Friday, September 07, 2007
Tenure and Spinach
New Kid has a great post, taking to task a particularly annoying “First Person” column in the Chronicle. The column in question was written by someone about to go up for tenure. He claimed that the tenure process is like working out or eating your vegetables; essentially, it's short-term pain for long-term gain. He chides a few of his unsuccessful colleagues for failing to defer gratification sufficiently, and sort of congratulates himself on having endured hateful work for so many years that he's soon to be free of it all.
New Kid does an outstanding job of dissection, so I won't insult her by watering it down here. Check it out.
That said, my objection to the Chronicle piece has a lot less to do with any authorial smugness than with what the piece implies about tenure.
Regular readers know that I favor a system of long-term renewable contracts, rather than tenure. This First Person column really illustrates why.
From a college's perspective, granting tenure means gambling that the person you've tenured will remain a productive presence for the next several decades, even without any threat of termination or demotion. (Granting a full professorship even takes 'reward' out of the equation for the rest of the person's career.) In other words, it's betting that the usual cost-benefit analyses that most people apply to work won't apply in this person's case. It's betting that the professor doesn't think of his work as a distasteful obligation to be endured only until the reward is attained.
That's an extraordinarily risky bet, and I can say with the cold confidence of experience that the colleges sometimes lose.
Part of the squishiness that inherently attaches to tenure decisions – and that drives junior faculty absolutely insane – comes from the necessary effort to discern not just productivity, but motivation. If the professor is just eating his vegetables until he gets the chance to never eat another one again, then granting tenure would be a catastrophic mistake. From the institution's perspective, and to the extent that you can do this and still stay within the confines of the law, you want to tenure the intrinsically motivated, and kick out the extrinsically motivated. If the professor in question has only been working hard to get the brass ring so he can retire on the job, you don't want him.
From my perspective, in all but the most obvious cases (as when the professor admits it in the Chronicle), efforts to discern the motivation behind production are doomed to fail. I don't want to play armchair psychologist. But to reduce tenure to a transaction – the usual goal behind junior faculty calls for 'transparency' – would be to put all of the risk on one side. It would be like a marriage in which only one partner has the power to file for divorce.. Once you've specified the minimum number of vegetables that must be eaten, some folks will do exactly that. (You'd also see an entirely predictable compensatory ratcheting-up of requirements to absurd levels, in the name of avoiding bad bets.) To the extent that tenure comes to be seen as the finish line, colleges (and the students!) lose.
I fully agree with those who object to being psychoanalyzed. If my hard work is dismissed with “yes, you produced a lot, but you just did it for the external reward,” I wouldn't know how to disprove that in time to make a difference. (“Would you rather I didn't work hard?”) But from this side of the desk, it's hard to distinguish well-meaning calls for transparency and fairness from self-serving attempts to minimize current work in the name of really aggressively minimizing future work. Honestly, they're both out there.
Rather than the usual back-and-forth volleys of accusations of bad faith, I'd rather take the 'lifetime bet' out of the equation. Ratchet down the unreasonable expectations to something more realistic, but nobody gets to be bulletproof. Instead of aiming an entire career at a single up-or-out moment, make renewal contingent on meeting agreed-upon goals, which can safely be specified in writing. Academic freedom can be specified in the contract, as well, so a violation of academic freedom would be actionable as breach of contract. Yes, there will still be judgment calls, as there will be in any personnel issues, but both sides will have fair warning as to the criteria, and standards, on which those judgments will be based. Contracts can be reduced to transactions, since they're reciprocal; lifetime immunity isn't reciprocal, and therefore doesn't make sense as a transaction.
Predicting whether someone will still be busting her hump thirty years from now strikes me as a fool's errand. Our predictive powers just aren't that good, and I don't trust either side to be clairvoyant. Using shorter-but-not-ridiculous time horizons – I'm thinking three years at the point of hire, followed by five-year renewals (with shorter renewals for folks who are floundering) – and explicit criteria that don't require being superhuman, seems to me a reasonable move. If you're doing your job well, your work should be allowed to speak for itself. If you're retired on the job, and you don't respond to warnings, then you should be kicked to the curb to make room for someone who will actually produce. (This would also have the happy effect of opening up more positions at senior ranks, the better to offset the place-boundedness characteristic of so many jobs now.) Either way, though, you should be spared the indignity of having your mind read.
The alternative is to continue to fill scarce tenure-track lines with folks who vow, in the manner of Scarlet O'Hara, never to eat another vegetable again. No, thanks.
If all that's possible are a series of long-term renewable contracts (I think DD speaks of 5 years or so), how does a place in a less than desirable location draw people? How do you get people to care at all about the long-term success of the college or even their students? I mean, if I'm in the last year of a contract, and I don't know if it'll be renewed, I think I might engage the first-year students differently outside of class (not inside class) than I do now, expecting to continue indefinitely. How worthwhile is it to begin to build relationships that will help the program and the college in the future if I don't know if I'll be around to see that future? Before tenure, you get folks participating fully because they're trying to make tenure. But remove that from the mix, and how might that really affect not just motivation to be productive but also commitment to the school. Make commitment a requirement and you're asking for mass resentment.
And who protects faculty free speech without tenure? Maybe a faculty union?
DD, I may have missed a post, but how do you see long-term contracts affecting these areas?
I have to say that I agree with you again. The idea of 5-year contracts with specific expectations is realistic and a really good idea.
Your analysis does miss something. The current tenure system allows colleges to abuse junior faculty for several years (often 7 total) with extraordinary service demands, because they know that a complaint will put them in the 'non-collegial'camp.
It is also the case that having a tenure system prevents rising stars from changing jobs as easily as they might in industry. There aren't jobs open as often in the current system and the risk of leaving is greater. For senior faculty, it isn't as much of an issue -- as they generally aren't risking being tenured at the new place.
There are universities in other countries that do use long-term contracts. I'm aware of a particular one in India, but as I understand it, it doesn't really function differently than a tenure system; after the first couple renewals no one ever gets fired, for various social pressure reasons. I have a hard time seeing how a contract system would not "degenerate" into virtual tenure.
In the lab sciences, the need to bring in grants, which are rarely for periods of longer than 3 years, may effectively simulate the long-term contract situation that Dean Dad desires. It would be interesting to see if there was reduced "deadwood" there compared to other disciplines.
Also, I think salaries would have to rise if tenure was eliminated, which would eat up a lot of the savings of getting rid of the deadwood. (Though I realize the Dean Dad would like the ability to reduce/terminate whole departments/programs that are no longer relevant, which would obviously save a lot more money.) Not to mention, I'd expect that many more faculty would see the need to unionize without the job protections of tenure.
In any event, the Chronicle article was just incredibly obnoxious.
I'm sure you're well aware that many professors make far less then they would in industry (thinking specifically of people in the STEM disciplines). If you abolish tenure, then many faculty will demand salaries that are competitive with salaries in industry--and rightly so! If you get your wish and eradicate tenure, then expect faculty salaries to (roughly) double.
Also, by eliminating tenure, you will extend a huge middle finger to the only people at any university or CC that have a long-term vested interest in said university or CC. Administrators and staff come and go (which isn't to say that their services aren't needed)--faculty are there for the long term. If you eliminate tenure, you all but eliminate faculty governance, resulting in universities and CCs being run like businesses. That's bad for all parties involved.
And, of course, if you abolish tenure, then there's the whole issue of raping academic freedom...I don't even need to go into detail on that, do I?
If you read closely, you'll notice that I stipulated making academic freedom a clause of the contract, so violations of academic freedom would be actionable as breach of contract. That's a far cry from "raping" academic freedom, as you accuse me of trying to do. Take off the ideological blinders, please.
The point about salaries strikes me as a point in my proposal's favor. Besides, if you haven't noticed, there's a ridiculous surplus of people who want full-time faculty positions. If some of them decide they don't want it under these conditions, then the rest will have better shots at full-time jobs. Again, this strikes me as a positive. (The 'doubling' figure strikes me as a fantasy. Has that happened in the states in which cc's don't offer tenure? Short answer: no.)
I don't know that this would save money, but I do think it would allow us to make better use of the money we do spend. Those are two separate, if related, issues.
The point about the 'middle finger' is absurd. Right now, tenured faculty extend the middle finger to the rest of us with impunity, leading to a general corrosion of civility. Everybody -- everybody -- should be accountable for their actions, including faculty.
First of all, he makes clear that what he relishes about the prospect of tenure isn't the opportunity to blow off work, but to be less paralyzed by office politics and to do more large-scale, possibly risky research. Wanting to pursue a project that might fail to generate a paper every six months does not a lazy professor make. He decries treating students like an inconvenience. How are any of these bad traits?
I understand why NK, who would post celebratory blog posts whenever she got a few hours of work done, would bristle at what he has to say. But I don't see why you're so dissatisfied with his column. If tenure has any redeemable qualities, they would, to me, seem to be exactly the same qualities that this guy is excited about.
As to salaries (in the business and engineering fields), it is not uncommon that the starting salary of a phd student going to industry is higher than his advisor's current salary.
For the rest of it, well, there are raises. After about 10 years, if someone doesn't get one, he really does not cost much and that is a strong hint, esp. with 9 month contracts and keeping summer school teaching for those who are doing a good job and don't have grants and contracts.
At research places, there also can be a variable component of salary tied to countable (papers/grants/etc) productivity.
I think that the progressively termed contracts might be a good idea (I like the 7 - 10 year spread at the highest, because long term projects really can take that long, and it seems like a reasonable compromise between job security and pressure to produce), but I also think there might be other models available.
What if adjuncts and visitors were treated more like contractors (you have a year or whatever, these guarantees, and this (lower) level of responsibility toward the culture, and you might get hired on if we find a place for your skills, but this is in no way implicit in the agreement we make), and then tenured people were just hired?
Like, at my job, I don't have a set contract time... but I don't have any guarantees that I'll stay employed if I don't produce, either. So if problems crop up on their end (funding changes, the agency changes its vision, whatever) or problems crop up on my end (I stop producing), we can terminate the contract.... but if no problems come up, and I continue to be a productive member of the group, then I can in theory be employed for life.
(Granted, my particular job is not in academia, and I would definitely like to see more protections applied to both my job and the hypothetical I'm constructing, since I live in an at-will state and that drives me up the wall, since that effectively strips every other legal protection I have. They can't fire me for a number of things, but since we're at-will, they can fire me for no reason at all. Way to go system!)
Within a system shaped like that, the traditional perks of tenure (aside from the indefinite job security) might be applied as longevity or productivity rewards. A person might earn a more favorable mix of teaching and research as a reward (not "if you do this much you don't have to teach" across the board, but "if you produce this much or are here for this long, you get to do more of the thing you like and less of the thing you don't like."), or the opportunity to teach different courses (say, more advanced courses if they don't like basics, or vice versa), or a semester's sabbatical or whatnot.
I think the contract idea has its merits, but I see it as more useful for shorter terms; it clearly defines the contractual relationship (leading to less adjunct abuse and more stability for the college), but it's very time focused (which makes it unsuitable for long-term projects, or riskier projects, and can lead to the kind of undue reticence that takes people over when they know that they have to pack up every few years). It also reduces flexibility on both partners' parts; you spend a lot of time counting down until a person's almost done with their contract if you want them gone.
I think you could manage to preserve a lot of the good things about tenure (the feeling of more-or-less job security, the idea of more freedom to to what you really want, other related perks) while taking out a lot of the bad ones (the high-stakes gamble feeling, the 'eat your veggies' mentality, the lack of bargaining power, old-age sediment, etc.) under a more traditional employment model. You don't have to stifle academic freedom to get there, either.
Incompetent or abusive teachers can--and should--be dismissed. Of course, this process is time-consuming; of course, it requires careful documentation; of course, it can be expensive. And of course, it should be all of these things: firing someone who has taught for years and years requires solid evidence of piss-poor performance.
I've seen a few bad teachers with tenure who should have been fired. But I've never seen an administrator who was willing to do the work to get rid of a really bad teacher.
As grievance chair, it's my job to help defend these folks and to make sure that their rights to due process are respected. But I don't have a magic wand: defending indefensible behavior is an impossibility.
Five-year renewable contracts won't change a damn thing. Careful documentation and expensive lawyers will still be part of the real-world process.
Then you didn't even bother to read the first two words of my first comment in this thread. Therefore, it would be a waste of time to respond to the rest of your reply.
Let me know if you decide to listen to a single word from anyone who dares to disagree with you.
I'm certainly glad that you aren't--and most likely never will be--a dean where I work.
The first is that tenure actually works very well in top research universities. Imagine a school where they want super-important research and minimally acceptable teaching. Enforcing a minimal teaching level is usually doable even with tenured faculty (you can harass them enough that putting in a small amount of effort is worth their time); you couldn't get them up to what a SLAC would consider a reasonable level, but you can generally avoid student mutinies. As for research, there are huge external incentives. Faculty love playing a leading role in their fields, publishing ground-breaking papers, being a candidate for big prizes, etc. Of course, every institution has some deadwood, but excellent researchers get lots of external rewards, and this keeps their motivation high.
The real difficulty is as one moves away from this model. It's harder to motivate tenured faculty to do really high-quality teaching, and less successful researchers have much less motivation from outside the university.
Ultimately, most of academia can be arranged in a hierarchy, where each level is envious of the next and aspires to be equally successful, while feeling concerned about being mistaken for the level below them. (Of course, not every professor or administrator agrees with this hierarchy, and it is not very meaningful as a measure of quality. Nevertheless, it's true as a broad generalization that every research university wants to be Harvard, every comprehensive university wants to be a research university, etc.)
Given that tenure works very well in the top research universities, it is next to impossible to keep it from filtering down the prestige hierarchy. Nobody wants to be the first one to admit "No, my institution is different from the more prestigious ones and will function best under other rules."
Liberal arts colleges and community colleges are the two most likely places for this to work, since they are the schools that will feel least bad about denying that they want to be Harvard. Elirabett's idea about rolling contracts would definitely be the right way to go.
I find that statement does not apply to many of the colleges I have worked in where there are double to 4x the adjuncts to full-time faculty. I think it is the opposite, there are not enough full time positions. Another thing that I find annoying is that universities want only Ph.D. faculty, but that puts one right on the tenure track. Why is no one satisfied with a masters, then tenure tracks would not be an issue.
The point about the 'middle finger' is absurd. Right now, tenured faculty extend the middle finger to the rest of us with impunity, leading to a general corrosion of civility. Everybody -- everybody -- should be accountable for their actions, including faculty.
Thank you for this. I think it's interesting how worried many of your commenters are about losing their jobs if they don't have tenure. I don't have tenure. I'm not worried about losing my job. And I speak my mind all the time . . . in public. I work hard and maintain my integrity. I take the fact that I represent a prestigious school seriously. Do faculty not have the ability to function that way?
I agree with Philip's comments on dismissal. I have a union that will act to ensure that I am treated fairly -- if an administrator feels my teaching is unacceptable, they must document this, tell me what specifically I must change, and give me a chance to demonstrate that I can change. This takes time and paperwork, but it isn't impossible.
I don't think it's necessary for an individual to work at an institution for 20-30 years in order to make a valuable contribution to that institution. It seems that in the "real" world model, people move around quite a lot and rarely stay in one place for 30 years any more. I too resist treating universities like businesses, but I also don't believe they should be considered completely separately from other employment trends. Continuity is important, yes, but shorter-term contracts don't mean that people *can't* stay for a long time, or at least long enough to provide some institutional continuity. And to be honest, I think some institutions would really benefit from some more regular turnover in faculty (not constant - just more regular), in order not to get unhealthily entrenched in old patterns just because it's the way things have always been done.
I would be interested to see how getting rid of tenure would play out in different disciplines. The concern raised about having to double faculty salaries to match industry jobs - well, that hardly applies to humanities people! I'm not sure, frankly, *how* this would play out, but it would be interesting to see.
But then, since I apparently don't like to eat my spinach, I'm probably not in a position to comment.
I think some aspects of his metaphors (slow and steady wins the race, eat your vegetables, pay your dues) apply. That's the value of all cliches, of course! Like you, however, I share a certain disquiet. Not so much about tenure, of course, though I've seen it's good and bad sides since childhood. No, it's also the sense that this person has no charity or empathy. Instead of walking a mile in someone else's shoes, he's jogging on that damned treadmill, sure it's the only solution.
No one needs that kind of person to be passing judgment on others which is what our runner might be doing in a few years if he hasn't parlously misjdged the tenure expectations at his U. There are many paths to excellence, after all, and I've seen enough people in my time suggest that one person or another isn't a good candidate for tenure because they don't approach academia in the same way.
Sure, we don't want to keep people in teaching positions who think that activity's a burden or who fail to rise to the challenge of the job. Ideally that's who the tenure system should weed out, in a non-punitive way. That it doesn't is more a condemnation of the people who use the generalized venues of third year reviews, tenure committees and columns to let someone know they're not making the grade, rather than telling them face-to-face.
I really think NK nailed a lot of things about this column, as did you. This isn't someone I would want as a colleague. And I think some of the other commenters make very good points about his post-tenure expectations. At my SLAC, there are committees that one can't sit on till they have the rolling contract and promotion -- we are currently in a weird situation of having a bunch of full profs, and a bunch of assistants, and not enough associates to spread the service workload fairly. In terms of tenure as a draw? It is. I'd prefer to live under a tenure-with-review system. But most of my SLAC colleagues know very well that they could make more elsewhere (lack of tenure does NOT equal better pay -- I used to make a good bit more as a visitor on a tenure campus, and in industry), and an awful lot of our good junior people who leave don't leave because of pay or lack of tenure -- they leave because of a lack of research support, lack of remedial support for students who need it, and a general lack of the kind of facilities that would better support our teaching. This is also one of the things I think no one has mentioned. Many of us at SLACs really do want to be at our campuses because we value and enjoy teaching, but unlike many of my senior colleagues, don't want to ONLY teach. Our motivations for research are internal and external - we want our peers to think well of us, and we also know that, if we don't do respectable research, we won't keep our best students, because they want to go places where their faculty can write recommendations that count for something.
The point about two-prof couples could go either way. Part of what makes two-prof couples' lives so difficult is the relative geographic immobility of the profession, since turnover is so low. I assume that my proposal would lead to a slightly higher turnover rate -- not dramatically, but measurably -- which would increase the chances of a couple being able to find jobs within a reasonable distance of each other. Of course, if one member of the couple is lousy at the job, that's another issue.
The point about the service burden, I think, is a symptom of the current system. The newbies have to take on much of the burden because the senior folk can shirk it without consequence. Put consequences in the equation, and I'd expect to see the workload more fairly distributed.
More basically, I suspect that my system would be fairer to young parents, since taking "Up or Out" out of the system would get around the awful clash of the tenure clock and the biological clock. This would probably be of greater net benefit to women than to men, though I hope enough guys out there step up as parents that the gap diminishes. But that's another post altogether.
I loved the point about the lower tiers blindly imitating the R1's. It's certainly true that I'm writing from the perspective of working at a cc, and a system that's clearly dysfunctional here may make sense in a very different context, such as an R1. I think it's an entirely fair point to suggest that the colleges whose mission in life is to teach need to rethink some assumptions they've adopted by imitation. Tenure may (or may not) make sense at Yale; it simply doesn't make sense in my neck of the woods.
For the record, my faculty days were spent in at "at-will" system. I'm advocating a more humane and generous deal than I've ever received myself.
ADM - thanks for pointing out the empirical falseness of the idea that moving away from tenure would cause salaries to balloon. In the colleges that don't have tenure, that simply has not happened.
The dynamic of the the apprenticeship model that is, basically, tenure, means that it also initiates a rigid hierarchy that is resistant to dynamism, that is self-serving in protecting its interests, and moribund in a manner that now threatens the whole infrastructure of the university in a post-political age. Read your Bill Readings, people!
Alternatively, the concerns of faculty over admin running roughshod over a contract system are legitimate, esp. at some institutions with no morals or sense (is this perhaps all institutions in the end?). The conundrum of static culture on one end and overly dynamic capitalistic systems on the other (i.e., you've been sacked!!) offers no clear solution itself. Strong unions might protect a new structure, but they are hampered both by academic culture (which thinks largely it is above such things) and the anti-labour culture in the US.
More importantly, the move towards dynamism means we remove some of our mystery and enter the world as workers. And perhaps that is the greatest threat to academic self-conception, and why many of us persist in defending a system that almost guarantees the end of our profession. This debate remains frustrating because ultimately we are fighting over a corpse. The academy is dead, most of us just don't know it yet.
Simple example: tenure with post-tenure review, such as is instituted at my R1 employer, is a very mild taste of what would face faculty if the system changed to one of rolling contracts. Governance can be accomplished with occasional bouts of meetings, in part by laying the burden of justifying tenure on the tenure candidate. Management is an all-day, all day thing. Why else do you think the private sector has professional managers, eh?
So who is going to do the daily management of everyone,, including the managers?
Think about it like this: I currently manage several staff members. The assumption of their contracts is not that they will be renewed; if I want them to be renewed, I have to justify it. I have to establish individual expectations, not just the list of items for a tenure packet, but a detailed set of requirements that include the possibility of growth, that are clearly measureable, etc. I have to track the daily activities, achievements, failures, etc. of every person I manage every day, because both sides have to build a coherent picture of each person's performance.
Who is going to do this for every faculty member, every year? Who has the authority to do this for every faculty member every year? Who has the expertise to do this for every faculty member, every year?
And if you object that the task is eased with contracts coming up for renewal 5-7 years, don't make me laugh. If you don't manage and document and communicate every day during the period between renewals, no matter how long they are, all you are doing is guaranteeing lawsuits up the wazoo.
It seems to me that the only solutions here are multiply faculty supervision of each other to an absurd degree, or create a new managerial class with requirements for expertise and authority that cannot currently be fulfilled. The former option will not exactly improve the quality of either the research or the teaching at affected universities; the latter will make the word "bloat" seem quaint.
At any rate, I think the tenure system is asinine, but the LTC solution was awful too.
Yet, I could almost feel my heart skip a beat (not in the good way) at the mere mention of the end of the tenure system. No! no! Don't take tenure -- I've been working so hard for so long to get it!
I have built up tenure as the green pasture. I'm Lenny from of Mice and Men -- "Tell me how I'm gonna tend the rabbits George."
Is that nuts or what? It must me like drug addiction -- wanting desparately to be out, just as long as no one takes away the goods --- impossible to imagine another way.