Comments on economics, mystery fiction, drama, and art.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

To tenure, or not to tenure, that is the question

Over at Confessions of a Community College Dean, there's an interesting discussion going on of the merits of tenure versus long-term, renewable contracts. It's based, in part, on an article that Dean Dad has up at Inside Higher Ed. Here's my response to these issues.

Tenure has its merits. One is that it protects people from firing based not on competence or performance, but on other, less defensible grounds (e.g., political orientation). Another is that it provides a very strong incentive for people to be very productive early in their careers.

At really "high end" institutions, the down-side of tenure is, I think, less of a problem. What I know of the economists at Harvard, or MIT, or Columbia, or Berkeley, or Chicago, or Northwestern, or Wisconsin...suggests that they are motivated very strongly by a desire to find out how the world works, and a very strong desire to be recognized as excellent. Tenure there is probably neither a strong motivator nor a major problem once people are tenured.

It's at mid-level research institutions, and at "teaching" institutions, that tenure provides the strongest early-career motivation. And where it can have the least desirable later-career consequences. For most people, those later-career consequences don't exist, because they (we) are more internally motivated than externally motivated. We want--need--to do a good job, by our own lights, and we continue to be more-or-less productive. Tenure protects us, but absent really dreadful administrators and absent political interference, we don't really need it.

The other issue about tenure comes with the end of mandatory retirement rules. What was originally seen as a guarantee with an expiration date is now a guarantee without an expiration date. That's a problem (see, for example, Larry Summers' comment in his resignation letter that the median age of the tenured faculty at Harvard is 60. If fewer and fewer people are retiring, universities will find it more and more difficulty to bring in the brightest of the new generations. At my own institution, the median age of tenured/tenurable faculty is 58. Yikes.)

But that concern about incompetent administrators and political interference has some resonance, I think, for a lot of people. It's not hard to find current examples of administrators without the spine to stand up for their faculty. It's not hard to find legislators who are all too ready to interfere politically in universities. In private institutions, donors.

My own prefered system combines longer-term contracts with some additional protections against abuse. I like a shorter (3-4 year) probationary period, followed by rolling 6-year contracts. For each year in which a faculty member earns a "satisfactory" performance evaluation, one year is added to the end of the contract. And dismissal must, finally, be for cause.

I think it's essential that the faculty be involved in developing--and monitoring and revising--the performance evaluation systems, so that what constitutes satisfactory performance is as transparent and as objective as possible. I think that a system of appeals, involving faculty as ajudicators, for annual evaluations is a good thing. And I think "term limits" for administrators may also be a good thing as well.

I believe security is essential for people to do good scholarship and good teaching, to take chances, to be offered the opportunity to take risks professionally without immediate dire consequences. But I do have some reservations about making it a lifetime guarantee.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Identifying "peer institutions"

One of the blessings/curses of higher education is that we occasionally have to identify "peer institutions" for one reason or another. Our accrediting agency likes "aspirational peers"--institutions we'd like to be like. For other purposes, institutions "more like" us are better. Institutionally, we went through this exercies 5 or 6 years ago, at the end of which our Board of Trustees (which had asked--well, demanded--that we do this) essentially said, "Just joking," and the project got dropped.

In my program, we have had to go through the exercise once again, at the behest of our accrediting agency. So we did, trying to identify mid-sized (3000 - 9000), urban, commuter schools with relatively low (less than 1100) SATS for entering students, with fairly high percentages of students eligible for Pell grants, and a fairly high percentage of minority students. Oh, and graduation rates higher, but not excessively higher, than ours. I don't know if the institutions we picked (UMichigan Dearborn, UMichigan Flint, IndU Southeast, IndU South Bend, Rutgers-Camdem, Cal State Bakersfield, New Jersey City U) really represent aspirational peers. But we'll see. I admit to being skeptical of the value of all this.

This is, as most of us in higher ed know, almost entirely a public-sector thing. GM doesn't really need to ask who its peer institutions are--they compete directly with them, and, if GM's getting its brains beat out, knows who's doing it. In the caseof my institution, we compete with none of out peer institutions, but we do compete with neighboring public (and private) schools, both in my own state and just across the state line. We know what they're doing. But none of those institutions are on our list of peers. We don't aspire to be them, I guess.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Markets in Everything

Turn your roof into an ad, seen from the sky and by people obsessed with Google Earth or the Microsoft equivalent:

(The title of this post is stolen from Marginal Revolution, and the subject from Mahalanobis).

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Do you listen to the WORDS in rock songs?

I was driving home last night, and my radio station played a live version of an old Neil Young song, "Rockin' in the Free World," a song I find extraordinarily disturbing. Here's the final verse:

"I see a woman in the night
With a baby in her hand
Under an old street light
Near a garbage can
Now she puts the kid away, and she's gone to get a hit
She hates her life, and what she's done to it
There's one more kid that will never go to school
Never get to fall in love, never get to be cool."

Then the chorus--

"Keep on rockin' in the free world.
Keep on rockin' in the free world.
Keep on rockin' in the free world.
Keep on rockin' in the free world."

And behond the chorus, you hear the crowd cheering and whistling and generally reacting as if they'd just heard something really cool. WTF? Don't people listen to the lyrics? Am I weird? (Don't answer that.)

UPDATE: Yes, I know that Neil might just be messing with our minds.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Keeping drug offenders out of college

This (subscriber wall), from the Chronicle of Higher Education:

"Nearly half of states consistently deny financial aid to applicants with drug convictions, echoing federal policy, even though most of those states do not have laws requiring them to make such denials, says a report scheduled for release today by the Coalition for Higher Education Act Reform. "

Well, that makes it easier for people to turn their lives around, doesn't it?

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Rebuilding New Orleans

A discussion, by Edward L. Glaeser (professor of economics and director of the Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government) about rebuilding New Orleans, with which I can only concur.