Lax tenure standards may have high costs at elite law schools
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Schools usually apply strict standards for tenure, granting it only to the most talented and productive professors. But that is generally not true at the country’s top 14 law schools, where at least 95 percent of professors hired on the tenure track receive it, according to a paper by three University of Chicago Law School academics published Wednesday.
“This results in unproductive faculty occupying some of the world’s most valuable academic real estate while leaving more productive scholars under-placed and preventing new scholars from breaking into the legal academy,” according to the paper. Titled Rethinking Law School Tenure Standards, the paper was written by Jonathan Masur, a law professor; Adam Chilton, an assistant law professor; and Kyle Rozema, a Wachtell Lipton fellow at the school.
Increasing tenure denials by 10 percentage points would increase the academic impact of a law school’s median professor by more than 50 percent, the authors found. For analysis, the paper relies on an annual list from the Association of American Law Schools of professors at the top 100 schools who received tenure between 1970 and 2007. Rankings are from U.S. News & World Report. Articles written by the professors were pulled from the HeinOnline database, as well as information about citations to the articles.
Out of the 3,931 law professors in the sample, the authors found HeinOnline database pages for 1,720. To verify, research assistants manually searched for the subjects’ websites and curriculum vitae, twice, and if neither piece of information could be found, the law professor was dropped from the sample. Ultimately, the research found 29,694 articles and 1,070,092 citations.
A law professor’s pre-tenure research record made a “fairly accurate” prediction about their post-tenure academic impact and post-tenure outside options, according to the paper. Based on their research, the authors determined that even “modest increases” in tenure standards would be meaningful for increasing a law school’s academic impact, and the costs would be modest.
The paper acknowledges that tenure provides professors with economic security, shields those researching important yet unpopular topics from political pressure, and encourages faculty to hire good professors because they don’t have to worry about a new professor outshining them and eventually pushing them out.
“But tenure also commits a faculty spot to a scholar for decades, which requires millions of dollars in compensation and the corresponding lost opportunity to hire other scholars. And, in protecting faculty from dismissal, it decreases incentives to produce research,” the authors wrote.