By Richard Vedder
A basic tenet of economics says if something gets expensive, people try to use less of it, finding cheaper substitute goods. Tenured professors are more costly than non-tenured ones on average, although in principle it should be the reverse --since tenure confers a fringe benefits with monetary value, the stated cash compensation should be reduced for tenured professors, other things equal.
This comes to mind when I read the latest AAUP report on the status of faculty members. In the mid 1970s, a solid majority of faculty members had tenure; today barely 35 percent do. Since the tenured faculty tend to be full-time and many of the non-tenured faculty are part-time, it is possible that tenured faculty still teach 40 percent or so of all courses --but it is almost certain that a majority of teaching today is done by non-tenured faculty. The shift away from traditional public universities and community colleges to private institutions also means a further deterioration in the institution of tenure.
From a purely educational perspective, I suspect the biggest problem is not the lack of tenure, but the lack of lasting institutional commitment amongst part-time faculty. Are incidents of reprisals against faculty for their beliefs less prevalent where tenure is strong? If so, that is an argument for maintaining tenure. Are moves to enforce political correctness and stifle intellectual diversity greater or smaller on tenure-intensive campuses? Tenure has a number of undesirable effects, including making resource reallocation more difficult, so if the primary justification for the institution -- promoting academic freedom -- has little validity, than the gradual demise of tenure is a positive event. But that is an empirical question worth investigating.
At the same time, however, some critics of higher ed put too much emphasis on the evils of tenure. After all, faculty salaries are a small portion of university budgets (typically, well under 25 percent). Ending tenure would have at best marginal effects in terms of improving university efficiency and productivity. Arguably it should be done, but ending tenure is no panacea for all the problems facing higher education.