At the Balkinization blog, Jacob Mazzone argues that:
Law schools face increasing pressures to reduce the costs of legal education. While few people like to talk about it, tenure must be a key component of any cost assessment. In many law schools, salaries comprise a large portion of the annual budget. Tenure is especially expensive because it means an institution grants a (virtually) lifetime appointment without any guarantee that the individual who is tenured will continue to produce at a rate that justifies the salary paid. Tenure is also costly because it reduces an institution’s flexibility: the institution cannot (easily) move somebody out to make room for somebody who would add greater value.
Tenure is ripe for reassessment ....
Mazzone advances three reasons for rethinking tenure:
- At most law schools, tenure amounts to an entitlement. This is, of course, not news. I once heard UIUC's then-Chancellor disdainfully remark that at the law school tenure was regarded as a birthright. Which was true, but still not a nice thing to say at a law shcool function!
- Because tenure is a virtual birthright, the process goes too fast (four or five years, as opposed to seven-plus in many other disciplines) and is too undemanding (three or four articles in student-edited journals).
- Law schools give tenure to categories of faculty that Mazzone thinks don't need or deserve it, such as clinicians, legal writing instructors, or librarians. (In my view, this is also at least in part a result of viewing tenure as a birthright.)
What Mazzone fails to address, however, is that tenure has more functions than protecting academic freedom. (I'm not sure I would go as far as Steven Levitt, who argued that the claim that "tenure protects scholars who are doing politically unpopular work strikes me as ludicrous." But I'm prepared to say it's the rare case where it fulfills that function.)
Instead, at least in professional schools like law, tenure's primary function is compensation.
I suspect that virtually every law faculty member makes less money that s/he would earn in a private sector job. Certainly, I make a fraction of what I would make as a Big Law corporate law partner.
But while Big Law partners make gobs of money, they are also subject to lots of risks. Look at the folks at Dewey if you need an obvious example. Plus, even healthy firms these days are willing to push partners out the door with very little notice.
For young, aspiring law professors, the prospect of tenure must seem especially attractive relative to the risks faced by young associates these days.
I'm not saying that tenure explains the entire gap between what law professors make and what law firm partners make.
I'm just saying that tenure has value. Therefore, if Mazzone's hypothetical "cost-conscious law school of the future" wants to save money by eliminating tenure, that school will have to figure out how much it will need to raise salaries to off-set the lost value of tenure to its faculty.
Hence, I agree with tenured physicist Ted Bunn that:
For most faculty members, I suspect, tenure’s not really about academic freedom. It’s just a job benefit, like a dental plan or a day-care center. And like those other benefits, if employers got rid of it they’d have to offer either higher salaries or other benefits, in order to compete for the same pool of potential employees.
I don’t know if anyone’s tried to estimate the economic value of tenure to typical faculty members and hence how much it would cost to eliminate it. Academic salaries are not high, compared to other jobs with similar levels of training, and I suspect that the job security of tenure is quite valuable to many people who have it. I doubt the cost of eliminating tenure would be trivial.
I do too. As would tenured economist Greg Mankiw:
My guess is that a more typical faculty member would place a larger monetary value on having tenure [than the $15,000 figure given it by Levitt]. If so, universities may well be better off by paying lower salaries to tenured faculty, despite the adverse incentive effects, than paying higher salaries to professors without tenure.
Anyway, none of this is new. For a good starting point to the debate triggered the last time somebody made Mazzone's basic point,with links to other blog posts and news accounts, see this post by Kim Krawiec.