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.