Free Agent, Redux

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Okay, in my last post, I talked about the ways in which we don’t support one another strongly enough in higher ed. Let’s talk about the other side, the ways in which higher ed has strongly defended the role of tenure. Tenure is intended to be a protection of intellectual freedom, the ability to say risky things with less risk.

And often, that’s true.

But here’s an empirical study by three business and economics faculty at top-tier research schools: Brogaard, Jonathan and Engelberg, Joseph and Van Wesep, Edward Dickersin. “Why Do We Tenure? Analysis of a Long Standing Risk-Based Explanation.” (May 18, 2016). Available at SSRN:

Abstract: Using a sample of all academics that pass through top 50 economics and finance departments between 1996 and 2014, we study whether the granting of tenure leads faculty to pursue riskier ideas. We use the extreme tails of ex-post citations as our measure of risk and find that both the number of publications and the portion that are “home runs” peak at tenure and fall steadily for a decade thereafter. Similar patterns holds for elite (top 10) institutions, for faculty with longer tenure cycles, and for promotion to Full Professorship. We find the opposite pattern among poorly-cited publications: their numbers steadily rise after tenure. The decline in both the quantity and quality of publications points to tenure incentivizing less effort in publishing rather than more risk-taking.

We’ve long heard the stereotype of “dead wood,” the tenured professor safely home who just kicks back. As Steven Kerr wrote forty years ago in “On the Folly of Rewarding A, while Hoping for B,” you get what you reward. The most fundamental reward systems of higher ed stop with Associate Professor. Sure, you might get promoted to full some day, with a moderate increase in pay, but really, that’s a marginal. Associate Professor is such a cush gig that, in raw career terms, why bother?

One of my colleagues talks about only having seven of the fifteen people in her department that she can count on to do any service work at all. One who lives fifty miles from campus and refuses to come to work except Tuesday through Thursday. Others who insist on their “ownership” of the course they’ve taught for twenty years and haven’t updated for fifteen. We complain bitterly about unmotivated students, and shrug at unmotivated colleagues.

So, you want the protection of tenure? Deserve it. Make those Associate years the chance to do audacious things, to protect and advocate for your NTT colleagues, to lift your grad students to greatness. Don’t leave your most productive years behind in your 30s and glide until 73. Use your power for good.