May 28, 2003

More on the Economics of Tenure

King at SCSUScholars responds to the recent discussions on tenure (The Economics of Tenure and "Higher Ed in a Down Economy") with a post entitled "Thinking more about tenure," in which he suggests that "Tinkering with the system may be more costly than we realize."

"I suggested in one comment there [ie., here]," he writes,

that there's some similarity between working through the minor leagues in sports and working through graduate school to get to the tenure-track job. IA says that if so, people should be warned. Sure, but who will do so? The graduate schools, turning away business because they are looking out for you? The undergraduate advisors, who drew you into your studies to get someone good in their otherwise boring seminars? (Yes, students, we professors can get bored in a seminar too -- we don't like the sound of our voices any more than you do.) Is there anyone besides the aspiring graduate student in whose interest it is to be forewarned of the academic job market? Perhaps I'm being too simple, but I can't think of one.

I can think of at least one group other than aspiring graduate students: tenured professors, and more broadly, the members of any profession who have an interest in perpetuating the profession as a profession. In "The Economics of Tenure," I cite James Axtell (via Jason at No Symbols Where None Intended) as follows:

In 1987 the median salary of a Ph.D. in government was 10 percent higher than his academic counterpart, and in the private sector, 24 percent higher. Today [1998], the private/academic differential is 38 percent and growing, as academic salaries struggle to keep up with even modest inflation.

It is interesting to place Axtell's numbers alongside another set of figures concerning "Trends in Faculty Employment." According to the Chronicle of Higher Education's Almanac, in 1979 66 percent of faculty were full-time, 34 percent part-time. Twenty years later, in 1999 57 percent of faculty were full-time, 43 percent part-time. Assuming that Axtell's figures are accurate, it looks as though the stagnation in full-time faculty salaries has occurred at the same time as the growing trend toward part-time versus full-time faculty. Might there be a connection between these two trends?

I suspect that there is a connection. As the American Historical Association has finally recognized, "Everyone in the historical profession has a stake in ameliorating this situation. It is important to halt the erosion of tenure track positions, and where possible to increase them." That is, the trend toward the deprofessionalization of younger faculty does not only harm those faculty, but also poses a threat to the status of the profession as profession. The trend toward part-time over full-time positions over the past two decades constitutes a slow but steady erosion of tenured positions.

King argues that a multi-tier academic labor system is an efficient form of "price discrimination:"

One point about the economics of this is that two-tier or three-tier pricing -- a tenure track, a non-tenure, full-time renewable track, and an adjunct track -- does at least produce more jobs than would exist with a single track. Any principles of economics book will teach you that you get more efficient solutions with this type of 'price discrimination.' And with it comes more classes, more students, and more education. That's a thing worth having. Certainly some PhDs will lose the tournament for the tenure track, but their willingness to work without tenure or part-time produces something of real value.

It is quite true that the use of more adjuncts allows universities to offer more courses to more students. Given the cost-effectiveness of this trend, the danger, as I see it, is that entire professions become thoroughly, if not completely, adjunctified. If full-time English faculty, for example, agree to a system in which the part-timer teaches an English course for $2,500, at what point does the administration decide that the teaching of an English course is indeed worth no more than $2500? While King's analysis seems to presuppose some sort of equilibrium (the continued existence of a tenure track alongside the adjunct track), the trend in some disciplines is in fact away from the tenure track and toward the adjunct track.

The other query I would raise: while King's suggestion that "tinkering with the system may be more costly than we realize" is no doubt a valid concern (who knows what would be the unintended consequences of tinkering?), it seems to assume a good deal more power and agency on the part of faculty than is probably the case. I believe that tenure is now under attack. The public does not support it, and neither do significant numbers of university administrators. Though faculty teaching at elite, private insitutions are probably safe, those teaching at publicly funded schools are not. Without an active effort to halt (if not reverse) current trends toward part-time faculty, it is difficult to see how adjunct-heavy disciplines can maintain and defend the continued existence of a tenure track.

King responds to the above with a new entry entitled "Productivity and the Professoriate."

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at May 28, 2003 02:33 PM

This just goes to show that the overuse and abuse of part-time faculty harms everyone in the end: students, full timers, and eventually the reputation of a university. I think it's funny that many full timers feel that the adjunct issue is so far removed from influencing their own salaries and professional demands! We're starting to see the effects of such complacency. I've worked with many full timers who blithely say that they don't like where they work and how it will be easy to find another job because of their "experience." Right. Now that many colleges and universities are becoming adjunct-heavy, expect to see more and more part time positions and lower or stagnant salaries. Now I may not be for tenure, but I do see these trends happening in higher ed. The adjuncts were the first to see it, but no one cared what we thought. You can bet you'll see a wellspring of caring now that these events are nipping at the heels of full timers!

Posted by: Cat at May 28, 2003 03:59 PM

Another way of saying "adjunct-heavy disciplines" is to say "disciplines whose research is deemed irrelevant or pointless." Tenure is a key protector for long-term, expensive research projects, which isn't the way most humanists describe their work.

It's no accident that adjunctivization, the culture wars, and attacks on tenure are most commonly directed against faculty in the humanities. To some degree, those wounds are self-inflicted, but this status more generally reflects a growing instrumental or vocational view of higher education.

Posted by: Jason at May 28, 2003 04:55 PM

Does anyone know how many adjuncts eventually choose to teach high school? And whatever that number is, why isn't it higher? Am I wrong that there are many high school teaching opportunities (public and private) for PhDs and that chances are you'll have brighter, more appreciative students and administrators?

Posted by: ogged at May 28, 2003 05:25 PM

I've always assumed you see few adjuncts go to the high schools because you need a teaching credential that most of us wouldn't get in the process of getting a PhD. Am I wrong?

Posted by: kb at May 28, 2003 05:27 PM

I think, Jason, that it's important to see the difference IA makes between the elite private schools and the public ones, particularly the second-tier publics. I doubt public support for higher education was ever about teaching Chaucer or the Magna Carta. My dad went to a land-grant institution on the GI bill to learn forestry. No doubt some wandered into the humanities along the way, but I think I'm right to call that a by-product rather than a goal of public education.

Posted by: kb at May 28, 2003 05:31 PM

I think it's very hard for tenured academics to think straight about tenure. Few people like to think they are the exploiters. So we get joseph in the earlier thread being certain that he could make more money outside the university and King in the post pointed to here coming up with this gem:

Some of the discussion on IA's latest post suggests that the abolition of tenure in England has been met with lower, not higher wages, as the theory would predict -- but it's questionable whether tenure has been reduced.

If the facts contradict the theory, contradict the facts.

Posted by: jam at May 28, 2003 05:38 PM

"it's questionable whether tenure has been reduced" in Britian in the sense that I questioned it. Is that where this comes from? If so I apologize. I only asked a question based on one bit of anecdotal evidence. IA countered that with reference to several bits of the same and some hard facts.

Posted by: Duncan at May 28, 2003 05:54 PM

regarding teaching credentials, my understanding is that many private schools don't require certification, some desperate public schools waive their requirements (those aren't very attractive jobs, to be sure), and some schools are willing to let one teach and pursue certification concurrently. For other schools (including the better public schools) I think you're correct that certification is one barrier to PhDs.

Posted by: ogged at May 28, 2003 06:12 PM


Fair enough. I mean, I'm the son of a community college professor and administrator; it's not like I'm insensitive to vocational/instrumental aspirations. And I of course recognize that different kinds of schools have very different missions--heck, I've taught at three radically different kinds of schools, with a fourth coming in the fall.

Having said that, your point about the public's vision for higher education doesn't say anything about the legitimacy of current attacks upon tenure, at least to me. Instead, it means that faculty in certain disciplines need to perform better outreach. (Hence my point that some wounds are self-inflicted.)

Posted by: Jason at May 28, 2003 06:46 PM

IA, I agree with your points on adjunctification and lowering of professionalism. The problem, though, is much deeper. Because most university administrators these days are educrats rather than scholar-administrators, they basically see faculty as an "expense" rather than as an asset. Indeed, I'm not sure anyone really thinks of professors as professionals anymore, and maybe with good reason. Not only are they radically lower paid compared to doctors and lawyers, but they don't seem to view themselves in the same manner. The rather slovenly manner in which most dress for work is but one anecdotal example.

Posted by: James Joyner at May 28, 2003 08:04 PM

"The rather slovenly manner in which most dress for work is but one anecdotal example."

Have you been talking to John Lemon? :)
He's on a crusade to stop faculty from wearing sweatshirts in the classroom.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at May 28, 2003 08:15 PM

Jason, sure, better outreach could help. We can guess what the efficacy of outreach would be. But there are other questions: 1. Why can't the taxpaying public figure out the value of a broad part of its youth receiving a liberal education? 2. What if they've figured out that the education we're giving is going in the wrong direction, and thus don't want to pay for tenure any more? 3. How would we get that message across to them, assuming that the message needs delivery, and why hasn't it been done already?

James Joyner's point is consistent with my view as the middleperson in all this: the department chairman. I receive every month a sheet showing what my department has cost the university. Rarely do I see how much revenue I generated; the administration believes they are the revenue source, not the faculty. I can put 40 students in a principles of economics class and generate roughly $17,000 in revenue and hire someone to teach the class for under $5000. But administrators simply don't think this way -- particularly those from the humanities. So students are underserved and fewer positions are available. (And if there are any deans reading this that want to challenge that, well, bring it.)

Jam, we're of course interested in preserving what we've got. I have options to being a professor and chairman (thank God!) by dint of my field, so it's not as big a deal for me. But many people entered the professioriate, particularly in the humanities, with the expectation of the tenure system, and it is ex post unjust to pull tenure out from under them (when they've entered into a contract that included the promise of tenure) even if we agreed that ex ante it's efficient and right to forgo it. This is why I have suggested creating a non-tenure full-time track; if you have both tracks and one is superior to the other, that will be revealed by choices of faculty and administration over time, without anyone being coerced to give up something they previously bargained for.

Posted by: kb at May 28, 2003 10:12 PM

" is ex post unjust to pull tenure out from under them (when they've entered into a contract that included the promise of tenure) even if we agreed that ex ante it's efficient and right to forgo it."

Agreed. But arguments based on justice seem different than arguments based on efficiency, cost-effectiveness and the like. Sooner or later, some state legislature or other will probably try to do what Thatcher did in 1988. If so, the justice or injustice of it wouldn't carry much weight with the taxpayers who are already highly suspicious of tenure and who would very likely be easily persuaded that the state can no longer afford to give professors "jobs for life"(as tenure is often described outside the academy.)

A full-time non-tenure track would be much better than an adjunct track. But now that universities realize how much money they can save by using adjuncts, how would it be possible to convince them to establish the full-time non-tenure track? I could imagine a deal with a "grandfather clause" which allows those with tenure to keep it (this was in fact part of Thatcher's tenure abolition), but in terms of new and future faculty, once you start talking about full-time non-tenure positions, how do you justify the full-time tenure track?

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at May 28, 2003 10:37 PM

Regarding price discrimination, you may be able to look at steady-state situations where people at a particular time have a choice among products at different price levels -- say, an airline ticket between two points, $2000 on United, $1800 on American, $500 on Southwest. You may be able to argue that more tickets are being sold overall, and it's just the Clampetts on Southwest.

However, over time this is not what happens. Eventually consumers realize the product is essentially the same, and American and United wind up unable to sell the expensive seats, while Southwest keeps on keeping on.

The same thing is happening with tenured professors vs adjuncts. First, there is no real objective difference in the product, especially at an undergraduate level. Second, there are too many professors, tenured and untenured, for the classes to be taught, just like the situation where there are too many airline seats in the air for those willing to travel.

The result is that, theories of price discrimination notwithstanding, the price of the commodity is going to approach the least expensive on the market, and this is simply because of the supply vs demand situation. The fact that adjuncivization is most common in the humanities is probably explained completely by the fact that somewhere between 25 and 60 percent of new PhDs in the humanities each year (depending on the discipline and the year) are unable to find tenure-track jobs.

Posted by: John Bruce at May 29, 2003 12:49 AM

Ex post injustice is a cost argument. If you know there's an x% probability that someone will breach a contract, you price that risk into the contract.

Posted by: kb at May 29, 2003 02:11 AM

Regarding what to do about currently tenured professors, other industries have addressed this problem simply by making buyout offers to employees who are de facto tenured (they've been there 20 years and had good evaluations -- they'll sue you on various grounds if you simply lay them off).

The buyout offer is also based on a cost estimate, covering things like the discounted present value of x years continuing employment, the potential utility of a lump sum that could do things like pay off a mortgage, or the likelihood that you can go easy now, or go with a smaller payout later.

The benefit to the institution is that they can hire new staff at much less than the salaries of those they're letting go.

Posted by: John Bruce at May 29, 2003 03:52 AM

"Ex post injustice is a cost argument. If you know there's an x% probability that someone will breach a contract, you price that risk into the contract."

-Posted by kb at May 29, 2003 02:11 AM

Assuming that one has even a clue as to the probability and the cost of breach. For example,
what is the probability of a given college breaking
tenure in the next 20 years? What is the cost to an individual of that happening?


Posted by: Barry at May 30, 2003 02:38 PM