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The night before, or the morning after
Two approaches to decision making
You have to make a decision. How should you evaluate your options?
One way is to ask yourself what you ought to do. What is the right thing, ethically and morally? This is sometimes called the normative approach.
Another way is to ask yourself what the consequences of each alternative will be. If I choose this over that, what will happen? This is the operative approach.
The advantage of the normative approach is that it gives guidance ahead of time. It is based on pre-existing values, or norms. It tells me, when I go out to a party, that drinking to excess is uncouth and irresponsible.
The disadvantage of the normative approach is that not everyone has the same norms. Drinking is not uncouth; it’s fun. To fail to join the party is unsociable and priggish.
The advantages of the operative approach are the flip side of the normative approach. It doesn't require decision makers to share norms. But neither does it give reliable advance guidance. The test of the operative approach is the consequences. And we don't know the consequences until the morning after.
Some decisions are made individually, others collectively. If it is just me going to the party, that's one thing. If it’s me and a bunch of my friends, that's something else.
The normative approach is easier to defend in the individual case. I’m the dictator of my own moral code. And I’ll be the only one to suffer the consequences.
In the collective case, the operative approach has advantages. It doesn’t require an agreement on norms; no one is dictated to. And because the sample size is larger than one, and in some cases is very many and can extend across time, the consequences are often fairly predictable. This might be my first party, but my friends have been to other parties in the past and they know how things turn out the next day.
Several states are currently considering changes to the practice of tenure at public universities. Texas, my place of residence and employment, is one of these states. The University of Texas, where I work, has operated under a standard tenure system for many decades. After a probationary period, assistant professors who have done well are promoted and granted tenure. This means that as long as they continue to do satisfactory work, they will continue to have a job.
Critics of the system complain that this rewards incompetence and lack of effort. No one has made a case that tenured faculty are more incompetent and lazier than in the past; what is driving the anti-tenure train is the expressed belief that university faculties are infested by woke leftists who are indoctrinating their students on the public dime. And because they have tenure, they can thumb their noses at anyone trying to rein them in. The solution is to abolish tenure and make the faculty subject to the same kind of oversight people in the private sector experience as a matter of course.
There are several problems with this argument. The first is that it takes a blunderbuss to what is a narrow problem, if a problem at all. Physicists and chemists and engineers don't often deal with the issues that annoy the critics of tenure. To change their terms of employment because of what their colleagues in the humanities and social sciences do doesn't make much sense.
The second is that the argument about the public dime gets less true with each passing decade. State legislatures used to appropriate the majority of operating funds for public universities. Nowadays that contribution is often in the single or low double digits. At UT it is 10 percent. If donors and students, who have made up the shortfall by increases in donations and tuition, don't like what is happening at a university, they can take their money and themselves elsewhere. That's what individual choice is for.
At the broadest level, the question comes down to normative versus operative approaches. The critics in the legislature are applying a normative approach; they consider the current system wrong and therefore want to change it. We live in a democracy; if enough people agree with the critics, the changes will be made. It’s like taking a vote on whether we should attend the party; if most of my friends say yes, off we go.
But the second way of looking at things, the operative way, shouldn’t be neglected. What will the consequences of ending tenure be? They aren’t difficult to imagine. Unless all universities abandon tenure, those that end it will be at a competitive disadvantage. The best faculty will go elsewhere. The difference could be made up by offering above-market salaries, but a legislature that abolishes tenure isn’t likely to raise faculty pay. People familiar with the labor market for professors are aware that in the fields most irritating to the critics there’s an oversupply of credentialed workers seeking jobs; the critics might suppose that there will always be candidates needing employment. This is probably true. But the best candidates have multiple offers, and they likely won’t choose universities that don’t offer tenure.
No big deal, the critics of tenure might say. We don’t need the best faculty. Good enough is good enough.
But two consequences will follow. First, the best students will go elsewhere. Students who might have gone to UT will go to UCLA. And—here’s the critical point—once they leave, many won’t come back. They will make personal and occupational connections and come to consider California or some other state their home. Texas will suffer a brain drain.
The second consequence is related to the first. Top-rated universities are powerful engines of economic growth. The Silicon Valley phenomenon required the presence of Stanford and UC Berkeley in the Bay Area. A similar phenomenon in the Boston area rested on Harvard and MIT. Austin’s tech sector, now home to Google, Apple, Meta, Oracle, Tesla and other companies, originated in the conviction of entrepreneurs that UT would be a willing and able partner.
Perhaps this doesn’t bother the critics of tenure, who might think the tech sector is irretrievable too. But strong universities include medical schools that bring the keenest minds to bear on problems of health that afflict the woke and the unwoke alike.
So go ahead, lawmakers—take down tenure if it makes you feel giddy. But don’t be surprised to wake up with a hangover.