To the Editor:
Professor Jenkins considers several ways to reform the tenure system (“On Tenure: What 4-Year Campuses Can Learn from 2-Year Campuses,” The Chronicle, May 31). However, he overlooks a crucial argument for tenure as currently constituted, which weakens his arguments for alternatives.
Tenure is an example of an “up-or-out” employment contract. Labor economists have long recognized the value of these contracts in preventing exploitation of employees by employers — in this case, faculty by their university. By baking in the promotion or dismissal decision at the time of hiring, tenure aligns the incentives of the university with the interests of faculty.
Universities want their faculty to make institution-specific investments. These range from conducting research under the university’s aegis, preparing lectures and supporting materials for the university’s specific courses of study, and providing service to university organizations and committees. Without the guaranteed end to the probationary (assistant professor) period, nothing prevents the university from reneging on its promises ex post. By moving the goalposts, universities could reap faculty members’ hard work for the bargain price of perpetual assistant-professorial compensation. Forward-looking faculty would respond by underinvesting in university-specific capital. This is bad for all parties. By solving this credible commitment problem, tenure enables young faculty to enjoy some of the benefits they create for their institutions.
Some of Professor Jenkins’s reforms are benign. But others, such as hiring faculty on the “expectation that they will, in fact, earn [tenure],” would make the problem even worse. The “sword of Damocles” Professor Jenkins decries is the key to making the “up-or-out” labor contract work.
Faculty compensation, including tenure, looks the way it does for a reason. We must be cautious in our reforms. If we overlook the often-subtle incentives at work, we may inadvertently make things worse, harming the persons and institutions we hoped to help.
Alexander William Salter
Georgie G. Snyder Associate Professor of Economics
Rawls College of Business
Texas Tech University