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Tuesday, July 05, 2011

The Costs of Tenure Denial

Tenure denials are devastating to the person who is denied, his or her family and friends, and other supporters. Tenure denials are terrible for academic institutions, too, because they create rifts among colleagues that carry forward for years, and they often generate undue paranoia among those on the tenure track but not yet tenured; they also upset students and alumni who knew the professor denied tenure, particularly if the person denied was a great teacher.  And this account doesn't even factor in the litigation that tenure denials sometimes generate.

Some of the personal costs of tenure denial are recounted in this interesting and poignant article by Daniel and Erika Drezner, who look back on Daniel's tenure denial five years after the fact.  One of the insights from Daniel's piece that struck me was this one:  "People who earn tenure tend to have strong allies who lobby fiercely on their behalf. I didn't have any of those."  Daniel's insight struck me as correct, though I'm almost glad I didn't realize it when coming up for tenure.

Posted by Lyrissa Lidsky on July 5, 2011 at 11:30 AM in Lyrissa Lidsky, Teaching Law | Permalink


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Brian's anti-Yale trolling is getting tiresome. Does anyone here take him seriously?

Posted by: NotFromYale | Jul 6, 2011 5:18:53 PM

Laryssa: I completely disagree re the need to reduce tenure denials by being "extremely careful" in entry-level hiring. To the contrary, the legal academy should get more adventurous in hiring and look outside the usual YHS-SCOTUS box (no other academic field is so obsessed with the degree-granting institution and non-research credentials). We should take more risks, and the only way to do so is to remove the presumption of tenure. We should hire oddballs with an understanding that tenure is a rare event. That's how you remove the "black mark" consequence of tenure denials.

BTW, I am fairly familiar with some of the U of Chicago social sciences departments, and tenure is most certainly not a presumption there. Drezner *is* being a drama queen. Lots and lots of people are denied tenure there regularly. As Eric Rasmusen points out, most of them are well aware of their chances and are looking for jobs elsewhere. The good ones land on their feet and move on. The bad ones should not have been in the academy in the first place.

Posted by: observer | Jul 6, 2011 1:37:13 PM

In my experience, at UCLA and Indiana econ, if we're looking to hire somebody with tenure, we look at who's coming up in as good or better schools who has done good research and we hope they'll get turned down so we can hire them. Being rejected is not a black mark at all. We can read their articles ourselves, and if someone's turned down who was good, the black mark is on the department, not the candidate.

One caveat: we do have some concern about our administration, who might be too proud to take some other place's rejects. So it's safest, though not necessary, if we get our offers out before the end-of-year formal denial.

Posted by: Eric Rasmusen | Jul 6, 2011 10:19:58 AM

All this discussion is well and good, but it won't really get fun until you start naming the senior professors who should have been denied tenure...

Posted by: anonprof | Jul 6, 2011 7:37:27 AM

As someone who has only incidental knowledge of professional academia, I'm left wondering this: is there perhaps room for a more gradual progression from non-tenure track to tenure track positions? That would seem to allow for more common use of a probably less devastating denial (the promotion from non-tenure track to tenure track), where denial of the promotion wouldn't mean the loss of the job.

Maybe this is already being done to the extent possible, but..just a thought.

Posted by: Andrew MacKie-Mason | Jul 6, 2011 1:39:29 AM

You're right, of course, Observer: not only are tenure denials good for academic faculties (junior faculty thrive on cortisol, just as senior faculty flourish on the heightened factionalization tenure denials engender), but the harm they bring to the denied individuals has been drastically overstated: Prof. Drezner is, truly, a wimp.

Ah, humanity!

Posted by: Vladimir | Jul 6, 2011 1:22:00 AM

I didn't say we should never deny tenure. I was just pointing out that even a justifiable denial has costs. And Drezner, in the linked article, certainly landed on his feet. I do think that the costs of denial suggest that we must be extremely careful in hiring and should be very forthright and even potentially "harsh" in the way we counsel during the process. The worst outcome is for denial to come as a surprise.

Posted by: Lyrissa | Jul 6, 2011 12:40:30 AM

Brian is clearly correct here. Laryssa is falling for the usual "the seen and the unseen" fallacy. Sure, it's not fun to be denied tenure -- but the job of a denied person doesn't evaporate into the thin air. Someone else will be hired for that position, and that "someone else" will be either a better senior academic currently rotting at a lesser school or an eager entry-level person who needs a chance. Look outside law schools. In most academic departments (including most other professional schools, like b-schools, public policy schools, etc), tenure is NOT a presumption -- tenure denial is. And it's true not only for Harvard and Yale, but for most top-30 schools in most disciplines. Tenure denials are routine and not particularly disruptive to the department -- and in many cases, to the denied individual too. Life goes on. The great benefit of frequent tenure denials is the ability to hire entry-level folks who show great promise but lack stellar credentials and the ability to hire mid-career seniors from lower-ranked schools. Upward movement in the legal academy is much harder than in many other departments precisely because tenure denials are so rare, and mid-career spots open very rarely.

Posted by: observer | Jul 5, 2011 10:50:31 PM

It seems the rate of false positives/negatives is a direct result of the way law schools hire, rather than tenure, their faculty.

Posted by: anon | Jul 5, 2011 7:49:12 PM

I would have thought the problem in the legal academy is far too few tenure denials, including (esp.) at the very top law schools, whose faculties (esp. Yale's) are notorious for the tenure mistakes who could not be appointed anywhere else. Rick is surely right that the infrequency of tenure denials in law schools (even here at Chicago, which has a surprising reputation for being tough about tenure) is a large part of what makes the cost of tenure denial so high. It's very clear the law teaching market has a very high rate of false negatives at the entry-level (think George Priest, who began at Puget Sound, or Scott Shapiro, who began at Cardozo, or Patricia Williams, who began at Golden Gate), and so it would be surprising if it didn't have at least as high a rate of false positives. Since law schools are increasingly part of the rest of the university, they ought to adopt comparable tenure standards.

Posted by: Brian | Jul 5, 2011 6:56:59 PM

While this post is not about law school tenure denials, surely no one could claim that tenure should be automatic to avoid the pain and difficulties of a denial. At many law schools, tenure is virtually automatic, even though there is a good argument that tenure denials should be higher in law school than in other departments because of the absence of PhDs or any other indicator of a successful academic career. (While Harvard and Yale have well-known policies of denying tenure to their junior faculty, many schools and departments have rigorous tenure processes that often result in denial.) There may have been a time when tenure had to be virtually automatic in law school in order to attract candidates from the more lucrative law firm track, but those days seem to be past, not just because the law firm path is less lucrative but as law schools have become more academic the two paths are not ready substitutes or should not be.

Posted by: MS | Jul 5, 2011 2:21:08 PM

Hi Rick,

You picked an odd sample. The practice at Harvard is to deny tenure (or for people to move before that happens). So it's atypical in that sense. People at other schools know this and, consequently, don't view it as a black mark. Your point about across-the-board reductions in tenure grants is something different. I wonder it would really do much good--or just increase the barriers (for people who can't move around a lot, for example) to entry for an already heavily guarded profession.

Posted by: anon | Jul 5, 2011 12:26:51 PM

Would tenure denial be less costly if it were more common? Harvard and Yale routinely deny tenure to their junior faculty, but these refugees from tenure denial often seem none the worse for the wear: They go on to great careers at great institutions. (Of course, it helps that they are refugees from a Big Name and can, therefore, land on their feet).

If tenure rates at law schools were closer to, say, 25% rather than 75%, one might speculate that the stigma of denial might decline. Alternatively, if tenure rates approach 100%, then the few outliers who are denied might naturally feel much more bitter and more stigmatized. Might the pain of tenure denial, therefore, be an argument for denying tenure more often?

Just a thought, from someone who -- you probably guessed -- is comfortably tenured.

Posted by: Rick Hills | Jul 5, 2011 11:43:34 AM

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