Tuesday, July 6, 2010

More on tenure

In a thread on DrugMonkey, a commenter posed this solution to tenure:

The society as a whole would benefit from abolishing tenure system and putting educators where everyone else belongs, a market place.

As you may guess, I had some thoughts about this comment. Markets are pretty amazing things but they do some things rather poorly. Mark Thoma has a good discussion of the criteria for a market to work efficiently:


Research is, in some important respects, a public good and, like other public goods is hard to place into a market easily (in the same sense that is hard to privatize the road system). Furthermore, the NIH style grant system is an attempt (so far as I can tell) to handle the information problems with basic research in the most rational way possible under the circumstances.

This is not to say that change and reform are not possible; they are. But I find it odd that tenure is attacked whereas other forms of job security are not (for example, there is no widespread call to privatize the military). The university and NIH system are designed to introduce as mush competition into research and teaching as you can with a single buyer dominating the marketplace (that would be the federal government, via student loans and research grants).

I think tackling this requires a series of marginal improvements. Standing on the outside it is easy to suggest radical change but what do you do if the radical change results in a worse outcome than the current state of affairs? In particular, I want to see more about how to apply a market based system to higher education given all of the barriers to an efficient market that are present.


  1. I think the first part of the quote was (unintentionally) revealing:

    "Tenure is not necessary. Tenure only benefits professors. The society as a whole would benefit from abolishing tenure system and putting educators where everyone else belongs, a market place."

    Tenure is part of a compensation package like salary, stock options, health benefits, etc., but can you imagine anyone saying "Salary is not necessary. Salary only benefits employees"?

  2. One element of the push towards breaking employment contracts for future compensation has been an escalation in immediate compensation. But we have seen this with airline pilot pensions, Jack Welch's retirement package and now with tenure: the idea that breaking contracts is okay because they are expensive to uphold.

  3. The only person who could say that is somebody who doesn't understand anything about market economic theory, doesn't understand anything about tertiary education, or doesn't understand anything.

    But then having worked only in research departments I have never seen tenure. Only teaching departments have tenure.