Monday, November 07, 2005



Though I’m not any kind of libertarian, I have to admit making some very libertarian sounds whenever I hear about the ‘legacy’ airlines and their inability to compete with ‘low-cost rivals.’ Isn’t that called competition? If you get beaten by a ‘low-cost rival,’ isn’t that another way of saying that you’re not productive enough? Isn’t that how the market is supposed to work?

I’ve heard that Southwest (one of the low-cost airlines) is as heavily unionized as any of the legacy carriers, so unionization isn’t the issue. Productivity is.

In academia, ‘legacies’ are unimpressive kids who get admitted to selective colleges because their parents were. It’s sort of affirmative action for underachieving rich white people.

In IT, ‘legacy systems’ are old systems that still work, that need to be worked with while changing over to new systems. ‘Migrating’ from one system to another is always, always, always a nightmare.

The common denominator is the dead hand of the past weighing down the present. Whether that dead hand takes the form of unproductive uses of labor, as in the airlines, stupid admissions decisions, or the evolution of IT, in every case the legacy is a burden.

Higher ed has major legacy costs.

As a community college, the question of who to admit is moot – we take everybody. So we dodge that bullet. But our IT systems are constantly changing, and we can’t just wipe the slate clean and start over. Tenure decisions we made back in the 1970's are still with us now. Strange work rules in the union contracts have crusted over with layers of expectation over the years, so they survive despite nobody quite being able to explain them. Curricular choices made thirty years ago dictated hiring patterns twenty-five years ago, which dictate curricular choices now.

The Supreme Court’s arrogant and morally wrong decision to make tenure a lifetime entitlement, rather than have it expire at the normal retirement age as the AAUP originally intended, ups the ante on legacy costs for us.

We pay the legacy costs of a senior faculty by not hiring very many junior faculty, except as adjuncts. This, in the name of protecting the workers.

The ridiculous architectural choices of public sector schools in the 1960's are biting us now, as (unspeakably ugly) squat brick buildings start to fail. (Why, oh why, did educated people in snowy and rainy climes agree to flat roofs? Why? Was ‘gravity’ too abstract a concept?) Wiring, phone networks, power: all dreary subjects, all costing us WAY more than they should as the result of decisions made long ago, in very different contexts.

A startup college could be much more efficient, even if the caliber of management were no better, simply by virtue of the legacy costs it would be spared. The buildings could be designed for energy efficiency and computer use (and the roofs for intelligent drainage!). Nobody would have tenure yet, and a system based on long-term contracts from the get-go could avoid the harrowing abuses to which tenure is subject. Curricular decisions could be based on current patterns, with hiring decisions made accordingly. The IT systems could start with a blank slate. The library could be fully wired from the beginning. Parking could be allotted based on the number of cars people actually use.

Most private-sector companies are younger than most public colleges. (That’s the upside of the constant churn of a competitive economy.) Let us purge some of our legacy costs, and we could be much more productive, too. Until then, we just do what there is to be done.

Just a quick response to agree whole-heartedly with your architecture comment! There was a wing of my high school built in the late 60s/early 70s? that was mostly glass - which, for New England, was stupid, because in the winter you froze and it was hell to heat properly, and then in the last month of school it was sweltering (no A/C). The explanation I heard was that various school board people went out to California and were so struck by the wonderful, light, airy, open-space kinds of schools out there, that they came back and passed a law saying that all new school buildings had to be something like 70% windows. Well, after a couple of years they realized the utter impractibility of this and rescinded it, but this wing of my school was built in the meantime. Very very wacky. I wonder if something similar was the case with your flat roofs? Because I know exactly what you mean!
Excellent post--your insights are provocative and thoughtful.

It's true that a new college unburdened by legacy would have many efficiency advantages over older institutions.

However, there are enormous barriers to entry for new institutions.

It's hard for an educational institution to develop the "instant credibility" needed to attract students.

Olin College near Boston has managed to overcome those obstacles and get off the ground.

Here's an article written in 2000 about their initial vision. Abandoning tenure for five-year contracts was part of the plan.

It will graduate its first class in June 2006. It's still not accredited. According to their website, they are on track towards accreditation, but the accreditation review can't be completed until after the first class has graduated. (If accreditation is granted, it will be retroactive.)

But it wasn't cheap or easy to launch Olin--the initial startup funding was half a billion dollars! And this is for a school with approximately 75 students entering each year. (A steady state enrollment of 300 undergrads now that they've admitted four full classes.)

Olin's charter provides that all admitted students will receive full-tuition scholarships, currently valued at $30,000 per student per year. (The charter states that the goal is to have free tuition in perpetuity, but it does allow an escape hatch in case of financial exigency down the road. Tuition will be free until at least 2021. After that, the Olin board will have discretion to charge a tuition no higher than the average in-state tuition charged at five leading public universities.)

The Olin College website photos give the impression that almost all their buildings have flat roofs, despite the Boston weather. Flat roofs seem to be pretty standard for modern tall buildings, whether public or private. Perhaps there is a way to deal with the drainage problems?

Olin, of course, is a private institution.

It's hard to imagine that a brand new public institution could be launched to compete against existing institutions, with the freedom to operate without tenure and other legacy encumbrances and.

Lobbyists representing the interests of faculty and civil-service staff are powerful forces in every state. And many state legislators attended the existing state institutions and have fond allegiances to their alma maters.

The legacy of "legislative good will" towards existing public instititutions is powerful.
The Supreme Court’s arrogant and morally wrong decision to make tenure a lifetime entitlement, rather than have it expire at the normal retirement age as the AAUP originally intended, ups the ante on legacy costs for us.
Interesting, I didn't know that was the original intention. As someone who went to grad school a decade after undergrad, I'd prefer a system of "tenured for X ~ 30 years" rather than "tenured until you're 65".
If you check the AAUP's 1940 statement (it's in the red book, I think), it assumes that tenure expires 'at the normal retirement age.' That would help tremendously!
mathsophie -- I'm not familiar with Olin, though the name rings a bell (conservative foundation, yes?). Is it somehow affiliated with Babson?

I don't know this, but my impression is that Cal State - Monterey Bay operates along these lines. I'm pretty sure they use a 12 month calendar (speaking of legacies...), and I vaguely remember something about long-term contracts. Anyone out there know anything about this?

Maybe what I'm looking for would be an expansion (or diversion) of the 'charter school' movement to higher ed. Charter community colleges -- let's start over, and this time, get it right. Hmm. Anyone have a spare several hundred million lying around?
I hear you on those hideous 60s and 70s buildings (in which my department is ALWAYS housed, I'm sorry to say).

And re. the tenure thing, a thought: why could we not have tenure limited to a certain term--20 years, 30 years, whatever? With a clause that says that, in special circumstances, extremely productive faculty may have their tenure terms extended? Or be re-hired on a short-term basis as either "research faculty" or "teaching faculty," depending?

CSUMB does have tenure--at least, the jobs I applied for there this year were advertised as "tenure track."
Dean Dad, yes, Olin purchased the land for its campus from Babson. It also contracts with Babson for dining services and campus security.

Olin is an engineering school, but students can cross-register into complementary courses at Babson (as well as Brandeis and Wellesley.) In addition, Olin students have access to Babson's libary and athletic facilities.

Olin has been successful in competing for students with extraordinary credentials, including some who've turned down MIT, Harvard, and Caltech.

The admissions process includes a required 2-day weekend, where finalists are evaluated on their resourcefulness and ability to work in teams on various challenges posed to them.

Olin is #11 on Princeton Review's "colleges with happiest students" list, the only engineering school to make that list. (Like other engineering schools, they are also high on the "Students never stop working" list.)

With their extraordinary funding and freedom from "legacy" constraints, they have successfully marketed themselves so that they are able to be far more selective than Babson.
I'm interested in your comment about long-term contracts from the start being better than tenure? Was that what you meant?

I'm particularly curious because here in Norway we have that system. We don't have tenure track positions, the academic labour market works on the same regulations as other industries, so either you have a permanent position from which you can only be fired for not doing your job etc or I guess if the company's downsizing but I've never, ever heard of professors being fired because they're not going to teach Latin any more or something. There are strict laws about temporary employments, too.

The upside is I've already got a permanent position just three years after completing my PhD.

The downside is that a LOT of people end up in temporary job after temporary job - a post. doc. first, probably, then working on a three year research project, perhaps, or filling in for someone who's on parental leave for a year, maybe doing another research project. There just aren't that many permanant positions being advertised.

So some people (the hard science people) have suggested a tenure track system would be fairer. They want lots of tenure track positions, and for 50% of the tenure track positions to result in a permanent hire after five years. They argue that this would be better than the years and years of temporary projects a lot of people end up working in.

Personally I would far rather do the temporary project route than take a job where I knew I would have a 50% chance of failing - and after you've failed at that, what ELSE would you be qualified for? I'd rather have a system where each job step is a win - though certainly; I would quite likely find short term contracts for years very exhausting and quit altogether.

Anyway, I'd love to know more about what you think of these different possible systems.
Two thoughts:

1. My understanding is that the majority of the excess costs of legacy airlines is associated with their pension promises, including very high pension obligations to already retired pilots. These are costs that younger airlines (Southwest, Jet Blue) wouldn't have yet, and if they are structured properly they might never have. The legacy airlines made these promises in a very different and more regulated environment. So it's not just productivity as such. This is why several are going bankrupt, to shed the pension obligation.

2. Do you know the Supreme Court case that made tenure a lifetime deal? Because that wouldn't even seem to be a federal question, certainly not a constitutional one. However, the Congress passed a tough law against age discrimination, and elminated most age-based mandatory retirements. Most, but not all--for example, airline pilots and I believe police and firemen can be forced to retire at certain ages (typically well before 65 and with generous pensions).

My guess is that the Supreme Court was interpreting the applicability of this law to tenured professors and found that Congress hadn't included a exception for them. If that's the case, Congress could always legislate such an exception for the future. If you could find a political consituency for the change.
Yes, I'd much prefer some sort of long-term contract system, rather than tenure. I picture something like five-year renewable contracts, though there's nothing magical about the number five. It should be long enough to allow the professor to demonstrate substance, and I imagine that most would be renewed. However, for those who retire on the job, the damage would be contained.

The Norwegian system you describe doesn't sound that different from the American system, esp. for the sciences. Even though we have a tenure system, new Ph.D.'s in the sciences routinely hop from postdoc to postdoc, trying to break in. The existence of tenure doesn't generate new jobs; to the contrary, since it raises the stakes for employers, it makes us reluctant to hire at all. If we could cycle out some of the deadwood, we would have more room to hire good new people.

Depressingly, it sounds like the Norwegian system doesn't generate that many jobs, either.

The U.S. Congress passed a budget allocating $450 million for a 'bridge to nowhere' in Alaska. Assuming 55k per position (40k salary, 15k benefits), that same amount could pay for 8100+ new faculty positions.

I'm just sayin'...
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