People like to complain about tenure. On Monday, Stanley Kurtz at National Review Online called for tenure abolition. Matthew Yglesias argues that eliminating tenure at just one school would induce professors to flee and cause that university to become very bad very fast. But that’s not much of a defense of the tenure system in general.
From the point of view of academic mathematics, this whole argument looks a little weird. Tenure-haters seem to imagine the faculty as a den of little Ward Churchills who teach six hours a week and spend the rest of their time setting the flag on fire. Tenure-lovers think tenure is the only thing keeping some kind of decanal Stasi from purging professors with unpopular opinions.
In math, we like tenure a lot — but not because it’s a license to be lazy, and not because we’re worried about being blackballed by the Dean. We like it because, no matter how good we are, and no matter how hard we work, few of us produce as many theorems at 50 as we do at 30. Tenure-haters think conscientious professors who are good at their jobs have nothing to fear from the loss of tenure. But universities, all of them, are under extreme financial pressure. I’m sure our dean likes our department a lot. But if the university were allowed to get rid of everybody over fifty in our department and replace them with 27-year-olds with no kids who’d write more papers and get paid less, they would do it. They might feel bad about it, but they’d find a way to make it happen.
Now imagine you’re that 27-year-old with a new Ph.D. in math. You can go work at a hedge fund or an investment firm and make a six-figure salary the day you walk in the door. Or you can go to an academic job, where you’re going to get paid a lot less, and where you are very likely to be canned right before your kids enter college. How many of those people would take the second choice?
Ending tenure means a lot more than getting rid of academics you don’t like. It means discouraging young people from becoming academics at all. Some people may think the country would be better off if almost all new math Ph.D.’s went to work for hedge funds instead of doing research. (To put it mildly, that’s not my view.) If you think that, say that — but don’t pretend that getting rid of tenure is primarily about firing Ward Churchill.
(By the way, this seems an appropriate time to mention to everyone that I am tenured as of last month!)