In today’s economy, is there any worse policy than guaranteeing an employee the same job for 40-plus years, even if he or she meets few of the organization’s needs and costs a lot in the bargain?

Those are the words of Mark Bauerlein, who thinks that tenure locks universities into having too many codgers around who teach subjects that few people care about anymore. For example, where will a university language department find the resources to respond to the rise of China if all its salary dollars are locked up in 75-year old professors who — between frequent naps — teach the few students today who wish to major in French?

This is not an issue we generally face in medical schools, where tenure is rarely granted and means very little when it is. Massive salary cuts, even down to a salary of zero, are possible for unproductive tenured faculty in academic medicine (As we say in the business “All that is really tenured is your title”). A concentration of tenured older faculty may however be a significant influence on the fate of a school of arts and sciences, education or the like. But I am worry about that for a reason different than the one Bauerlein cites.

Bauerlein doesn’t convince me that undergraduates are worse off having a course taught to them by, say, a 70-year old professor who could retire but teaches for the love of it, versus, say a stressed out 30-year old assistant professor with two young kids who knows that his upcoming tenure decision will be made based mainly on everything but the quality of his instruction. However, the students and their university may be worse off on the diversity front when the faculty is dominated by Methusalehs.

The critical demographic fact about professors who are now in their 60s, 70s and 80s is that in virtually every field, they are overwhelmingly white men. Meanwhile, the current generation of graduate and medical students who will soon be entering the academic job market has a much higher percentage of women and people of color. If you want to diversify your faculty, the time to go fishing is right now while the lake is stocked.

But you can’t bring in these exciting, diverse young people if most of your resources are tied up in old white guys with high salaries. The decision to get rid of the retirement age, whatever its virtues in other respects, was a decision to help older white male professors at the expense of younger women and minority would-be professors.

It may be unfashionable to say this, but the situation is also unfair to young white male would-be professors, whose generation is often expected to bear the entire burden of reducing the over-representation of white men in the academy. That’s a cost that should fall on the old boys who have enjoyed decades of privilege rather than some 27 year old who got his degree in a much more gender and racially balanced world.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-based Community]

Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor at Stanford University. @KeithNHumphreys