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Tenure Is a Total Scam
A tenured professor plays whistleblower
I’m a tenured professor. In normal English, that means I have a dream job for life. Which is even more fantastic than it sounds. “Fantastic,” that is, for us tenured professors. From the viewpoint of the taxpayers and donors who subsidize us, however, this system is a total scam. An outrage. A travesty.
Dear reader, I propose to give you a guided tour of the tenure system: How you get tenure, what tenure means in practice, and the laughable efforts of the professoriat to defend this affront to the word “job.”
Some will call me a hypocrite for taking part in this system, but that’s part and parcel of being a whistleblower. If I wasn’t a tenured professor, who would take my critique seriously?
There are many kinds of professors, but the kind you want to be is a tenured professor. A tenured professor doesn’t just enjoy a good salary, wonderful working conditions, and extreme job security; he also never has to retire.
How do you obtain this enviable employment package?
Step one is to be a stellar undergraduate student of whatever subject you want to profess. Take the hardest classes, get top grades, and impress your professors enough to elicit strong letters of recommendation.
Step two is to use your stellar undergraduate status to gain admission to a prestigious Ph.D. program with full funding. Full funding means (a) you pay no tuition, and (b) receive a modest stipend - maybe half of what you’d earn on a real job.
Step three is to excel in your Ph.D. program. By this stage, grades barely matter, and officially finishing is fairly easy if you put in the required 4-8 years. (Completion time varies heavily by field). If grades barely matter, how do you excel? To “excel” in a Ph.D. program is to amass academic publications. Co-authorship with faculty is one route, but in many disciplines you can also publish solo. The endgame of the Ph.D. is writing a special book called a “dissertation.” If you’ve been strategic, though, this dissertation just rehashes all the stuff you’ve been publishing during your program.
Step four, the most difficult by far, is to use your Ph.D., publications, dissertation, and connections to convince some academic department to hire you for a “tenure-track” position. This, and only this, gives you an opportunity to land your dream job for life. While you can definitely tilt the odds in your favor, the process is horrifyingly arbitrary. Some newly-minted Ph.D.s with great publications and great connections still confusingly fail. Others with no publications and no connections somehow land a position anyway. It’s psychedelic.
Step five is to actually get tenure. You have roughly six years to publish well enough to convince the tenured professors at your department that you are worthy to join their mighty company. If you succeed, you are anointed with your dream job for life. Otherwise they fire you and you return to step four. Normally at a markedly inferior school.
Bear in mind: For tenure-track professors at top-twenty schools, step five is hard. Their tenured professors jealously guard their status, so rejection is the default. However, as school ranking goes down, runaway nepotism swiftly supplants professorial pride. At schools ranked worse than fifty, acceptance is the default. Since low-ranked schools vastly outnumber high-ranked schools, you can often get tenure by publishing your dissertation - that special book you wrote to get your Ph.D. - with Some University Press, plus a couple of other token pieces in A Refereed Journal. If you’re not in a “book discipline,” just chop your dissertation into three or four articles and publish them in Some Other Refereed Journals.
The Life of a Tenured Professor
Holy moley, you’ve got your tenured professorship! What’s the full compensation package?
Despite much whining, tenured professors are well-paid. Most reluctantly describe their income as “upper-middle class.” The poorest are still comfortably middle-class; the richest are easily “lower-upper class.” And that’s just base salary. Depending on their field, enterprising professors add on royalties, consulting income, speaking fees, and more.
Still, it’s not the handsome salaries that make tenure a scam. It’s what tenured professors have to do to keep receiving those handsome salaries.
Namely: Next to nothing!
Officially, professors have three distinct sets of responsibilities: teaching, research, and service. Here, though, is the unofficial reality:
Teaching. A typical tenured professor has a “2/2 teaching load.” That means that every year, you teach four distinct classes. Each of these classes normally has 2.5 hours of class time per week for 15 weeks. 4 * 15 * 2.5 hours=150 hours in the classroom per year.
What about prep? You only have to do it the first time you teach a course, then recycle for the rest of your career.
What about grading? You can delegate most that to your Teaching Assistant. (If your school doesn’t give you one, you can hire your own, cheap).
Add it all up, and teaching is under 10% of the time commitment of a normal 2000-hour-per-year job. (40 hours per week * 50 weeks per year = 2000 hours per year). For less-fortunate faculty with 3/3 loads, teaching comes to just over 10% of a normal job. For the truly oppressed with 4/4, we’re talking 15%. Poor them!
Research. To repeat: You must do research to get tenure. Research expectations range from herculean at top schools, to “Publish your dissertation and a couple more articles” at mediocre schools. Either way, once you have tenure, you keep your position even if you publish nothing at all. And if you do Google Scholar on random tenured professors, you’ll discover that about half barely publish post-tenure. Sure, weak researchers get modestly lower raises and dramatically fewer outside offers, but the career consequences end there.
What makes low research productivity so shocking is that you can call practically anything “research.” There are endless crummy journals in need of content. Or you can just self-publish on Substack. (Say what you want about me, but I am self-aware). The system tells tenured professors, “Write about whatever you find interesting” - and about half of faculty yawn and write nothing. Scary!
Service. Professors are also supposed to serve on a bunch of committees. Most departments largely excuse tenure-track assistant professors from serious burdens; after all, they’re trying to get tenure. Once you attain tenure, you’re supposed to start doing your part. This so-called “service” could consume your life… if you let it.
However, if you officially do zero service, the consequences are slight. Maybe you won’t get promoted to “Full Professor.” Boo-hoo. And if you unofficially do no service by agreeing to serve while doing no work, the consequences are near-zero.
I know older faculty who resigned because they disliked service. They even used the grammar of, “I had to do too much service.” When I probed, “Why didn’t you just say, ‘I’m too old and tired to serve on any more committees’?” they only shrugged. One responded: “That’s not how I was brought up.” None even claimed they would face any serious consequence of stonewalling.
To recap: Tenured professors get good salaries to do about 10% of a real job. 15% tops. All their other responsibilities are, for practical purposes, optional. Sounds good, right? But this glosses over two further astronomically valuable benefits. Namely:
Firing a tenured professor is almost impossible. Unlike research and service, teaching is mandatory. As long as you show up for your classes and go through the motions, though, you’ve “fulfilled your teaching responsibilities” - and you’re virtually immune to termination.
Don’t you have to at least show up at your office and pretend to work? No no no! Plenty of faculty visit their offices weekly, monthly, seasonally, annually, or once in a blue moon. Officially, you’re supposed to have office hours, but you can Zoom those if students yearn to talk to you. Which few do.
What else will get your tenure revoked? If you’re convicted of a felony against student or staff, that will usually suffice. Game theorist Rafael Robb lost tenure for murdering his wife. Sleeping with students? Maybe, but most schools will just pay you a bag of money to leave quietly.
For the time being, tenure remains stronger than wokeness itself. While I occasionally hear that a professor had tenure revoked for anti-woke heresy, the true story is almost invariably, “The heretic felt hated and the administration felt ashamed. So they paid the heretic a bag of cash to leave.” UPenn law professor Amy Wax is the only exception I know of - and her heresy case is still in process. I agree that the real reason Princeton fired Josh Katz was heresy, but if he hadn’t slept with a student, he too would have been safe.
No one can make you retire. Seriously. As long as you can teach 150 hours a year, you get to keep your job. It doesn’t matter if you’re 150 years old. As the American Association of University Professors states:
Until 1982, colleges and universities could mandate the retirement of faculty at age sixty-five, and, until 1994, they could mandate retirement at age seventy. Since 1994, however, federal legislation has prevented academic institutions from setting any mandatory retirement age.
Higher education has for years enjoyed a special exemption under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, which bars most employers from enforcing mandatory retirement. After the exemption expires on December 31, tenured professors will be free to choose whether to continue working at 70.
A normal job, however, has a simple way to handle this problem. An 80-year-old won’t retire? Give him enough work to strain a 40-year-old. Before long, he’ll say “I’m too old to keep doing this.” If he’s really stubborn, you can easily fire him for cause. In contrast, since academia barely asks tenured professors to do any work at any age, you can “work” till you drop.
The one solution that is available to academic employers, as usual, is to offer you a big bag of money to retire voluntarily. And if you’re wise, you’ll scoff, “Three years’ salary to retire? I’m gonna live more than three years, sonny!”
Non-academics usually assume that professors’ main job is teaching students. When they hear how little professors actually teach - and how much they receive in exchange - their minds explode. Indeed, non-academics almost invariably go into denial: “It can’t really work like that!” My Dad still only half-believes what I tell him about my job.
If and when the disbelief ends, anyone with a normal job instantly realizes that tenure is a recipe for terrible job performance. Sure, people will struggle to get tenure: “Publish or perish.” Once they do, however, they’ll rest on their laurels until their teeth fall out.
Cynics will add: “Even if this is a great system for encouraging research, how much of this ‘research’ is worth doing?” If they pursue these doubts, most non-academics will look at STEM research and say, “Maybe it’s really important, I just can’t tell.” Virtually all other research, however, looks like a cultish waste of time to all unbelievers.
Still, the economically literate will be most astounded by the sheer arbitrariness of the system. Due to severely nepotistic tenure votes outside of top departments, the key cutoff is not getting tenure. The key cutoff is obtaining a tenure-track job. 80% of faculty who get tenure at mediocre schools could easily be replaced with professors who are plainly better in every way, but who weren’t lucky enough to land a tenure-track job straight out of grad school.
Other than flatly declaring, “Well, the system is great for me,” how could anyone defend actually-existing tenure?
The classic story is that tenure protects dissenters.
This argument is true as far as it goes. If I didn’t have tenure, I wouldn’t be blowing the whistle on tenure.
The flaw with the argument is that academic dissenters remain ultra-rare. Far too rare to justify the enormous downsides of the tenure system. And from a bird’s-eye view, the full effect of tenure on dissent is mixed at best. Remember: To get tenure, a dissenter normally has to spend a decade and a half impersonating a normal academic. If you start the process as a non-conformist, the system almost always either weeds you out or wins you over. By the time you get tenure, a creepy chorus of “One of us! One of us!” is in order.
A few economists have argued that tenure makes sense because it reduces the incentive of “over-the-hill” researchers to treat rising stars as a career threat. You don’t want to hire anyone good enough to replace you, right? However, this worry applies to virtually any high-skilled job, and virtually no other high-skilled job handles this worry with anything remotely like tenure.
Most defenders soon retreat to a Panglossian, “If tenure was really a bad idea, it wouldn’t be so prevalent.” But this neglects a simple alternative two-part explanation: Universities combine perverse incentives with feeble selection pressure, allowing dysfunction to durably thrive.
Perverse incentives. Colleges and universities are almost always non-profits, and non-profits work poorly. If a university president discovers a way to save piles of money while upsetting the faculty, he has a strong incentive to bury his discovery and preserve the status quo. After all, he’ll personally pocket none of the cost savings, yet endure all of the grief.
Feeble selection pressure. Colleges and universities are heavily subsidized by taxpayers and donors. They’re not like normal businesses that go bankrupt if they stagnate. Not even close. As a result, their leadership can safely remain dysfunctional even in the long-run. Not perfectly safe, for there are a few tiny exceptions. But safe enough.
What is to be done? As I explain in my The Case Against Education (published by Princeton University Press, ha!), the fundamental remedy for everything wrong with our education system is austerity. Cut the subsidies for this grotesque scam, and it will drastically shrink. Conceivably it will even… reform.
Though I stand by the glory of austerity, over last few years Chris Rufo and Corey DeAngelis have demonstrated that pugnacious reformers in red states can awaken public resentment against our educational status quo. Chris and Corey, if you’re reading this, I hope that my realistic portrait of academic tenure is lurid enough for you to work some more of your patented policy magic. The oppression of taxpayers and the deception of donors need to end. If the result is that I lose my dream job for life, so be it.