The Tenure Track Is Too Rigid to Help Diversity

Universities should experiment with ways to hire more parents and other would-be professors who don't have an inside track.

The brouhaha over the Google diversity memo has turned attention toward gender imbalance in other professions, including academia and economics. Over the last two weeks I’ve seen plenty of condemnations of discrimination, which is all to the good, but not enough consideration of the underlying incentive problems. So I’d like to make a radical suggestion for higher education, including at the elite levels: move away from the emphasis on tenure by elevating the pay and status of non-tenure-track academic jobs.

Tenure systems don’t always mesh well with potential professors’ child-bearing plans. Let’s say a person starts graduate school at age 26, finishes at 32, and then faces a six- or seven-year tenure clock. That intense period of study, and the resulting race to publish, comes exactly during prime child-bearing years. And many individuals start along this track at later ages yet. I fear that this rigidly structured system, where candidates are go “up or out,” discourages many talented women from pursuing academic careers. Yet this path is the norm at virtually all top or mid-tier research universities, as well as at most highly rated liberal arts colleges.

I don’t think there is a single correct way to restructure all tenure systems, but we could start with more experimentation, as would befit the decentralized system of U.S. higher education. Imagine a greater variety of academic jobs, in areas that are not always valued highly by peer review. They might include jobs devoted to producing policy work, to teaching, to producing materials for online education, and to bringing the lessons of academia to broader audiences, such as through blogs and opinion columns. Furthermore, “up or out” provisions could be weakened, so if an individual didn’t succeed on a research track, but excelled in other areas, employment could be continued with different achievement criteria.

Top-tier colleges and universities have created some jobs of this nature, especially for teaching expertise. Still, those individuals usually receive much lower pay, lower status and very often don’t have voting rights in their home departments, all negative incentives. Schools could keep some tenured jobs while elevating the quality of these other options.

Such changes would make it easier for departments to hire teachers with more diverse life experiences, and that could and should include greater minority and gender representation. The “up and out” feature of academic job tracks favors those who have been insiders from early on --  it limits social and economic mobility.

Another major problem in academia is that most top schools have only marginally expanded their entering classes, even though the demand to attend, say, Harvard University, has gone through the roof. 

That denies many deserving people admission to the best schools, and makes high school or even kindergarten a wild scramble to assemble the most Ivy-appropriate vita possible, a mostly wasteful process. Instead, imagine a Harvard that expanded admissions by three or five times, and used more flexible academic job categories to make the larger class size work.

The obvious criticism is that such reforms would lower the quality of top academic departments. Yes, it would mean that not every hire would have such a good chance of winning a Nobel Prize. But it would not lower total quality, as it would increase the amount and diversity of talent in departments, improve the learning experience, and boost the reach of our best schools. Just to be clear, I do understand this would dilute the control rights of today’s elite professors.

I fear we are stuck in a collective action dilemma, where no single school wishes to change first and lose some relative reputation, even though academia as a whole would have a higher reputation if more schools expanded their diversity and reach.

Most of my career I have favored the traditional tenure system. But I no longer see it as rewarding academic risk-taking, given the rising incentives for research specialization and staying on a fairly narrow track. Nor do I think tenure systems are still guaranteeing free speech rights in an age of growing academic conformity and political correctness. Most of all, it’s become clear that tenure systems don’t have the right incentives to grow. For all the jawboning about limiting discrimination, without adding good jobs on a significant scale, academia won’t get very far in addressing its imbalances.

I have been struck by the course of debate in the economics profession over the last week, as much (deserved) Twitter ire has been directed at one particular online economics forum with anonymous and frequently misogynistic postings. Such forums probably discourage and demoralize women in the economics profession. But the general consensus among the forum’s critics is that those anonymous posters are the “losers” of the profession, not the deans, departmental chairs and Nobel laureates.

In other words, leading economists have spent a whole week “punching down” at those who are not in charge. I’ve hardly seen any critical self-examination about how the leaders, and the incentives they have created and supported, might also be at fault.