To tenure, or not to tenure?

The horrible thing about tenure isn’t accumulating deadwood; someone has to sit on university committees. The horrible thing about tenure is the tenure process, which denies academic freedom to those most capable of using it.

I agree with Steve Teles (just below) that the opponents of tenure need to confront the problem of designing something to replace it. Ten-year contracts would be better than five-year contracts, but even so the threat of being on the street at age 59 would be pretty chilling, with psychic costs all out of proportion to the frequency of non-renewal.

On the other hand, defenders of tenure need to confront how horrible the tenure process currently is. I’m not talking about the deadwood problem, as demoralizing as that is. I’m talking about the horror of spending six years right out of graduate school worrying that offending a colleague or having a delay in a research project at the wrong moment might force you to start a job search with no financial cushion and with a black mark on your record. Tenure as it now exists is a process that gives academic freedom mostly to those two beaten-down and emotionally exhausted to use it well, while denying it to young scholars at the peak of their creative powers.

The Public Policy Department at UCLA is a young department; we deliberately hired mostly at the junior level, because UCLA’s relatively liberal tenuring practices made us able to compete for people who could have gotten jobs at (even) more prestigious places. We just tenured the last of our first five junior hires. There wasn’t a bit of doubt in my mind from the very beginning that they would all get tenure by acclamation, and when the time came none of them generated any debate, especially once the outside letters had come in.

But each of them knew someone who had been told “Don’t worry, no problem, your tenure is a lock,” and then found himself out on the street. So all of them underwent serious stress, especially in the months between submitting the file and getting the final blessing from the Council on Academic Personnel. And, despite the fact that this is about the most collegial department I’ve ever heard of, they spent the six pre-tenure years being very careful about choosing sides in departmental debates. (As Voltaire is suppose to have said on his deathbed to the priest who asked him whether he heartily renounced and detested Satan and all his works, “Father! Is this any time to be making enemies?”)

Fortunately, our department isn’t riven by factionalism, partly because we do very different things. But a junior faculty member in a factionalized department faces an extra-special sort of Hell. And worst of all is the fate of someone who was forced by the market to accept a job in a department where he or she simply outclasses most of the tenured faculty intellectually. Those people risk not getting tenure through what C. Northcote Parkinson called “injelitance”: the combination of jealousy and incompetence that leads people to want to rid their workplaces of those more capable than they are themselves. And of course if you’ve been denied tenure at a low-status place, you’re well and truly shafted.

You can’t have tenure and excellence without up-or-out; otherwise, you’re just a civil service system. But up-or-out is a brutal process. The process would be less brutal if what’s now a tenure decision were a decision to offer a ten-year contract. But then we’re back to the problem of periodic renewals.

Mandatory retirement with term-contract rehiring sounds good, until you contemplate how awful it would be at the end of your career to find that all the people you thought were your friends and colleagues have been just waiting to get rid of you, or how awful it would be to have to tell the person who mentored you when you were an assistant professor that he’s over the hill and ought to think about improving his tennis game.

No, I don’t see an attractive solution to this puzzle. On even-numbered days, I think there coulnd’t be anything worse than what we have now, and am willing to roll the dice. On odd-numbered days, I recall that even reforms that look easy often go wrong, while the odds on good outcomes from reforms that start out looking dicey are really extraordinarily long.

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: