Phi Beta Cons

Reader Mail on Tenure

Steve Horwitz, an economist at St. Lawrence University, takes issue with my labeling tenure as “anti-market”:

Why do you characterize tenure as “anti-market”? Isn’t it just one form that a teaching contract can take? I teach at a private institution, and we are not unionized. How does offering a teaching contract that includes the possibility of tenure count as “anti-market?”
I’m not denying that there are problems with the tenure system, but why not just characterize it as a bad contract and note that there are collective-action problems (concentrated benefits/dispersed costs, etc.) that make it hard to get rid of? I just don’t see it as necessarily “anti-market.”

My reply to Steve:

I would hate to argue with an economist, so you are probably right! But your position assumes that tenure is a freely arranged contract. I think that there is a lot of pressure (from politics, tradition, and “shared governance”) that makes administrators accept tenure when it is costly (the way that General Motors accepted contracts that it could not afford). The fact that tenure contracts are shrinking in number indicates that markets can overcome some of these pressures, and, indeed, that was the point of my remarks.

Jane S. ShawJane S. Shaw retired as president of the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy in 2015. Before joining the Pope Center in 2006, Shaw spent 22 years in ...

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