TaxProf Blog

Editor: Paul L. Caron, Dean
Pepperdine University School of Law

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

The Tenure Track Is Too Rigid to Help Faculty Diversity

Bloomberg:  The Tenure Track Is Too Rigid to Help Diversity, by Tyler Cowen (George Mason):

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.

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