Thursday, June 10, 2010

 

Lions in Winter

This post by Tenured Radical is one of the best things I've read in a long time. It was occasioned by the semi-forced retirement of Helen Thomas, the journalist whose comments about Israel and Palestine ended her career, but the part that spoke to me was the part about the Venerable Tenured Icon who had gone badly off the rails. It's worth quoting at length:


This is, of course, a common problem in the academy. Venerable professor famous for irascible personality and eclectic remarks goes right over the edge one day and has to be forcibly retired, when in fact the signs of ineffectiveness and mental decline have been clear to close colleagues for several years: inappropriate remarks, fits of rage and/or confusion, memory lapses of gargantuan proportions. And yet, you go to the administration and say, "Hey, I think we have a problem" and administrators claim their hands are tied because of tenure, academic freedom, blah, blah, blah. I have a friend who made this lonesome trek year after year, recounting numerous horror stories that appeared in the teaching evaluations or were related by befuddled students about Famous Professor X, and was repeatedly sent away with a condescending lecture about age discrimination. In one of these meetings, an administrator said to my friend sharply, "Are you a doctor? What makes you think you know what is going on?"

"Oh," s/he replied casually: "Venerable Professor doesn't recognize me anymore, and s/he recently asked the administrative assistant who she was and why she was robbing the department office." Needless to say, nothing happened until said faculty member let loose a blistering stream of muddled hate speech at a stunned group of first-year students who fled the room weeping and dropped the class en masse.



Other than the "claim their hands are tied" part -- I'm calling bullshit on that, since their hands really are tied -- this is spot-on.

Since the Supreme Court decided -- absurdly, in my view -- that tenure is fine but mandatory retirement isn't, there's literally no way to push the declining self-caricature out the door short of a documented public meltdown. Of course, by the time that happens, there has typically been a long train of abuses that either weren't public or weren't quite enough in themselves, as documented, to stand up in court. (Part of that usually has to do with the power that senior faculty have, and the fear that others have of that power. Fear of retaliation for coming forward is powerful, and it prevents the effective documentation of some very real behaviors.) And the combination of age discrimination laws, tenure, unions, the ADA, and public sympathy can make it effectively impossible for even a conscientious administrator to solve the problem.

Imagine trying to thread that needle. You get reports of memory lapses and random belligerence. The former are explained as side effects of a medical condition that now you have to accommodate. The latter are explained as longstanding personality traits. Plus you get grieved or sued on the basis of age/disability discrimination for even bringing it up. Now you're the bad guy, the declining jerk sticks around, and the folks who actually stepped forward to report things are walking on eggshells. Fairness is served how, exactly?

Part of the issue is a basic category mistake. Colleges don't exist to benefit the faculty. They exist to benefit the students. If you start from that basic proposition, then the burden of proof on performance rightly shifts from "prove I'm not performing" to "prove you are." If a formerly-helpful professor just isn't getting it done anymore, his students suffer. Demagoguery about "age discrimination" doesn't change that. If the students are suffering, I have a hard time justifying why the professor is still there. But as far as the law is concerned, the college exists for the benefit of tenured faculty, so the rules are backwards.

The usual suggested palliatives -- post-tenure review, say -- are nowhere near enough to get the job done. The premise of post-tenure review is that the person reviewed is capable of doing better. If the capacity for improvement is gone, the point is lost. It's like telling a short person to get taller.

In other lines of work, where tenure doesn't exist and performance is easier to measure, this is less of an issue. Ken Griffey Jr. was one of the best baseball players of the 90's, but he had to hang up his cleats this year because he just couldn't get it done anymore. The team didn't have to prove its case; the evidence was obvious and beyond dispute. In quick-turnaround jobs like sales, the feedback is quick enough that arguments from history simply don't count; if your current numbers suck, you're done.

But since the courts have held that tenure amounts to ownership of the job, the legal standard you have to meet is far beyond mere performance measurement. You have to meet a legal standard severe enough to expropriate somebody. It almost never happens, and that's by design.

When I discuss this topic, I usually get accused of ageism. The charge is diversionary and slanderous. I have personally seen professors repeat sections of lecture because they've forgotten what they've said. I've seen professors drool during long, silent, painful, pauses in class. I've endured meetings in which "senior moments" were so numerous that they actually became a running joke. I've had students complain that "he's a nice guy, but he has repeated the same lecture three classes in a row." It's all real. And the abuse that lions in winter dole out to support staff and random students is astonishing.

Nobody designed tenure to last forever. The classic AAUP statement on tenure references a "normal retirement age," and there's a reason for that. If you are going to have a tenure system -- a monstrous 'if,' but let's go with it for the time being -- there has to be an expiration date. There always was.

The alternative is to let the lions in winter roar, and maul, and abuse students and staff. It's wrong. And in the current landscape, it's unavoidable. If we insist on keeping a tenure system, we need to have a serious conversation -- by which I mean one that acknowledges reality and doesn't resort to demagoguery -- about when and how to push people out the door. We've had 16 years of relying on people to do the right thing voluntarily, and the results are in. It hasn't worked. Some lions don't go gently, but they have to go.

Comments:
I completely agree with this. On the other hand, it's important to remember that not every professor (or every person, period) over a certain age automatically has these physical and/or mental problems. Case in point: my undergrad school (a tiny liberal arts college) has a business prof who is in her eighties - she's been with the school since the end of WWII. Yet her mind is still very sharp and, far from repeating lectures or spouting hate speeches, she's the most respected and well-loved prof on campus.

Age should be a factor in determining the end of a professor's productive career, but it shouldn't be the only factor.
 
How many people at your CC are over 70 and still teaching a 5/5 load? This may be a problem at universities, where it is EASY to evaluate research productivity, but I don't see it at our large CC.

What I find odd is that you are arguing that there is no point in having a Dean, because you refuse to do your main job. Budgets could be handled by some part-time contractor. Evaluating teaching faculty, to hire and tenure them as well as putting in action the policies that require the removal of incompetent people, is your job. You claim you cannot evaluate teaching and research objectively. Did you tell the people that hired you this shortcoming in your skill set?

I also don't buy the argument about retaliation against complainers. First, the odds are that the persons raising the complaint are also tenured faculty. (Can you imagine getting complaints from untenured faculty in your dream college?) Second, retaliation should also be actionable. Third, there were no indications of that as the issue in the example given by your correspondent, just inaction on the part of the Dean and Chair.

Finally, have you considered the liability to the college for NOT getting rid of that senile old (or young) fool?

Seamyst is funny. You "completely agree" that all the old lions should go, then give a counter example.
 
So true. My condolences to any reader having one of these creatures in his or her life. A weak blend of tea and sympathy is the best you can count on from your colleagues, some of whom will find it hard to believe your atrocity stories. I had one such person mucking up a small but important part of my job. His hijinks went on unhampered for years. I bought myself a bottle of single-malt scotch the day I found out that his doctor had finally grounded him for good.
 
This, among other things, is why I'm on DD's side about tenure.

It's equally true that there are many faculty whose acuteness and energy go on forever. One of my colleagues finally retired at age 78, because he had just married and wanted to spend time with his new wife (who was--and I love this--a woman he'd known in high school in Austria), not because he was past it.

There is a relatively simple solution (to state, not to implement). Tenure, but not the job, expires at a fixed time. The faculty member continues, on a year-to-year appointment (or maybe a 2 or 3 year contract), with annual reappointments.
 
I really like the proposal that tenure expires but the person is able to continue on a year to year appointment thereafter.

I suffered under such a person as a graduate student--fits of crying in the classroom, random outbursts of anger, total amnesia about important details, and a habit of inappropriate and belittling comments to students. I had known this person for five years and I could see the change. When I expressed concern, I either got you're imagining it or you're discriminating because of age or this person has always been like this.

On the other hand, I ultimately finished my graduate work under the supervision of a venerable old prof in his 70s. He's still brilliant, he never misses a beat, and he's still in control of a highly flexible intellect. I don't think we can afford to lose all people of a certain age, even by forcing retirements. And that's back to evaluating on a year to year basis after a certain point.
 
I've been there too, and I too have heard the exasperating, "this wouldn't be a problem if you just did your job as an administrator". Does anyone really think that a post-tenure evaluation that reveals incompetence will prove to be grounds for dismissal? If so, you live in a very different state (or perhaps universe) than me.

It doesn't take long for a Dean to occupy that position before the first problem with a tenured prof crops up, and it is not long after that that when a Dean realizes his/her hands are tied with regard to doing anything about it. I have had some success cajoling recalcitrant tenured faculty members, but if there are fundamental problems, there is precious little one can do about it. There comes a time in each Dean's tenure (that's with a small 't') when s/he decides that enough is enough, it is time to initiate dismissal proceedings against someone who clearly can no longer do the job. Then, s/he watches the faculty ranks close, the union wagons circle, and the attorney's knives sharpen. After spending three years in arbitration/mediation hearings and courtrooms, the Dean will find that it is s/he who ends up being the villain in the piece and the poor put-upon faculty member has become the victim.

So, it becomes doubly frustrating when we hear that we, "aren't doing our job" by not having in place an effective system for post-tenure review and dismissal. Anyone who makes that accusation has surely no acquaintance with the administrative side of academia.
 
Seamyst is funny. You "completely agree" that all the old lions should go, then give a counter example.

I concede that I could have been clearer. I completely agree that professors who are mentally declining, to the point where they can no longer do their job, should be let go.

Still, my intent was clear, especially with my closing sentence.
 
I'll second (or third) Al - though I disagree in principle with Dean Dad's position on tenure (at present I think it does far more good than harm, precisely for students, who are assured of learning what a qualified professor regards as up-to-date, in-depth knowledge, as opposed to an unqualified administrator), I sympathize greatly with the problem of deposing the patently incompetent tenured professor. It's not easy and probably not even possible; in fact, though my institution, like many, has a post-tenure-review process, in reality the last effort to ditch a patently incompetent tenured professor resulted in over a decade of expensive litigation that has rendered our current administration and HR personnel extremely leery of removing anyone - even the professor who falls asleep in class. I wish there were a way to retain tenure and get rid of the bad apples that make even me sometimes think that tenure is indefensible (and no, the renewable five-year contract would not work at my institution).
 
i don't know much about this part of admin, so i will ask a few naive questions:
- Can you move the bad faculty member to a position that is purely research based?
- Can you minimize the teaching time?

i think college deans (and much upper management) is very naive when it comes to their budget, and how much they pay for how little work gets done. right now, there are employees across every department who are employed purely because the U/college is too scared to fire them. not just teachers/profs either; accountants, IT staff, grants dep't...

i know of people who are at work for 4-5 hours a day, every day, and they may do 5-10 minutes of actual work during that day (if that much). i know of someone who makes $90k at a local U and whose team was blatantly told not to give her any work, because she refused to learn the new software system being used, and no longer can perform any duties pertaining to her job. she is eligible to retire, but will not because of her salary, insurance, and discounts on her children's tuition. God knows how much it costs to keep her employed ($90k + x), yet no one cares.

my point is, if a university/college is so willing to blow money on those positions, why not do it on professors/faculty? send them home with full pay. deans are doing it with other positions, they are just too "busy" to figure it out (and i bet a little too scared at what they would find).

people who cry about ageism can just shut up. not all people who age become incompetent, but a lot of them do, and it does nothing but inhibit your department, team, and break down morale.
 
A lot of them don't. Only 5 percent of the population gets Alzheimer's disease or another dementia. In fact, professors' rate of AD is much lower than the general population.
 
she is eligible to retire, but will not because of her salary, insurance, and discounts on her children's tuition.

This is one of the best arguments I've heard for fighting to retain good retirement packages for people even in times of budget cuts. While some people will stay at work until forcibly removed, kicking and screaming, a far larger pool of people would be happy to enter retirement if not for the financial hit involved. To the degree that you can keep real pensions, health insurance in retirement, and other job-related perks available to them in retirement it's something to consider. Obviously, this is something that has to be budgeted for as part of their compensation all along, but one of the reasons that people don't retire is that many of them weren't able to budget for it themselves (the Economy of Doom didn't help, but I also know people who didn't even try) and their employer didn't do it for them. Thus, they have to keep hanging on because it's that or find a new job, which isn't a reasonable plan for them either.

You may not be able to force someone with tenure to retire, but if you budget for it over a 30 or 40 career at your institution, ideally you should be able to bribe them to.
 
I'm not naive, because I've seen it done. And it should be easier to document today, what with video cameras in every other student phone. Anyone as bad as you describe is going to miss office hours or fail to do other assigned duties. Those are actionable at our college.

And I stand by my view (based on a small sample) that the problem DD describes is at universities, not at community colleges. I know of many instances where university faculty had over 45 years of service when they retired, whereas I know CC faculty who would like to retire after 30 but face a significant window between that date and when they are eligible for Medicare.

Now I can imagine you could have a problem if the original tenure decision was flawed because your predecessor didn't do the job. That starts with views like "The premise of post-tenure review is that the person reviewed is capable of doing better." No, the premise is that the person being reviewed was an outstanding professor when you granted tenure, so your main concern is maintaining that quality over time by catching areas where ze might be slipping or still be a bit weak.

You can't do better if you have perfect student evaluations. Insisting otherwise is what drives faculty to burnout, which can be worse than senility.
 
Oh, yes, and senior faculty have no special power over junior faculty, tenured or not, at our CC. That observation certainly applies at a university, but not at our CC.
 
How is the union not on your side on this one, DD?
 
you have to consider all of the dirty laundry that will be aired in these situations.

there are lots of deans who enjoy perks such as coming to work late, leaving early, taking off a day without registering PTO, free lunches from consultants...

the rule of work should be: my manager/boss works as hard as i do (X), plus 1. a manager's boots should be the first to hit the ground, and the last to leave them. this theory should trickle upwards. your lowest paid, lowest man on the totem pole should have the easiest job, while the jobs should get harder as you climb the ladder. the problem is that this is normally not the case.

any liberties that a dean enjoys will be brought out(exploited) in the wash when they try to remove tenured faculty (or a long time employee). a colleague of mine who works at another local U can see anyone who enters & exits the building, and keeps a spreadsheet of the show-up-to-work and leave-work times of everyone in his department, including the dean. he also keeps track of work performance, documenting the number of issues tackled by him & everyone else (they have software to look this up). should he be terminated for any stupid reason, this spreadsheet will promptly be forwarded to everyone above the dean.

the dean in his department won't reprimand a single person out of fear of what his employees might bring to light. after working with the same people for a few decades, they begin to acquire some dirt on you.

i never went this far in my experience with dean's/staff/faculty, because my situation wasn't as bad. but i did see abuse that would not be tolerated in a private business (by the deans of multiple depts). mine just wasn't as bad.

then you get the ones you can't fire because they know 1 thing that no one else knows, and they won't share the information out of job security concerns. go to the IT staff of any department at a college, point at a random worker, and ask what would happen if he/she were fired. more than likely, you'd hear something like "he fixes the bugs in the budget system which is a legacy system. he only works when there are issues, which means he doesn't do a lick of work in a week. but if we let him go, the budget system would crash within a month and the entire U would not get their endowment money. we could get a consultant to do it, but they are $500/hour, and the U would rather have someone on staff.."

the IT situation is a bit unique, bc different U's have different makeups (ours had an IT dep't within each 'college'. ergo, engin college had their own IT, as did college of education...) this all works towards my argument that deans are spending money in this way all the time. why not just allocate some more every time someone needs to be phased out.

and you don't have to have alzheimer's to start losing your mind. i have 3 grandparents still alive (between 70 & 85), and only 1 of them is still sharp, yet none have alzheimer's. i'm not saying to perform a carte blanche exodus of older people out of the workforce, but when you can bring someone else in for 2/3 as much money and that person can get 10x as much work done, there's something to be said.

and in reference to anonymous, i understand that income is important. but people retire every day and get by just fine, but they planned for it. my grandmother retired at 65 and is doing great, and she never had a job that paid more than $20/hour. it should be the employee's job to plan for their own retirement, not the institution's responsibility to hold the hand of the employee. at some point, personal accountability has to be applied.
 
I have never seen so many using anecdotal evidence to support their arguments - oh wait, yes I have have - my students.

shame, shame, shame on all of you for many offenses, including ageism, yes I said ageism. I retire from this site before my faculties begin to dim!!!!!!
 
"but i did see abuse that would not be tolerated in a private business (by the deans of multiple depts)."

Um, have you worked in a private business? Because there's no such thing as an abuse that wouldn't be tolerated in a private business. Hence things like record oil spills and Interior Department sex parties.
 
Okie? hmmmm your comments are a *big* surprise! okie, indeed
 
Katharine -- I have to say, I detect a nasty anti-young age bias in your comments. You seem to imply that "giving the lecture 3 times" or "abusing the staff" are privileges which should be reserved for the elderly.
 
Katharine.

Actual data (from Framingham cohort): lifetime risk of dementia for a cognitively healthy 65-year old is 11% for men, 19% for women (NEUROLOGY 1997;49:1498-1504).

That's real dementia, diagnosed according to standardized criteria. About half the dementia was diagnosed as Alzheimer's, but this is a less reliable distinction. Now, some of this happens much later (which is why the risk is higher for women, who live longer) but not all of it does.

What to do about cognitive impairment short of dementia is an even more difficult problem. Many older adults remain cognitively fine right up to death, but quite a few eventually develop cognitive impairment that would be incompatible with a faculty job, without ever ending up with dementia.

I don't know that tenure is the biggest issue here -- even if people were on contracts that had to be renewed every few years, it's going to be hard to not renew respected senior faculty who claim there is nothing wrong with them. Especially as some of them will be right.
 
what is the "big" surprise about my comments?

i've worked for a large U, private corps, and now for a gov't entity that partners with major gov't agencies as well as a few departments at major universities. i haven't seen it all (and don't pretend that i have), but i've seen a lot.

the biggest waste i've ever seen was at the U. people came and went as they pleased, very little got done, and politics were a huge role in everything. the private corps was second in wastefulness. my job now is great, where i would say that only 10% of the people around me aren't pulling their weight. and i know things haven't changed at the U, because i still have lunch and communicate with ex-colleagues (as well as a few friends made since) who are still employed by the U. i talk to these guys on almost a daily basis. hell, one of them is my daily gym partner.

i hope your comment was sarcasm (about retiring from this blog). if not, you're hypersensitive. no one means to personally offend.

and there is nothing wrong with being an okie. if anything, mocking me for my home state is much more offensive than any hints at "ageism" that were in the comments of this post. the difference is, i don't care. big whoop.
 
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