Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Academic Tenure Revisited

by Daniel Bennett

Inside Higher Ed ran an essay defending academic tenure this morning and it prompted some thoughts on the matter.

The debate for tenure is usually focused on academic freedom, or the right to free speech, without it negatively affecting one's career or employment. However, tenure has been abused by some, certainly not all, as a means of slacking off after the conditional period of employment has passed. When this happens, colleges are stuck with highly paid, unproductive employees for the next 25 to 30 years that exert little effort in the classroom and less time trying to enhance the life prospects of their students. A similar problem exists in civil service and with unionized labor in terms of job security. Once an employee joins the club, then there is little incentive to continue working hard or to be innovative for the benefit of the organization.

Does this mean that employees should not have a voice or job protection? Absolutely not, but job security is a job benefit (similar to health insurance and a retirement plan) and there needs to be a tradeoff between wages and other compensation benefits. Offering tenure is not without cost to employers. There is a huge opportunity cost to provide long-term job security to employees in that it greatly reduces the ability of colleges and other organizations to shift resources to keep up with an ever-changing global environment. So, what to do? Richard Vedder likes the idea that DC public school superintendent Michelle Rhee proposed. Rhee's plan would impose two tracks for teachers in which there is a choice of benefits--job security and salary are a trade-off.

This is a great idea that would serve the needs of all employees. Those who are risk averse, would choose the job security and lower salary. Those who are willing to risk job security in the name of a higher salary, would choose that route. My guess is that those who are willing to risk job security are also confident of their capability and value to an organization, in which case they have little to worry about even during a downturn, as efficiently-managed and innovative organizations will extend a great deal of effort to retain their key employees. Job security should be an option with some restrictions as opposed to being an entitlement.

1 comment:

Talleyrand said...

Your last comment may be true but there is a temptation here to say that those choosing job security are thus the crap ones. This kind of claim would rely on professors having an accurate view of their value, which in my experience is not always the case.