Sunday, May 15, 2005

Pitfalls of the Tenure System

In my last post you can find some links and comments about the tenure system. Let me add a few concerns that don't often get mentioned.
  • Tenure keeps academic salaries low: Tenure has a definite monetary value as when combined with life and disability insurance removes nearly all risk of future income. A university can then shave the salary in comparison to other lines of work. I suspect the shaving is high in the humanities where positions outside academia has a higher risk of long-term under or un-employment.
  • Tenure allows universities to age discriminate: Because hiring with tenure requires a large long-term commitment, departments have to hold candidates for open tenured positions to a much higher standard than for open assistant professor positions. Often departments will only consider candidates for the assistant professor position. Without tenure, US law would prevent holding candidates to different standards because of age for basically the same position.
  • Tenure Jail: Since most jobs in the US are not secure, one can change careers midstream without entailing much additional risk. Many tenured professors would be reluctant to leave their risk-free position for another career, even if that other opportunity would make them happier and possibly more successful.


  1. Isn't it true that even if you have tenure that the administration can reduce the number of classes that you teach and thus reduce your salary if they wanted to force you out or fire you?

  2. In Canada the tenure system explicitly exempts universities from certain age discrimination laws. The Supreme Court of Canada has ruled that tenured faculty positions can carry mandatory retirement at age 65 despite the fact that such a mandatory retirement rule would be illegal for a typical job.

  3. Don't be coy Lance...

    What modifications to the current system would you advise to address these concerns, or would you replace tenure system altogether (similar to the recommendation in the op-ed to which you linked below)?

    If you would scrap tenure, how do you envision the business of doing computer science and math would be changed?

  4. The fact that tenure has a monetary value is not a disadvantage. It gives potential professors the choice between riskier higher paying jobs on the "outside world" and a riskless lesser paying job. (Indeed, some computer scientists made that choice and decided to work in a research lab.) If there was no tenure then it seems that there would only be less

    It's true that like any insurance policy, on average the university (the insurer) probably gains from this arrangement more than the professors (the insured). However, people still like to have insurance.

    I'm not sure that you can say that an assistant professor and a full professor are the same position. Even if tenure didn't exist there would probably still be different ranks of professors, and hence people in each rank would be subject to different criteria.

    You can have the same argument as "tenure jail" about high-paying jobs. For ecample, people working at Wall Street get used to high salaries which perhaps inhibit them from changing into careers that would make them happier.

    At the bottom line, I think this tenure debate is completely hypothetical for universities that want to retain top academic quality. Since most professors do not set maximizing their income as their major life goal, any university that would abolish tenure would become very unattractive to faculty, even if it offered a significantly higher salary.

  5. One year ago you promised to publish open problems which you do not have time to solve, but which might be interesting to students or young reseachers and which would give a chance to young researchers to publish and work with you.