Abolish it? Maybe.

An extremely clever friend who teaches public policy from a tenured position at a first-rate place proposes to cut the Gordian Knot. If we can’t make a tenure system that’s fair to women, let’s just abolish tenure:

1) I have never observed a single colleague cross the tenure line who became more courageous or innovative either intellectually or managerially afterwards, actually usually the reverse. I think the whole institution is toxic (this goes for law partnerships and civil service tenure as well) because it makes it impossible for the institution to send a real Spencian signal of good work. “We’ll keep you on for another year” has the same conditional probability no matter whether you did a great job or slacked. In the absence of a meaningful message of appreciation, our natural paranoid fear that we aren’t really qualified for what we do, or aren’t doing it, starts to take over. If women ran things, we would have an entirely different, more humane, more productive, and more efficient way to protect academic freedom and get good work done.

(2) I’ve watched three hiring decisions go by here lately and I’m sorry to say I think we at least are simply not able to give women a fair shake…and it’s not just publication records. Yes, there’s prejudice and yes, it matters.

(3) Doing a site visit for an innovations-award program, I had occasion to visit Collier County, Florida. I started my day with a very spry retired 70-year old who ran the landfill (where the innovation was), who introduced me to his boss, a 55ish import engineer from Ohio, who introduced me to his boss, the county environmental chief, about 40, and then I finally met the maximum super top jefe, the County Executive. In his corner office with the flags when I went in was a 29 year-old-kid who had recently finished his MPA at Big Red. Yup, he was the CE.

I catch on quick, so I said to myself at that moment “gee, everyone here reports to someone younger than he is!” This happens because the county is on a very short financial leash (poor and retired taxpayers, the latter on fixed incomes) so they can’t afford, for example, the CE who would normally run a county that size. Also a lot of people retire too early, move and realize that golf and tennis do not make a life. So they go looking for some sort of job, but the only jobs are making beds in the hotels and working for the county.

The result of this is to inject the latest technical know-how about management right at the top of the organization, and wisdom, experience, and judgment at the bottom. Also courage: obviously you can’t mistreat these retirees, they don’t need their paychecks.

In our business, we do some things upside down, for example having junior faculty teach intro courses, where maturity, confidence, and teaching skill is essential and where their latest frontier knowledge can’t really be used except to show off or intimidate the students.

(4) Obviously Rubin didn’t complete the socialization of Larry Summers, or it didn’t stick. But a lot…a LOT…of his critics don’t know the meaning of the words hypothesis and probably, and have forgotten the first duty of an academic, which is to be willing to examine any proposition, even if you really hope it’s not true and even if it comes from someone crude, awkward, even a person of ill-will. Wagner was a truly awful misogynist, treacherous to his friends, egotistical, an anti-Semite (even if of the 19c less-odious type). But modern music is impossible without his innovations, and he also had some really humane and wise insights about the role of art in communiy and society. This trashing of Summers by assertion and namecalling is deplorable and embarrassing, and the issue of whether there are different sigmas in male and female traits, and if so, what would that mean, will not go away just because Good People shout it down.

Everyone who has been through the tenure mill must have thought that any change in such an awful system would have to be an improvement. It guarantees academic freedom mostly to those too old and beaten-down to be able to use it well; younger scholars are utterly exposed to the whims of their (often less knowledgeable and less creative) seniors.

And yet … tenure is part of the functioning of the extremely complex and successful enterprise known as the research university. If everyone’s job is up for grabs at all times, every hiring decision has to be made with the question “Will this person like my work?” in mind.

The combination of tenure and the departmental prestige competition sometimes — not always — overcomes the natural tendency of insecure people to avoid associating with those who might be brighter than they are. (I emphasize, not always: I’m told that the very good people forced into second-rate places by the current glut sometimes don’t get tenure because they’re too threatening intellectually to the second-rate tenured faculty.)

Here again, we can’t just assume a can-opener. No matter how bad a system is, it can always be made worse. Using butter to lubricate a clockwork won’t in general improve its performance, even if you use the very best butter.

Someone has to design an incentive-compatible management system to replace tenure. As soon as my friend Susanne Lohmann publishes her book on the management of the research university, we’ll all know how hard that is, and maybe even have some idea about how to do it.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com