Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Levitt on Tenure

Freakonomist Steve Levitt says universities should get rid of tenure:
If the U of C told me that they were going to revoke my tenure, but add $15,000 to my salary, I would be happy to take that trade. I’m sure many others would as well. By dumping one unproductive, previously tenured faculty member, the University could compensate ten others with the savings.
I am not surprised that Steve, as a winner of the John Bates Clark award, places a relatively low monetary value on job security (well under 10 percent of his salary). My guess is that a more typical faculty member would place a larger monetary value on having tenure. If so, universities may well be better off by paying lower salaries to tenured faculty, despite the adverse incentive effects, than paying higher salaries to professors without tenure. In other words, Steve thinks the competitive market for professors is resulting in inefficient contracts, while I believe that, absent any reason for market failure, the labor contracts we observe are likely to be efficient. (We Harvard profs always have to remind those Chicago guys that competitive markets work pretty well.)

One question that Steve does not address is how department hiring would work in a world without tenure. Now, senior hiring is done by existing senior faculty. If those faculty could start firing one another, the political dynamics of hiring would become complicated and probably untenable. (Here is a related paper.) A university without tenure would likely have to move toward a more hierarchical system with a "boss" in charge of hiring and other major decisions. That is, one cannot abolish tenure and expect university governance to remain the same. Deans would likely have more power over hiring. In my experience, anything that gives deans more authority is a step in the wrong direction, for deans have less information about what is going on in the field or in the classroom than the faculty do.

In any event, I look forward to the day when Steve becomes president of some university and gives his experiment a try. I just hope it's not his undergraduate alma mater.