Tuesday, July 06, 2004

"Use It or Lose It" and Risk Aversion

When a tenure-based institution needs to cut costs, the easiest way to achieve significant savings is through reduction by attrition – just don’t replace people when they leave. It prevents layoffs, it prevents difficult decisions about existing programs, it forestalls difficult questions about why some departments get to grow while others get cut, and it saves search costs. The short-term appeal is clear.

If the cost-cutting environment lasts too long, though, it starts to create some perverse incentives. Departments who don’t tenure an assistant professor figure out that they may not get another shot with someone else – if they don’t tenure the mediocre assistant professor, they will lose the position (or “line”) altogether. Tenure-track assistant professors, who had to surmount insane odds to get the position in the first place, ironically face a much easier tenure hurdle, since the choice between Smith and nobody is much easier than a choice between Smith and Jones.

Once that mindset takes hold, the implications for the future searches that do happen are dangerous. If a line is a terrible thing to waste, and it is, departments will become almost pathologically risk-averse in their hiring. Better to hire the clean, non-threatening fit than to take a chance on somebody in a more exciting, but harder to pin down, area. Nobody has ever been denied tenure, to my knowledge, for fitting in too well.

Candidates who stick to safe, mainstream topics, and who manage to get along with everybody, are strongly favored in this environment. Candidates who take intellectual risks, who experiment in the classroom, or who have strong (or interesting) personalities are strongly disfavored. When a department has hundreds of applicants for a single tenure-track position, it faces the contradictory challenge of finding the standout who least stands out. Someone outstandingly average. No wonder searches are so hard!

Interestingly, the opposite dynamic can hold at elite institutions, since departments there can be assured that if Smith doesn’t work out, they can try again later with Jones. Affluence allows the luxury to experiment.

A colleague of mine from graduate school is an outstanding researcher and teacher, but his work straddles subfields that aren’t usually straddled. He has attracted strong interest at elite institutions, but has received the brush-off at third- and fourth-tier institutions. He’s good enough for Elite New England College, but not quite up to South Carolina Ag and Tech College standards.

On any straightforward scale of merit, that’s absurd. But it makes sense, sort of, when the department at South Carolina has to consider the possibility of forever losing a line if his higher-risk projects don’t work out.

Why does this matter? It matters for graduate students, because their choice of subfield and dissertation topic can pre-select the type of institution that will take their candidacy seriously. It matters for departments, because how do you defend a discrimination lawsuit when ‘merit’ wasn’t really a criterion? It matters for higher education generally, since one of the major reasons we exist is to generate new knowledge. The whole point of sponsoring bright minds outside of private industry to do self-directed research is to cover those areas of inquiry that private industry is less likely to get around to, either because the risk is too high, or the profits too hard to confine to one firm, or the market simply too small. We exist, in part, to compensate for a market failure. When we start punishing higher-risk research and rewarding simple replication of what has been done before, we defeat our own purpose.

For colleges to be able to maintain high levels of teaching, departments need to be able to roll the dice on potentially high-payoff hires. For groundbreaking research, this is even more true. The alternative is to widen the gap between the few, elite institutions who can afford to gamble, and the rest, who can’t. To maintain quality, colleges below the elite level have to be able to commit to given staffing levels, and to hold to those commitments. Departments need to know that they can try again.