More on tenure

My last post on this subject was prompted by an anti-tenure article that I thought was silly and poorly argued.  As a result, I think it made me seem like a stronger proponent of the current tenure system than I really am.

(In case anyone doesn’t know, let me stipulate a couple of things: 1. I have tenure.  2. As someone who places a high value on security, I like having tenure.)

The traditional argument for tenure is that professors need to be able to advance controversial ideas that attack the power structure without fear of reprisal.  That idea isn’t wholly without merit, but I have to admit that I don’t see it as such a pressing need that we should structure the entire academic employment system around it.

No doubt my perspective is influenced by the fact that the work I do has no political implications.  If I worked in a more controversial field, I’d probably see things differently.

Certainly an alternative to the tenure system would certainly have to have strong protections against ideological firing of faculty members for espousing controversial ideas, but it seems likely to me that infinite job security is an overreaction to this threat.

For most faculty members, I suspect, tenure’s not really about academic freedom.  It’s just a job benefit, like a dental plan or a day-care center.   And like those other benefits, if employers got rid of it they’d have to offer either higher salaries or other benefits, in order to compete for the same pool of potential employees.

I don’t know if anyone’s tried to estimate the economic value of tenure to typical faculty members and hence how much it would cost to eliminate it.  Academic salaries are not high, compared to other jobs with similar levels of training, and I suspect that the job security of tenure is quite valuable to many people who have it.  I doubt the cost of eliminating tenure would be trivial.

The most often mentioned cost of the current tenure system is the dead-weight, lazy, unproductive, incompetent tenured professor.  Such people no doubt exist, although I don’t think that they’re terribly common for reasons I mentioned before.  Still, I think it’d be possible to design a system with strong protections against ideological firing but that still allowed universities to get rid of people for actual incompetence.

To me, the biggest disadvantage of the current tenure system is its rigidity.  People’s lives are complicated, for all sorts of personal and family reasons, and the current system makes it hard for anyone who can’t conveniently follow the specific tenure-track career timeline.


Last week, Christopher Beam published an article in Slate called The case for getting rid of tenure.  Tenure at US universities is a pretty strange system.  The rest of the workforce gets regular performance evaluations, which if unsatisfactory can lead to the worker being fired.  For college professors, there is in effect just one such performance evaluation.  Since it happens just once, the stakes are extremely high when it does come.

I think there’s a sensible case to be made against the tenure system, but at least some of Beam’s points are frankly kind of silly, starting with his first substantive argument:

As tuition climbs and universities struggle to pay their bills, tenure is starting to look unaffordable. Keeping a professor around indefinitely€”tenure means they can’t be forced to retire€”simply costs a lot … University debt jumped 54 percent last year, with an average debt of $168 million. If the average university tenured about 15 fewer professors, they’d be in the black.

In short, if colleges paid fewer salaries, they’d have more money.  That’s certainly true, but of course it’s not all by itself an argument.  Those tenured folks teach classes, conduct research, and generally do the things that professors are supposed to do.  The above is only an argument against tenure if tenured people do this job, on average, worse than the people you could hire for the same amount of money in an alternative, tenure-free system.  Maybe that’s true, but it’s certainly not obvious. In particular, tenure is a non-monetary job benefit.  If you get rid of it, you’re going to have to offer other incentives, probably higher salaries, to compete for qualified workers.


Tenure committees claim to weigh publishing and teaching equally, but in practice publishing counts most.

There are two points in response to this: First, it’s all too true at some places but not at others.  I actually chose to look for jobs at small undergraduate colleges precisely because they value teaching as well as research.  In order to get tenure, I was evaluated on both, and both were regarded as comparably important.

Second, even to the extent that this is a problem, it’s not directly related to the tenure system.  Whether tenure exists  or not, there’ll still be some system by which faculty are evaluated and rewarded.  If that system doesn’t value teaching, then faculty will not have an incentive to put effort into teaching.  That’s true whether the reward system is tenure, or renewal of fixed-term contracts (one of the main alternatives to tenure people talk about), or something else.

After a while, Beam gets to what most people regard as the main point of tenure: the academic freedom argument.

Once a professor gains tenure, the thinking goes, he or she can say anything without fear of being fired. Academia thrives on the circulation of dangerous ideas. The problem is, for every tenured professor who’s liberated at age 40 to speak his mind, there are dozens of junior professors terrified to say anything the least bit controversial, lest they lose their one shot at job security for life. Academia relies on young scholars to shake things up. Yet tenure incentivizes them not to. Instead, it rewards students who follow in the footsteps of the elders whose favor they will require when the day of judgment arrives.

I’m not sure what I think of this.  The meme that academics need to be free to express heretical new ideas is much more resonant, I think, in the humanities than in the natural sciences.  In my own field, I don’t see a big problem with people being scared to publish or speak about their work because it’s radically different from what the old folks are doing.  But maybe it is a problem in other fields.

Here, too, it’s not clear that tenure is the problem, though.  Whatever system you have, young folks are going to be evaluated by old folks.  If the old folks really are hostile to the radical innovations of the young folks, then those innovations are going to be disincentivized by whatever system of rewards is set up.

Here’s another instance of the same error:

Tenure can also discourage interdisciplinary studies, since professors are rewarded for plumbing deep into an established subject area rather than connecting two different ones.

Once again, this is a (possibly valid) critique of what universities value, but not of the specific system they use to reward the things they value.  You can imagine systems with tenure that reward interdisciplinarity, and systems without tenure that don’t.

He does make a couple of points that I think are valid in principle:

Just as tenure creates economic inflexibility, it also creates intellectual inflexibility. By hiring someone for life, a school gambles that his or her ideas are going to be just as relevant in 35 years.

Critics say that tenure hurts students by making professors lazy … If you can’t be fired, what’s to stop you from refusing to teach an extra course?

The second one, in particular, is the one that sounds the most persuasive to a lot of people: “Those lazy tenured professors, they never do any work!”  There certainly are people in that category (no, I won’t name names), but in my experience they’re actually not all that common.  For one thing, universities usually have a variety of ways (salary increases and other perks, etc.) to incentivize people to do good work.  For another thing, most academics are primarily motivated by some combination of a genuine love of their work and a desire for respect from their peers, both of which keep them working after tenure.

Although I think Beam’s article is largely silly, I actually do think that the current system would benefit from a significant reworking, mostly to make it more flexible.  At the moment, the system for a junior faculty member involves a rigidly set up “clock” leading to tenure at a specific time, usually at an age in the late 30s.  In a world with many two-career couples trying to start families, the rigidity of this system is a big problem (more for women than for men, but it’s not great for either sex).

At the end of his article, Beam actually recommends a system with tenure but with more flexibility. I think he’s right about that, even though I don’t think that it would have any effect on most of the “problems” he discusses in the rest of the article.

Why abstracts of scientific papers are like haiku

After reading the abstract of my most recent paper, Raymond commented

I'm amused by the writing pattern characteristic of abstracts. They always go

"Statement of something everybody knows. Statement of something nobody knows. I found out the thing nobody knows."

The part that amuses me is the "Statement of something everybody knows." Why state something everybody knows?

True.  The abstract is a highly stylized form.  In general, the conventions are implicitly assumed, but the journal Astronomy and Astrophysics even encourages authors to write “structured abstracts” making some of them explicit.

With abstracts, as with haiku or sonnets, the trick is to say something original and striking within the severe constraints of the form.  Of course, most abstracts, not excepting my own, fail to do this — as, probably, do most haiku and sonnets.  There’s no getting around Sturgeon’s Law.

Max Tegmark published a paper with the abstract in rhymed couplets.  I believe it was part of a bet.

Paper submitted

I love the feeling right after submitting a paper for publication.  One just went off yesterday. Since my sabbatical is winding down, and I’m now acting department chair, I’m glad to have gotten this finished before the semester starts.

This one’s pretty specialized, likely to be of interest only to people who analyze microwave background polarization maps.  Here’s the abstract, in case you care:

 Separation of the B component of a cosmic microwave background (CMB) polarization map from the much larger E component is an essential step in CMB polarimetry. For a map with incomplete sky coverage, this separation is necessarily hampered by the presence of “ambiguous” modes which could be either E or B modes. I present an efficient pixel-space algorithm for removing the ambiguous modes and separating the map into “pure” E and B components. The method, which works for arbitrary geometries, does not involve generating a complete basis of such modes and scales the cube of the number of pixels on the boundary of the map.