Monday, May 31, 2010

How to avoid academic deadwood

Everybody who has ever worked in an academic environment has complained about academic deadwood: tenured professors who do not contribute to research and often do not contribute much to anything else as well. The tenure system is often blamed, as it makes it very difficult to fire someone for underperforming. But even if there is an incentive structure, like merit increases in pay, they clearly have less bite for old faculty who will benefit from them for a shorter time.

I have always been on the lookout for a solution to this academic deadwood problem, thus when I stumbled upon this paper by Yu-Fu Chen and Gylfi Zoega, I was very hopeful. They draw a life-cycle model with unobservable research effort, while administration and teaching are observable. The paper comes to the conclusion that only the senior professors who enjoy research will do any, and thus heterogeneity in research keeps increasing with age. Nothing new here. Where a model becomes really useful is with policy prescriptions: how could the incentive structure be changed? Is is better not to have a tenure system? But none of that. How disappointing.

Here is my take at it, but without the benefit of having worked out a structural model. 1) Tenure needs to be weakened. While it was instituted to preserve academic freedom when research could not be evaluated, we have now plenty of metrics fro research performance. Doing poorly on those should be punishable. 2) Merit raises for good performance need to increase with age to counter the fact that older faculty benefit from them for a shorter time. 3) There needs to be much more flexibility and heterogeneity in teaching loads for senior faculty, so as to balance total effort.

5 comments:

Kansan said...

You need to keep in mind that because tenure is such a big prize for those who do not like research, the latter will at least provide effort until they get tenure. But it is seems very inefficient indeed to push those people. I am for scrapping tenure entirely, along with stronger guarantees for academic freedom.

Vilfredo said...

You cannot guarantee academic freedom else than with tenure. That is the very foundation of tenure. You remove tenure and research will look completely different, for the worst unfortunately as no one will venture off the beaten path or challenge established dogmas.

AfricaForEver said...

If you want to increase research incentives with age, while keeping the scheme revenue neutral, merit for younger ones needs to be massively reduced. While untenured ones still have the big prize of tenure as an incentive, those just tenured would then drastically reduce research effort. And as it is very difficult to recuperate from research idleness, older ones will not do research either. In other words, that scheme does not resolve anything.

agentcontinuum said...

Crazy idea: every year fire 10% of the faculty, unconditional of any characteristics. The ones who still publish will get hired some place else easily. The ones who had no output for years will have a hard time and might need to move down.

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