Tenure is not the problem.

Yesterday, on my Facebook I posted a quote from a recent article by Lamar Alexander published on Newsweek. Among other things, he points out that tenure system in American universities is not working. Here’s what he wrote:

Within academic departments, tenure, combined with age-discrimination laws, make faculty turnover—critical for a university to remain current in changing times—difficult. Instead of protecting speech and encouraging diversity and innovative thinking, the tenure system often stifles them: aspiring professors must win the approval of established colleagues for tenure, encouraging likemindedness and sometimes inhibiting the free flow of ideas.

To this post, my former colleague at Case, Susan Helper whom I respect a lot, posted the following comments:

tenure may discourage some small innovations, but also protects the development of big, unpopular ideas (imho!). As Dick Boland has said, every academic should, at least once in their career, do something they would have not been able to do without tenure!

To this I responded:

I totally agree with Dick. The challenge is that human mind is habitual. It is very hard to break away from the pattern of behavior that you acquired while you are working very hard to get tenured.

Now, I had a chance to think over it, I realized that tenure itself is not the problem. It is the way b-schools evaluate their faculty members for promotion and tenure. All business schools are obsessed with rankings, published by BusinessWeek, Financial Times and US News & World Report. In the past, these rankings did not include research as part of their ranking criteria. Responding to the criticism that they did not consider one of the most important missions of the university, these magazines started to include “research” as a part of their ranking evaluation. The problem is that they only count the number of publications in a small number of selective journals as a way of evaluating research. Of course, most of these journals are highly respected journals on their own right, with few exceptions. But, the problem is that many b-schools who are trying to climb up the ranking ladder became overly jealous about these journals, putting almost exclusive emphasis on the number of articles as the almost only criteria for faculty research evaluation. Among many non-sense that is transpired by these ranking obsession, the way we evaluate faculty research is perhaps the most important and unfortunate casualty. At most places, the promotion and tenure decisions are made based on the numbers of articles published in a very short list of journals, not based on the merit of ideas. Often the journals that are picked by these magazines are on the top of the list. In a way, if I want to be cynical, many b-schools have effectively outsourced the job of coming up with research evaluation metrics to few publishing companies whose primary interests is driving up sales of their “special issues” that include these rankings.

Therefore, it seems like tenure is not the source of the problem. It is the way we evaluate faculty research that encourages behaviors that Alexander describes in his article. When it is done properly, I think tenure should promote the behaviors that Susan and Dick advocate. Now that I have tenure, I wonder if I am working on projects that I would have not been able to do without one.

Professor | Writer | Teacher Digital Innovation, Design, Organizational Genetics Case Western Reserve University

4 thoughts on “Tenure is not the problem.

  1. thanks, Youngjin, for this thoughtful perspective (and the compliment). I think you are right–business schools need to strengthen their intellectual conversation about what makes good work; tenure committees need to actually read and discuss the articles of the people they are reviewing. Instead, we often seem to veer between the poles of article-counting on the one hand or cronyism on the other.

  2. As someone enjoys the benefits of tenure, I still think tenure is part of the problem: for every politically unpopular or other free speech exemplar of tenure benefits there are 10 slugs who’ve retired on the job, or who’ve become jerks because no one can touch them.
    Perhaps a more accurate statement would be “abolishing tenure won’t fix the problem.” Every organization needs accountability, and tenure certainly reduces accountability. A compromise might be a series of 5- or 10-year rolling contracts.
    As for business schools rewarding the wrong thing, the current system will continue until a dean has the guts to ignore the incentives and do something that really matters to the real world (e.g. employers, entrepreneurs or consulting clients.). Do something that’s a smash success and the system will change. Right now, it seems like most top 20 deans are trying to both — the old system and some form of external relevance.
    Information Schools are not yet locked into any established paradigm, so we may see more experimentation there than in any AACSB-accredited institution.

  3. Joel, I had a very similar conversation with one of my colleagues here yesterday. And, I think you are correct that there is the problem of “early retirement”. Now, abolishing tenure will certainly address that problem. However, it alone is not likely to spark the audacious bold ground-breaking research. These are two separate problems, albeit interrelated. Of course, we can also think about journals and their review process being too conservative and incremental, thus rewarding wrong type of behaviors as well.
    At any rate, I believe that b-schools the way we know it ran its course. Tenure is just one of many problems that they have. But, that is for another posting.

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