad teachers. In most other occupations, if someone doesn’t do their job well or even averagely well, the organization will probably look at replacing them—but not if the person has tenure. The teacher/professor that has tenure can relax because unless they do some heinous act, they can’t be fired.

“When your position isn’t guaranteed, you work your tail off so the higher-ups want to keep you on.”

Tenure also has the ability to incentivize working less (read: laziness). Now, I’m not saying that all or even most teachers/professors are lazy. Many of them are not. However, once tenured, the motivation to continue working hard (for fear of loss of work) is taken away. In turn, we often get poor quality teaches and are unable to replace them.

Lastly, tenure means that an organization has promised to retain the employer on a permanent basis. This means big, long-term costs. It’s no secret that in higher education there is a growing trend away from tenure (thankfully) in favor of adjunct, part-time professors. However, solving the problem of high costs by paying other employees substantially less is a bad idea (many in higher education are familiar with the term ‘Adjunct Hell’).

Sure, there are a number of benefits to tenure. But the benefits don’t outweigh the disadvantages. It is often remarked that tenure protects scholars who do unpopular research, but tenure also protects scholars that do poor research. Furthermore, as Steven D. Levitt remarks:

If one institution fires an academic primarily because they don’t like his or her politics or approach, there will be other schools happy to make the hire. There are, for instance, cases in recent years in economics where scholars have made up data, embezzled funds, etc. but still have found good jobs afterwards.

Protecting against poor research isn’t the only thing tenure can do. One recent study done at Northwestern University suggests that tenure might be responsible for poorer teaching of students. And it makes sense, doesn’t it? If your job was secure you wouldn’t be as motivated as you were when it wasn’t secure. When your position isn’t guaranteed, you work your tail off so the higher-ups recognize your hard work and want to keep you on.

I’d like to suggest that schools (and governments) stop providing tenure in support of some alternative model of incentives. If you’re a good teacher/professor you won’t have to worry about losing your job. If you’re a bad teacher/professor…well, maybe teaching isn’t the best use of your time (and certainly not a good use of your students’).

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