Monday, July 26, 2010

Marginal Revolution has amazing comments

This has led me to quote a few of the best points made in the latest discussion on tenure. From PQuincy:

By the way, I do admit that tenure (which I, like Tyler, possess), may lead to the payment of rents, and to some rent-seeking behavior. But if anyone claims that, say, the modern financial sector involves no rents and rent-seeking, I'll laugh out loud. The better question is to ask what the negative burden of rents in universities is compared to potential benefits of a system that awards some kind of tenure. Given that few university professors make very much money, my first guess (no doubt shaped by self-interest) is that tenure is a relatively inexpensive way to achieve certain hard-to-value-but-real outcomes.

This does make a point that is often absent from the debate-- when we say that tenure is a form of rent-seeking is it really the current highest priority? After all, financial services are able to create all sorts of captive income streams (think of fees on 401(k) accounts) that are both more expensive and harder to justify.

From Cliff Bekar

Evaluating a good hire into an academic department is expensive. It would be very expensive for managers (Deans, Provosts, etc.) to evaluate the contributions of an academic to a literature. Hiring an outside firm would also prove a challenge given the huge variance in academic performance and the length of time it takes to determine whether a good hire has been made (it can often take 6+ years for agents to fully realize their research potential). Academics within a discipline have a comparative advantage in making such determinations (as an economic historian I would be at a significant disadvantage in evaluating, say, a new econometrician). Further, since the quality of their department stands to gain the most from making a good hire, academics within the department have an incentive to maximize the quality of hire. But imagine that the people in charge of the hire may be fired. In practice decisions to fire an academic will always be made in part relative to the standards of a department/institution. An agent that is performing poorly relative to their colleagues is more likely to be let go. A 50-year old academic, who might lose their job if faced with high performing colleagues faces perverse incentives in the hiring process. Tenure renders the agents who are best able to evaluate talent with the good incentives to hire the best possible fit. This effect is even more important if we consider other elements of an academic hire that make "insiders" better at evaluating potential fits: What types of courses would the existing student mix best benefit from, what comparative weaknesses in the curriculum should be addressed with a new hire, what is the culture of the department? Good answers to these questions are often hard to answer by simply accumulating the kind of data a third party (recruiting firm or Dean) could cheaply secure.

This is a fantastic point and really shows how tenure could work to increase excellence. Now, it is true that this argument worked a lot better with a mandatory retirement age (as end of career issues are proving sticky) but that seems like a possible point of intervention, doesn't it? Making tenure no longer automatically protect jobs after the eligibility age for social security would be the example of a small tweak that radically improves the system.


No institution is perfect; tenure is no exception. But it is a way to allign faculty interests with the long term interests of their institutions. In this era of 5-year-turnover-administrators, without tenure what makes anyone think that short term administrators will do what is in the long term interest of their current institutions?

It's hard to align interests effectively given short term windows (industry constantly grapples with this issue) and tenure seems like a cheap way to do it in a very strong way.

It's not an accident that Marginal Revolutions was the blog that first got me to read blogs. Very insightful stuff.

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