Academic tenure leads to reduction in quantity and quality of work

People who can get cash without working usually work less. The Redistribution Recession looks at the aggregate effect on the U.S. economy when the government offers people taxpayer-funded benefits on condition that they not work. Real World Divorce looks at how aggressively Americans will pursue alimony and child support, both of which can be more lucrative when a plaintiff refrains from working. What about PhD academics who have chosen a life in the Ivory Tower because of a deep passion for knowledge? It turns out that if they can get cash without working hard they respond in the same way as a public housing occupant or child support profiteer: “Why Do We Tenure? Analysis of a Long Standing Risk-Based Explanation” (Brogaard, et al). See the Abstract:

Using a sample of all academics that pass through top 50 economics and finance departments between 1996 and 2014, we study whether the granting of tenure leads faculty to pursue riskier ideas. We use the extreme tails of ex-post citations as our measure of risk and find that both the number of publications and the portion that are “home runs” peak at tenure and fall steadily for a decade thereafter. Similar patterns holds for elite (top 10) institutions, for faculty with longer tenure cycles, and for promotion to Full Professorship. We find the opposite pattern among poorly-cited publications: their numbers steadily rise after tenure. The decline in both the quantity and quality of publications points to tenure incentivizing less effort in publishing rather than more risk-taking.

From within the paper:

it appears that academics can exert effort toward both quantity and quality, and reduce both post-tenure.

We attribute the decline in the quantity and quality of research output post-tenure to a reduction in effort incentives, but the threat of termination is by no means the only incentive that academics face. To find support for our explanation, we consider another publicly observable event around which there is likely to be a significant change in incentives: the promotion to Full Professor. Full Professorship is often associated with a substantial increase in pay, as well as rights to contribute to university decision-making. We therefore expect a similar effect of promotion to Full Professor on the number and quality of publications. We find that the number of publications per year rises until two years prior to a professor attaining the rank of Full Professor, and falls steadily over the next 12 years. The same pattern is apparent for the number of home runs per year. The percentage decrease in each variable is nearly identical to the post-tenure period, and doubly significant.


15 thoughts on “Academic tenure leads to reduction in quantity and quality of work

  1. My observation about some tenured academics is they usually have a few kids post tenure and slowly disappear….

    Although the single ones don’t seem to be as productive either, maybe they are trying to start life at 40.

  2. I could have told you that “off the top off me head,” but would you have listened/ believed me? Oh, nooooo… you need to go to some academic who has published a book about it, full of hypotheses, numbers, diagrams, and whatnot. Probably got a grant or a fat advance for it as well, out of some do-gooder’s endownment, which could’ve been given to someone else from hitherto disenfranchised social/ ethnic/ racial/ gender stratum with a greater need for it! And then you complain of lowered output standards in Academia!

  3. There’s a missing control to this study. Ideally, you’d want to compare the career outputs of professors at similar institutions where tenure is never offered. Would their academic output also peak at a certain point and then trail off?

  4. So the authors observed regression to the mean, but attributed it to something completely different. Wouldn’t be the first time.

    Athletes featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated often show weaker results next year. Which is not surprising, considering the fact that they got on the cover of Sports Illustrated in part because their results were unusually high.

  5. J. Peterson makes a good point. What if it’s the possibility of tenure that produces the really great, daring work? Is it reasonable to assume that academics would produce at their pre-tenure rates indefinitely if they were always on the chopping block?

  6. Hedge fund managers have the same performance pattern; a year or two of good performance, which allows them to inhale assets, then poor performance forevermore.

    Maybe the solution is to offer “tenure” for contractual 10 or 15 year terms, to reward prolific output, but force a renewal period down to line to prevent 70-year old academics from feeding at the trough for life.

  7. First year professor here. As an assistant professor you’re not expected to do anything except teach and research.

    As an associate or full professor you will have several other jobs, possibly including such incredible time sinks as director of a degree program, advisor to half a dozen undergrads, and as many PhD students at various points of their career, chair of the search committee, chair of the admissions committee, associate editor of a journal, conference/workshop organizer.

    Essentially your career becomes less about the research you produce, and more about your ability to support the next wave of APs. I am deeply grateful to my seniors for sacrificing all this time for helping me.

    The authors acknowledge this in the paper, but do not adequately control for it.

  8. I’m echoing SuperMike’s comment.

    If you have a group of employees that you want to shield from arbitrary dismissal, say some researchers or professors who you want to protect from dismissing for researching or writing the “wrong” thing, lifetime tenure as its now practiced is a pretty crappy way of doing this. There really are better alternatives.

    Now this assumes that the reason I gave above was the original reason for lifetime tenure, which I’m not sure about. It could have been the equivalent of making partner in a law firm, or a “made man” in the mafia, in which case my suggestions in the rest of the comment will be completely off-base.

    The best method is long contracts, with 15 years being a good figure, with whatever remaining stuff you want to make grounds for dismissal spelled out carefully and specifically in the contract. I actually think employment in general should involve an actual written contact spelling out the obligations on both sides.

    You could alternatively institute lifetime tenure with mandatory retirement at a certain age, which I think was the original system. Another alternative is a system where the employee can be dismissed at will, but still draws a salary in that case for a following length of time equal to the period of employment, without any obligation to work. All of these provide sufficient protection but provide enough tools to clear out the deadwood. Not doing the latter also blocks hiring and promotion of future generations of emplloyees.

  9. As Andrea says, before tenure is all about your own research and teaching. Post tenure is about the quality of the research your postdocs are doing and the labs they are establishing.

  10. Where tenure/ employee protection is really needed is for legislatures and bureaucrats, if only as part of package of stopping “revolving door” corruption, in which case it would be coupled with post job restrictions or outright bans on where they or their family members could be employed for a period after they left their jobs.

    I don’t think the same issues arise with university faculty. Alot of the pro-tenure argument assumes a situation where academic research takes place in a handful of highly bureaucratized universities. I think this situation did happen post-GI bill and Cold War federal government research grants, but it really was an anomaly. For most of the history of civilization, what we know as “higher education” came from multiple diverse sources. Universities were where clergy was trained.

  11. Perhaps the salaries these economists and finance professors earn are lower than what they could make on the outside. Then tenure is just additional compensation.

  12. There’s another potentiel bias not mentioned here: optimization of an inadequate measure.

    Many academics consider that their productivity is measured inadequately. You can republish a variants of the same paper half-a-dozen times, if you keep minor corollaries out of the original papers, make a new publication for each closely related use case, etc. It takes time, energy, cynicism, and relations fostering (you need to be buddies with those who do the same and are most likely to regularly be reviewing your articles). You can push a bit further on something you’re almost sure is a dead end, just because there might be two more publications to milk out of it. etc.

    Once you’re more free from evaluations you consider as faulty, you can concentrate on what’s poorly evaluated but genuinely interesting in your opinion.

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