As Frederic Bastiat pointed out again and again, the good economist takes note of all the consequences of some action, whereas the poor economist only takes account of the obvious, immediate effects. In that vein, Duke professor Jonathan Anomaly examines the effects of tenure in today’s Pope Center Clarion Call.
Tenure was intended to protect academics against administrators who might want to terminate them for saying or writing things that were too radical. It does that, but it also introduces other incentive changes. Perhaps the most interesting among them is that it tends to make up-and-coming academicians very conservative.
Not conservative in the usual political sense, of course. What Anomaly means is that they naturally craft their research and writing to appeal to the people who have the power to grant or deny tenure. Therefore, the young scholar has strong reason to stay with “safe” topics rather than challenging orthodox thinking within the discipline. “It is likely,” Anomaly writes, “that many more controversial scholars will never be hired in the first place because those on the hiring committee are hostile to their ideas.”
Tenure also makes it harder for schools to dismiss professors who are not contributing much to the institution. Administrators have much less flexibility in their efforts at minimizing costs.
Anomaly concludes that colleges and universities should search for other means of safeguarding academic freedom that don’t have the adverse effects of tenure.