thinking carefully about academic tenure, or how megan mcardle bungled her post

When people argue about academic tenure, they tend to rely on simple and often inaccurate ideas. The reasoning is sloppy. For example, blogger Megan McArdle wrote that

“Lifetime drycleaning”?  “Permanent tax advisor”?  When an academic starts pushing the tenure model for anywhere outside academia, I will find their defense of its use in academia more convincing.

The implication is that tenure only exists in the academy. This is incorrect. The truth is that tenure is rare, but it does appear in a number of circumstances outside of higher education.

Let’s start with a simple definition of tenure: you have tenure if you have de facto life time employment in an organization; you can’t be fired or laid off unless you are in gross violation of your contract or the organization is in dire financial straights; this is usually achieved after some probationary period. So, then, what industries have tenure for employees? I’ll stick to the US, since that’s what I know.

  • Public education (teachers, not administrators)
  • American civil servants
  • Professors – both public and private
  • The Roman Catholic Church
  • Law firms with “partner” systems
  • Architecture firms with “partner” systems
  • Private medical practices often have partner systems

It is true that most private sector work is not organized as tenured employment. But there are significant private and public sectors that have tenure. In many cases, these are voluntary choices and not mandated by government. Law firms were not forced into the partner system. You also can’t blame tenure on government subsidy that forces private institutions into the tenure system. For example, most Ivy League schools had de facto tenure systems in the 19th century, and there’s no evidence they were forced into it by the rise of public land grant schools.

I don’t know the history of the law or medicine well enough, but my guess is that the examples above are all about professional control of work. These are all groups of people who do not want professional managers and owners to determine what happens at work. In higher education, we don’t let donors or MBAs determine who gets promoted. So we let the insiders do it. Same with the church, law, and medicine. They don’t want stockholders or middle management to have ultimate power in their profession. So they set up organizations as “colleges of peers.” The tenure and partner system may be economically inefficient, but that doesn’t mean that it’s crazy or can’t appear in a market economy.

Getting back to Megan McArdle, you can see the error in her example: “Permanent tax advisor.” Tenure doesn’t mean that you personally would have a permanent tax advisor. just as academic tenure doesn’t mean that you have a permanent teacher. It means that a tax advisor would be a permanent member of an accounting firm. And guess what, Megan, we have those – they’re called partners!

Written by fabiorojas

July 28, 2010 at 12:26 am

Posted in academia, economics, fabio

4 Responses

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  1. Equating tenure and partnership is a tricky business. In most (equity) partnership models, the partner must make a substantial investment into the business.

    The tenured professor is more like the non-equity partner in a law firm: Permanent employment, high fixed salary.

    However, where the use of non-equity partnerships tends to vary over time with the competitiveness of labour markets, tenure seems more like an institution than a hiring tool.



    July 28, 2010 at 12:59 am

  2. […] In these discussions, it is as if (1) 100% of education personnel was tenured (not really) and (2) as if tenure was unique to education and higher education (not really either). […]


  3. bork: That’s an excellent point. Professor tenure is definitely institutionalized, while non-equity partners are not. But still, some orgs (like religions) seem to have permanent non-equity partners. This really suggests that there’s an interesting story of politics and economics creating niches where tenure or quasi-tenure arises. I wish I knew what that story was about.



    July 28, 2010 at 7:34 pm

  4. Michael

    August 2, 2010 at 1:39 pm

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