The Economic Argument for Tenure

While people often view academic tenure either as a boondoggle for hoity-toity professors or as a critical bulwark of academic freedom, I’ve always viewed the justification for tenure as mostly an economic one:

Consider an undergraduate who might have loans to pay off. Then add five to eight years during which, if he is lucky, he doesn’t accumulate debt, but certainly isn’t saving any money. Then add the post-doc (at least one) where, again, there’s low wages and little savings. Follow that with five to nine years of running like hell, at which point you can receive tenure. If tenure weren’t available, few people would put up with that career trajectory, unless the pay were higher…

Thoreau at Unqualified Offerings fleshes this out more fully:

Did you notice the part where I said I’d want a higher salary to compensate for having less security? Yeah. See, lots of people are willing to slave away in grad school and postdoc positions and adjunct positions in exchange for a shot at the tenure lottery. Dilute the value of the prize, and suddenly people start wanting more money in return. A lot of smart, highly-educated people will start looking at other white collar career paths if academia doesn’t provide a shot at life-long security, or at least higher pay than is currently on offer. Take away tenure, and not only do you pay more for the people that you ultimately hire for full-time positions, you also have to pay more for all of the grad student TA’s and research assistants and postdocs and adjuncts who are trying to claw their way to a full-time position.
Why, pray tell, would the administration go for that bargain?

I really think that’s the crux of the issue: universities couldn’t afford not to have tenure. Yes, sometimes you get deadwood, but it’s actually a great economic deal for universities, especially in the heavily funded sciences.

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6 Responses to The Economic Argument for Tenure

  1. Jabfish says:

    That first quote describes me. Tens of thousands of dollars in debt from undergrad, followed by just getting by in grad school. Based on my predicted loan payments, the average postdoc salary may or may not allow me to live decently and pay my loans. I love research, but I like eating more.

  2. mousedude says:

    As long as there are more people looking for academic positions than there are positions to fill, pay will be low and universities will be able to dictate the terms of employment for all but the most in-demand academics. That’s why tenure is dying.
    Academics can “demand” higher wages in exchange for lower job security till we’re blue in the face, but as long as there are 200 applicants for every faculty job opening, universities have no incentive to listen.
    This sounds like the blog post of a man who hasn’t had to look for a job in the past few years.

  3. Sharon Astyk says:

    But this only explains a tiny portion of the cases – people who could, in fact, get industry or white collar jobs. I’d argue that at least half the academic population, and probably vastly more than that, has no where to go to use the skills they’ve so laboriously acquired – period. Where does a historian of the Russian Marxist period go in white collar public life? How about a theoretical astrophysicist? A scholar of modern theater?
    There are jobs outside academia one can get, but most of them could be gotten with an MA, rather than a Ph.d, and most of the really relevant ones are scarcer than hen’s teeth. There aren’t that many jobs editing Russian fiction outside of Russia, and why would the theoretical astrophysicist have gone through the damn Ph.d to get a job in math on Wall Street when he could have gotten the same job three years before and saved a bundle (assuming, of course, that Wall Street was hiring).
    Moreover, in order to assume that tenure, rather than academic culture, prestige and the chance to spend your life studying what you love and talking to the four other people who actually care about the same thing is the lure, you have to assume extremely poor math skills in your audience ;-). In many fields, a far larger number of students are trained than will ever get an academic job, and few people actually make it through grad school without figuring this out. Then still fewer actually get tenure. In order to believe that tenure is the driving star, you have to imagine that people realize that their one-in-2-to-10 chance of getting to that magic tenure spot is based on either lack of understanding of the numbers or a committed belief that they are such brilliant wonders that they numbers don’t apply to them. That may, of course, be true in some cases, but I don’t buy that it is in all cases.
    I think the truth is much blunter – people will do it for almost nothing. They will risk the huge loans and the crappy family conditions and the bullshit of academia to be in academia and do this work that engages them – that was what drove me and the people I knew in graduate school. Some probably won’t – but I’m not convinced you can make a meritocratic case for who will and won’t. But the conditions in academia are not so very awesome that it explains the current excess of candidates, and I doubt even the abolition of tenure will put much of a crimp in the number of people dreaming of an academic future.

  4. FrauTech says:

    Your commenters have it. So long as there are still a ton of people vying for these jobs, the pay will be low and tenure hard to grasp. I agree the lifestyle is often a bigger pull than the realities of the job. How many grad students are told teaching/tenure-track jobs are near impossible to get and yet plug along thinking they are ok being an adjunct if nothing else because they love it that much. And most people, even in science careers, don’t have a white collar job to jump through. The 30k a year humanities majors might expect to make in the private industry if they can get a job is still less than they can get in academia, and the job security in academia still better than industry. I’m pro-tenure but economics are going to control the path this all takes for some time to come.

  5. Roman says:

    “and why would the theoretical astrophysicist have gone through the damn Ph.d to get a job in math on Wall Street when he could have gotten the same job three years before and saved a bundle (assuming, of course, that Wall Street was hiring)”
    Because for the best quant jobs on Wall St, the PhD in a hard subject (maths or physics, basically) is still an absolute prerequirement. Wall Street is basically a “plan B” for many people who’d like to try a research career in physics, but are not sure they will be able to make a living out of it.

  6. A little common sense says:

    If you really like your work, even love it, then all the negatives make sense.
    If you don’t, find another profession.

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