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Easing Tenure's Grip Can Embolden Academia

Noah Smith is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was an assistant professor of finance at Stony Brook University, and he blogs at Noahpinion.
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The University of Wisconsin system recently took a landmark step toward weakening the institution of tenure for academic faculty. The new policy, if adopted by the board overseeing the state's universities, would allow tenured professors to be laid off for economic reasons, or if the university decides to restructure its programs. It also would permit professors to be fired based on negative post-tenure reviews, which are conducted every five years. 

There are definitely reasons to be skeptical of such a radical change in the structure of our universities. Abolishing tenure could deter professors from engaging in long-term risky research projects. If a line of research doesn’t pan out, it could lead to a dearth of publications, which would put the researcher in danger of firing. Tenure is supposed to act as an insurance policy that allows researchers to take risks, since risky research has the potential for big breakthroughs that benefit all of society. 

That’s the theory, anyway. In reality, though, the tenure system may actually be discouraging bold, innovative research. 

Tenure is a perk -- an in-kind benefit that substitutes for salary. Giving professors tenure allows universities to pay them less. This is certainly one reason why academics tend to earn less than they would in the private sector. But when you pay people with job security rather than money, you skew the type of job applicant that you get. People who value money more will tend to avoid the job, while people who prize security will be the ones who apply. 

In other words, tenure makes academia more likely to attract risk-averse individuals. That goes directly against one of the purposes of tenure, which is to encourage unconventional research. Risk-averse professors will tend to play it safe before tenure, during their young and intellectually vital years. Even after tenure, they may stick to incremental projects, fearing the consequences of losing prestige or incurring criticism within their field. Meanwhile, society’s bold, risk-tolerant, smart people will steer toward careers in entrepreneurship or private-sector research. 

Tenure probably has another, more subtle negative effect on academia -- it creates a wall between the ivory tower and the private sector. Tenure creates a need for the tenure track -- a period of five to seven years at the start of a researcher’s career in which his or her research productivity is evaluated. Since most starting professors enter through the tenure track, it is very difficult for someone from industry to enter academia mid-career. He or she can teach as a low-paid adjunct, or occasionally snag a position as a research professor, but the former pays next to nothing and the latter are both rare and also relatively low-paying. There is just very little opportunity for a researcher at Intel or Alphabet (formerly Google) to transition to a professor positon. This barrier also stops academics from going into the private sector -- once you leave the ivory tower, it is difficult or impossible to go back. 

The tenure system thus creates a formidable barrier between the private and academic sectors. That is detrimental to the U.S. and global economy. Many companies could benefit from the knowledge and expertise of academics, while many academic fields would be enriched by outside perspectives. Academic-private research partnerships mitigate this problem somewhat, but letting smart workers readily move between the sectors would do even more to encourage intellectual cross-fertilization. 

Of course, as with any big policy change we must be cautious. There are obvious ways the new policy could be abused. Professors might be fired for unpopular political opinions, or for going against academic fads and fashions. That kind of purging, or even the threat of it, could critically weaken freedom of thought at universities, encouraging destructive conformity and groupthink. 

So no matter what, there should be strong institutional and legal protections for freedom of speech and freedom of thought in universities. 

But if it’s done right, the weakening of tenure also has the potential to bring academia into the modern economic world. Smart young people these days are used to a life of job-hopping, with all its costs and benefits. They have learned to embrace new intellectual challenges, and to build diverse networks that cross institutions. Academia has existed as a strange, isolated exception to this epochal shift -- a place lost in time, where job security still substitutes for money, challenges and mobility. Perhaps it’s time to reunite that world with the rest of civilization.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Noah Smith at nsmith150@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
James Greiff at jgreiff@bloomberg.net