A Debate on University Tenure


With only 8 percent of private employees belonging to trade unions, job security outside government employment has become a sometime thing. One group of employees, however, does have nearly total job security: tenured university professors. Faculty tenure is under attack as never before in the past 50 years. I like tenure, but why should my group of workers get special protections against the vicissitudes of demand for our “product?” Self-interested arguments about job protection are unsatisfactory. I recently “debated” a journalist on this issue, with the resulting short video from the Texas Tribune:



I believe higher education is a special case—without tenure we would not be Socrates’s “gadfly on the body politic.” But with gadflies increasingly unwelcome, our protections are in danger of being removed at all but the fanciest private institutions.


I've never understood why tenure exists. I know professors that teach one class a semester (2 days a week for an hour each class) and then the rest of the time they write books and research papers (required to write one paper maybe once a year or so). These guys get paid at least 6 figures and why? Because they've worked at the same place doing the same thing for a number of years? Give me a break. A complete waste of money, and part of the reason why tuition fees are on the rise so much.


A professor makes provides a lot of money to the university via research grants - the university overhead is around 40% - this means that they are getting this much directly (beyond the actual costs of the research) to run the university itself.

This impacts the quality of education directly - thus research faculty directly contributes to the equipment, staff, building costs, utilities etc. that go beyond the actual research.

So saying that a research does not impact the quality of education is foolish

Clifton Griffin

Tenure arguably creates more job insecurity for aspiring university professors.

The "up or out" policies at most schools that provide tenure requires professors to produce research that is impressive enough to warrant tenure within a certain number of years of joining the faculty, or they lose their jobs.

Beyond pulling the professor out of the classroom, professors who are unable to meet this requirement become less and less hirable as other colleges become less interested.

This creates a very limited window of opportunity. If you don't impress the first couple of universities with the quality of your research (irrespective of the quality of your teaching), you become increasingly unhirable.

The incentives seem out of whack to me.

(Though I do see the value of academia having some kind of intellectual immunity...better faculty contracts maybe?)


University professors are hardly the "gadfly on the body politic" as they rely very heavily on grants from industry and government. This kind of relationship doesn't lead to heavy criticism, let alone the Socratic type of alienation (they did kill him in the end).


Tenure is a form of compensation to university faculty. (Probably 99% of tenured faculty are doing nothing that would require such strong "freedom of speech" protections.) It is a way for a university to attract human talent without paying them more. Indeed, the practice as it exists today traces its origins to WWII (surprisingly recent, many people find), when salary caps prohibited universities from competing for talent that way. Nowadays, it is a reason some smart people find becoming a professor more attractive than becoming a doctor, lawyer, or venture capitalist.

I think there are all sorts of problems with the tenure system. Before dispatching it, though -- and maybe we should dispatch it -- we should carefully think through what the effect will be on who becomes a professor under the new scheme.

Bruce Marshall

Tenure, College Professors = lack of accountability to the client. Lets face it, higher education is a service to be purchased. The tenure system, which protects those who are fringe thinkers, ie Ward Churchill, is broken. The end purchaser, the student, and therefore the parents of students, can't hold these fringe thinkers accountable for their absurd policies.

How often do we hear of professors of non political courses, creating a hostile environment for those people who do not agree with their political point of view. It is rampant. Tenure has created a culture of virtual oppression of free discussion on college campuses. Only one view allowed, all others are vilified as hate speech.

I have several college professors in my extended family, and my wife is a Elementary School teacher, and they all readily acknowledge this type of oppressive opinion is a daily occurance, and very heavy handed.

It has become so abused, I am in favor of completely eliminating tenure, and pushing to ensuring a balanced political orientation requirement for every department on campus.



I'll take a guess: Fox News and Glenn Beck are part of those balanced political orientations ...

Research universities are founded in reality, there are no feelings, make believe and other bull. Unfortunately as it happens reality itself has a liberal bias...

Scott Templeman

The price of tuition is massively inflated, and we know human nature trends towards "resting on our laurels." As for what would best serve the end-user (customer), it's a no-brainer that everyone should be earning their job every day. No one has job security anymore, and when it comes to the art of knowledge sharing, we are artificially ignoring the fact that the cost of (and skill required for) sharing knowledge is getting infinitesimally low. It took manufacturing decades to realize they had lost their jobs to advances in technology, I think we're seeing the same with education now.


It would seem the height of hypocrisy for a economist to argue in support of a system that is not based on reward for performance. Once a professor is tenured the only incentive to remaining at his most productive is shame. Shame is a very poor incentive and only a slightly better deterrent.

Mike B

Social stigma is actually one of the best motivator's out there. Most of what you do on a daily basis is determined by social cues and pressure. It might surprise you that not everyone is motivated by simple monetary rewards. In fact the sort of highly intelligent and talented people who choose academia over a more lucrative profession more than likely fall into that category. Therefore the best way to motivate them is a strong guarantee of professional freedom and autonomy.


Mr. Hamermesh errs. He works for the University of Texas. He claims the problem is a lack of funding for public universities. Hamermesh's university has $16.11 billion dollars available in trusts and endowment (2008 estimates).

$16.11 billion dollars is a lack of funding?! I think Mr. Hamermesh's claim is spectacularly mendacious, because it comes from an economist who ought to know better.

Here is a much better defense of tenure by Jeffrey Miron: http://www.econlib.org/library/Columns/Mirontenure.html

Miron both demonstrates why Mr. Hamermesh is wrong, and how tenure is beneficial to the university. I still find the case unpersuasive on balance, but at least Miron isn't peddling mendacious arguments.


In my mind it's a red flag when anyone argues against accountability. Why are they afraid of it?

I'm sure some academics have valid concerns about how their performance would be evaluated if they were to lose their tenure today. However, in a competitive industry the institutions that do a poor job of evaluating talent would eventually fail because they will let good employees go and retain bad employees. The institutions that understand how to evaluate good talent, whether it be teaching talent, research talent, or some balance of the two, would succeed.

I see no problem with that.


While I enjoy and respect Dr. Hamermesh, I must take exception to what he says at the 5:08 to 5:36. I work at a high-level state supported research university with tenure, and as far as teaching goes, the average level of teaching at research universities is remarkably low. The ability to do research and to write for peer-reviewed publications is an entirely different skill set from the ability to impart knowledge effectively in a classroom setting. I have been told by colleagues point blank that "teaching doesn't matter." The majority of faculty at a research university don't have much motivation to apply their teaching skills any more than the bare minimum necessary. When I teach courses at my university (please note I am NOT a tenured-track faculty), my students write in my reviews that they appreciated the fact that my teaching style is so noticeably different from their other faculty. Certainly part of the reason is that as a career educator, I focus on what I can do to make the material easier to acquire. Most of my colleagues are simply focused on making the course material difficult to present the illusion of rigor, but in the end they curve the scores and wind up with the same grade distribution I have. However at the end of the course, the students have a much lower estimation of the subject, the faculty, and often themselves.

To address Dr. Hamermesh's first two points - the problems are lack of funding and the failure of managers to manage: First, the funding debate is too large for this space, but let me just say that at my university, while there may be a funding problem for specific initiatives or programs, there is not any visible systemic funding problem. Second, it is highly difficult for managers (Deans presumably) to manage when a) most of them lack managerial skills and b) the managers have no controls over the managed. The tenure system makes faculty very non-responsive to the leadership of their deans, because there are no serious consequences to failure to follow. Most dean's take a kid-glove approach to their faculty with the knowledge that there are few levers available to them to control their behavior.

I would like to say a lot more about this, but as a non-tenured university employee, I need to get back to performing my primary job functions, lest I risk termination.



Tenure originated from the concept that proven professors would feel free to engage in more abstract and/or long-term pursuits only if they were able to do so without fear of losing their job. Just look at the biological sciences - constant need to obtain grant money leads to PIs spending very little time doing science as well as focusing on short-term goals that can be easily published rather than long-term or abstract science. I'd argue that science is weakened as a result - more science can be done if our best scientists are able to do science, not writing grants, and if they can think big picture more often.


Toothy makes a great point about generating grants. The other part of the financial argument is the tuition of professional grad programs. If you're going to reward lawyers, MBAs, and doctors with huge salaries, then you need to get qualified people in there to teach them. To get qualified people in there, you've got to pay them enough. Our pay is based on what we could get in the private sector to the same sort of work. I'd guess that academia gets faculty at a steep discount to market price, when you look at science, engineering, business, medicine, and law, faculty at research schools. Now, once you get into other disciplines, the economic arguments get shakier.

In response to WR - you seem to have no clue about how research schools work (which is OK - most university students and alum don't have a clue, either). Your comment would be apt, if you replaced "university" with "community college." The "books and research papers" that you dismiss as the "rest of the time" is the actual currency for the game that we play. If you want a teacher, you can bring in an adjunct for maybe 25% of what tenure-track faculty get paid. But you will get a mercenary, who will probably teach adequately, but do nothing else (and nor should they, for what they are paid). Adjuncts shouldn't get tenure - there's no need for that. That's the community college model. But for research, projects can often take years. You need to have something that allows for the long game. Tenure is part of that design.

I'm a junior faculty member at a research-ish school (one of those 2nd tier research schools that say they are moving toward Tier I). I'll end up getting tenure somewhere (even if it's not at my current institution), as my research is solid (though not necessarily spectacular). So, personally, I'm all for tenure. That said, I could see some tweaks being worthwhile. For example, changing around workloads for those who are not "research active," even if they have tenure. But from what I've seen, research productivity actually goes up with tenured professors (these folks are the best and brightest, and generally have that intrinsic motivation that you want). I'd guess that for most faculty in science, engineering, and business, that even if you changed tenure from a life-long guarantee into something like a series of 10-year renewable contracts, that you'd have virtually the same folks doing well.



One aspect people are failing to recognize is that not all university professors have the same outside options. Economists, unlike many other social scientists, can find lucrative jobs outside academia. Likewise, many engineers and hard scientists are able to do the same. I am a PhD student in economics; and tenure and the lifestyle of academia are usually what draws my peers and professors to those jobs. I would worry that if tenure were to be eliminated, faculty in certain disciplines might flee to the private sector.

Eric M. Jones.

Somehow tenured professors have become the R&D labs of private industry, paid for (at least in part) by students' tuition. They teach hardly at all. This is a puzzle.

I remember when there were real R&D labs funded by companies that made profits from the products that were developed--Westinghouse, Sylvania, GE, RCA, Bell Labs. Some of these still exist but they have been hollowed out and now act mainly as a conduit from the university to the factory.

Historically the company-college wall came down for the effort of winning WWII, but they never got separated after the war.

Better that the companies should run their own universities.