Stuck With Tenure
I know it’s tradition to only quote Megan McArdle to disagree and insult her, so let me say that this is incorrect:
The state legislature of California should get rid of teacher tenure.
Tenure does confer some benefits to society. Professors can work on higher risk, longer term projects that they might not be able to otherwise if they needed to show they were productive each and every single year. If a research project requires you to embed yourself in some subculture somewhere for three years, you aren’t going to have anything to show for it until the fourth year at best.
Academic freedom is also valuable, though you might not want to try exerting it until after your first check clears.
But there are those who abuse the situation. They aren’t carrying out long-term, risky projects. They are simply coasting.
Yes, I am propelled solely by anecdotes in this belief, but they are firsthand ones. They tell me tenure isn’t really a great idea for most positions, and its benefits can be gained through other ways.
That doesn’t mean it is simple or wise for any given institution to unilaterally get rid of tenure.
If my wife’s university did away with tenure, she and I would be sad. We love living here. But within a year or two, we’d leave for a university that did offer her tenure. Had her current school advertised her position as non-tenure-track to begin with, she’d have never deigned to send in her C.V., let alone interview.
This wouldn’t break the university, but you’d see within five to ten years most the professors who are capable of moving (i.e. the good ones) move. You’d be left only with those who cannot move—including many of the coasters that you were trying to get rid of in the first place.
Classes would still be taught. There are good teachers who through no fault of their own will accept adjunct work on fairly unattractive terms. And lest you think teaching is bifurcated into tenure-track and adjunct work, it’s not. Universities can and do employ full-time, full-benefits lecturers who teach a bit more but have no research expectations.
Still, the way to improving a university’s standing is for it to be choosy, not simply to fill a class schedule. I have no idea whether John Cochrane is actually a good in-class teacher. But my respect for the University of Chicago derives from people like him and Richard Thaler. They are at UC, and they do awesome research.
If these people moved to the University of Iowa, some measure of my respect would move along with them. Eventually, those changes would filter down to the students to the detriment of Chicago students and the betterment of Iowa students. Without its most research productive faculty, a university’s reputation will eventually decay. Research matters to the reputation of the school even as it fails to matter directly to students.
So, even as someone who isn’t a fan of tenure, I predict doom for the first state, university, or school district to abolish it. This applies for K-12 education too. If California gets rid of tenure, its best teachers will leak out. It will only successfully retain those who are stuck. And it will become the state new teachers put last on their list when they search for jobs.