Which Is More Economically Useless: Academic Tenure or Critics of Academic Tenure?

Is academic tenure pointless? The New York Times assembled one of its online group-opinionating packages around the decline of tenure and what it means. The tenure system is ” financially unsustainable and intellectually indefensible ,” wrote Mark C. Taylor, head of the religion department at Columbia. Cathy A. Trower, a research associate at the Harvard ed school, wrote that tenure ” does not fit contemporary economic realities .”

The Atlantic’s Megan McArdle concurs on her blog, writing that tenure is “outmoded.” The academic hiring system abuses would-be professors, making them “live in poverty” only to dump most of them out to seek regular employment without having developed “marketable skills.” Those who do get tenure to pursue their research have simply pulled off a nice scam:

[I]n many liberal arts fields, the only possible consumer of the research in question is a handful of scholars in the same field. That sort of research is valuable in the same way that children’s craft projects are priceless—to their mothers. Basically, these people are supporting an expensive hobby with a sideline business certifying the ability of certain twenty-year olds to write in complete sentences.

That academia is a refuge for the unemployable is a common belief among journalists. Journalists suspect that they and liberal-arts academics have more or less the same skill set, and journalists are barely employable themselves. Yet journalists are more and more likely to get laid off as the years go by, while these other economic undesirables enjoy ironclad job security.

But are these tweedy slackers the real embodiment of the academic job market? Jordan Ellenberg, a Slate contributor and tenured math professor, notes a problem with the Times ’ expert panel: It offers

weigh-ins from faculty members in education, English, religion, education again, and economics.  Notice anything missing?  Like, say, science, engineering, law, and medicine?  I said this before but I’m cranky about this piece so I’ll say it again.  The reason we need tenure in these fields is not because we’re worried about getting fired for teaching an anti-establishment line on epsilons and deltas.*  It’s because universities have to compete with private employers for scientists, mathematicians, engineers, lawyers and doctors.


Right now, tenure is what universities have instead of money.  I don’t see a lot of money coming our way soon.  So I think we’d better hold on to tenure.

[Disclosure: Jordan is my college roommate; I am closely related to professional academics, tenured and nontenured, by birth and by marriage.]