Thursday, July 22, 2010


Professor Plum, With a Candlestick, In the Study

The comments to yesterday’s post shed more heat than light, but I’ll concede one point: the piece was snarkier than necessary. It was a reaction to the persistent and fundamental failure of our major opinion leaders to even understand the question. Sometimes my frustration at their obtuseness boils over, as it did yesterday.

That said, though, a few commenters raised the serious question of transition. How would we get from a tenure system to a contract system? What are the likeliest sources of change? If tenure gets killed, who will have killed it?

I’ve thought about this off and on for years. A few scenarios, with annotations:

1. The Class Polarization Hypothesis. I consider this the likeliest. In this scenario, tenure fades away to irrelevance at all but the most elite institutions, driven almost entirely by cost. The Harvards of the world can keep it forever if they want to, but the St. Somebody Colleges in the East Wherevers of the world just can’t. I’d expect that a combination of program closures, campus closures, and generational rule changes will continue the trend of reducing the presence of tenured faculty outside the elites. It’s basically an extension of the trend line of the past forty years or so.

2. Judicial Fiat. Although some like to claim that tenure is nothing more than an entitlement to “due process,” the courts have consistently recognized it as a property claim. Of course, courts can change their minds. If a high-level court of appeals were to reconstrue the meaning of tenure, all bets would be off. I consider this unlikely in my neck of the woods, but in the South or Southwest, I wouldn’t rule it out. Get a conflict going between federal circuits, and things could get unpredictable.

3. PATCO. In the early 1980’s, the Air Traffic Controllers’ union (Patco) went on strike. President Reagan hired permanent replacements for the striking workers, and the precedent has stood since. Imagine a tenured, unionized public faculty going on strike, and the governor declaring that he’ll just hire permanent replacements. It would be horrendous on the ground, and would probably only occur if a governor were Republican, desperate, and prone to confrontation. In other words, I’d look at California or Arizona, or maybe South Carolina.

4. Displacement. It may be that tenure survives in many lower-tier institutions, but those institutions themselves become largely irrelevant. Nobody seriously disputes that the major growth sector in higher ed for the last two decades or so is the for-profits, and I’ve never heard of a for-profit with a tenure system. (Some of them have full-time faculty, but not tenure.) Since the for-profits thrive on growth and the publics choke on it, it’s unsurprising that the for-profits are becoming progressively larger and more important players. Over time, this could feed into scenario 1.

5. Everything is Fine. This strikes me as the least likely by far, given the trend lines of the lasty forty years. It’s also the majority position in higher ed. Every so often the cognitive dissonance gets a little wearing.

I recognize that many of my wise and worldly readers think I’m mistaken. So I’ll pose my question to them. What will keep tenure alive and widespread? (The key word in that sentence is ‘will,’ as opposed to, say, ‘should.’)

Writing from St. Somebody:

(1) We'll be the last to give up tenure. (a) It's how we recruit quality faculty. Why the importance of that never gets mentioned here is a a mystery to me. (b) We charge for personalized service. That means full-time faculty who are always around and always available. We think we would pay a price for too much adjunct load.

(4) People have been predicting the demise of low tier private colleges for decades but, somehow, the sector remains relatively healthy. What do we have that a good public college doesn't offer at lower cost to the student? Pretty simple answer, really. NCAA division III athletics. Our most valuable customer is the kid who holds up her family so she can continue playing her sport. And we ain't ashamed of that.

But, really, keep up the drumbeat. The prospect of state systems abandoning tenure has us grinning from ear to ear.
Any sign of some middle ground emerging between tenured faculty, on the one hand, and paid-by-the-course adjuncts, on the other? Full-time but untenured lecturers, perhaps.
And as someone who teaches at East Wherever (Eastern Michigan, actually) and building on my St. Somebody colleague: what tenure means and where it's going are always local issues.

The "class polarization" issue actually works in reverse here: tenure at EMU is tied to the faculty union, and while tenure itself matters for all kinds of reasons similar to fancier universities, what matters most in terms of the "rules for work" is the union. Essentially, faculty end up being protected/classified as "workers" by the union. This is often a bad thing and often fosters a "us versus them" mentality, but it does a lot for job security.

The "PATCO" option would be so devastating that the only way it could happen is if it was a state-wide initiative by a very crazy government-- California does come to mind. We had a very controversial/problematic contract negotiation a few years ago where this sort of issue was on the table, and it wasn't good for anyone. A very long story short, the Board of Regents taking a "hard line" against the union ultimately forced a couple regents to resign and then forced an expensive "mediation" process that the faculty union arguably won.

Incidentally, I find it curious that DD is pointing only to tenure and faculty as "the problem" of higher ed expense. But all the stuff I've seen suggests that (at least in the public sector) the cost of instruction has remained flat or had dropped, but the cost of administration, athletics, and student amenities (e.g., better dorms, parking, rec centers, etc.) has been steadily and dramatically rising. Wouldn't those be areas to address first instead of the very old and rather non-issue of tenure?
Contracts are a very bad idea. Rolling contracts are much better. The period could be fairly long, six to ten years or so.
Dean Dad asks what could save tenure. I think something like the kerfuffle over Kenneth Howell's dismissal by U of I could do the trick if properly handled. The lack of tenure made it easy for the university to dismiss him, whatever the (lack of?) validity of his views or the manner of their expression. In this case, it is largely conservatives who are objecting to his firing in terms of academic freedom. Unfortunately, rather than making the connection between his dismissal and his position as an untenured adjunct, they are largely taking it as an opportunity to attack the rampant leftism of higher education, at least based on the comments I have seen. There seems to be a consensus around his right to express his unpopular views as a matter of academic freedom, but few people seem to make the connection between his loss of his job and the lack of the protection tenure would have given him.
Where is the AAUP on this?
The importance of competing for faculty, particularly for the 100 or so research intensive universities, was mentioned in my comment to that article and pointedly ignored by Dean Dad in his ad hominem intro to this post or his assertion in item 4. I cannot imagine any analysis that would allow an Illinois or Penn State to exist with their research programs intact without a second class of faculty. But DD is welcome to prove me wrong by actually working the numbers.

Even Community Colleges need some faculty experts to do the hard work that underlies accreditation, even if Dean Dad doesn't want to pay them for doing those quasi-administrative tasks or recognize that those release time assignments are a way of grooming future administrators to solve another problem he always complains about. Would you get them if pay were cut in half without tenure or a five-year notice that your rolling contract would cease to roll over? (The details of Dean Dad's proposed multi-year contracts have never been spelled out. If it works like football coaching, most contracts would be multi-year but not with a rolling renewal built in so faculty would be on the job market every few years and might never put down roots in a community. Particularly if the pay is as low as I suspect it would be.)

Now I am willing to admit that I might be wrong about the need to have faculty do the work of accreditation, outcomes assessment, etc. Some in the for-profit sector do it with a handful of Real Faculty who must be de facto administrators, but that is just another form of a two-class system ... not what I think DD is proposing.

Johan, the answer to your question is that some universities do that, on a limited basis, but they can't afford to do it for all of their classes (as Dean Dad proposes) and still compete for researchers. The budget reality is even worse at a CC. If Dean Dad would answer my repeated question to put salary numbers behind his proposal, even if only for his CC, I think he might see that he might have trouble hiring a full time PhD in the sciences for $30,000 or so a year (plus inflation increases) forever.

But Dean Dad would rather blame the faculty for a system created by colleges themselves to retain top people. I think his real problem is that the previous administrators at his college gave tenure to people they shouldn't have, or that skills honed by arguing about Foucault don't translate very well into managing people. I mean, seriously, why did he create an admin staff position for someone when their teaching unit ceased to exist? Faculty see that as just one more cushy admin job that takes money out of the classroom.
While I know comments don't get responded to here, I do have a suggestion for how to transition. Why not go to 50% tenure, 50% contract? That leaves the job security of the position (you are at worst rendered into part time) but gives the administration some flexibility. In areas with heavy research components, the 50% could be made up by grants.

Some version of this approach already exists with the 9 month positions. This type of "nobody is happy" compromise avoids completely betraying people who made life changing decisions (like moving to a college town) in good faith due to the lure of a tenured job. But it also introduces flexibility and the ability to reallocate salary.

Why are these compromise solutions ignored? The drum beat of "get rid of tenure" seems to be part of the general backlash against deferred compensation (look at public sector pensions). Sure, some of these deals were bad but contracts are the heart of our legal system.
Facetious and cynical (though probably true) answer for what "will" keep tenure alive and widespread: a culture of ennui and inertia. Getting rid of it would be a pain in the butt for administrations, and those who have it have no motivation to give it up, and the only people who really talk about wanting to get rid of it a) don't have it and b) don't really have the power to make those sorts of changes in higher education, whether we're talking about individual institutions or the national landscape of higher education.

If you want your readers to be fortune-tellers, talking about what "will" happen rather than what "should," I really don't see how any answer other than the above is possible.
I am beginning to find the "cost" (meaning dollars) argument against tenure, and for contracts (say 5-7 years), to have less and less merit. I think it's being made without a consideration of unintended consequences.

What if you start getting priced out of productive scholars who would've happily traded security for money? Would a conversion contracts result in a baseball like arms race for talent?

We would replace the current, more democratic talent distribution system for one more like major league baseball (with small and large markets). The contract system would result in an even more unequal distribution of talent in higher ed than we have now. And who would then trust the small schools who could only afford the apparently less talented scholar-teachers?

The contract system would destroy the integrity of small colleges and community colleges as they currently exist. Under the tenure system those types of institutions have at least a fighting chance of retaining and landing moderately talented professors. Otherwise, all small colleges and CCs might also become more explicit stepping stone/minor league systems for major schools.

I fear that in trading tenure for contracts, we'll be pursuing perfection to the detriment of the good. Sometimes you just have to live with those 2-3 unproductive/outdated/tired professors hired in the 80s by the retired/dead dean.

Humans have a tendencies toward good and evil. Do not underestimate a bad professor's ability to manipulate a contract system of employment as much as the same bad professors manipulate tenure. Beware of what you wish for.

In sum, don't underestimate tenure as a system of remuneration. You're going to have to pay talent one way or the other, and tenure is a vague enough good that professors now might over-value it in favor or a small college or CC. - TL
What will keep tenure alive? Unions, inertia, research universities and low pay.

Unions will never agree to give up tenure. Ever!

Inertia was discussed by Dr. Crazy.

Research universities need tenured folks because only they have a reasonable chance of getting grants and sticking around for the long term. There are very few "independent scientists" - 100% grant supported individual scientists - at most universities and they do no teaching at all in most cases. If you want research faculty to teach, you will have to offer tenure to keep them.

Also, any discipline that has an actual profession associated with it (the sciences, business, engineering, health science) will never be able to retain faculty without tenure. Academic pay is too low compared to industry pay. My students, after one year of post-bac training, make a salary about 1/3 more than the average starting assistant prof at my college (90k v. 60k). Keep in mind the assistant prof took 10-12 years of specialized training to get that 60k per year job - the only thing keeping the college going is tenure.

I think you forget how much institutions get out of offering tenure. Talk of admin bloat aside, most colleges have very little management compared to the average business. Universities use unpaid "service" to make up for staff and admin positions. And the upside of loving the sound of your own voice is that most faculty I've worked with will usually go to meetings and work on projects that they care about - usually for no additional pay. The advantage to continuity is also not to be underestimated – at my school it takes 18 months to propose a course. How would you continue to offer new courses if there was a chance 20% of your faculty were going to change out every year? It would be chaos. And this could happen – the ENTIRE adjunct budget was cut at my college this year. These people do 60% of the teaching at the college. Believe me when I tell you they would be chucking aside tenured faculty if they could.

Add to that the fact that academic jobs prepare you for nothing else professionally and you’ve got a recipe for disaster without tenure. The only way to shrink the adjunct pool is to limit grad school enrollment – and that’s never going to happen.
"Any sign of some middle ground emerging between tenured faculty, on the one hand, and paid-by-the-course adjuncts, on the other? Full-time but untenured lecturers, perhaps."

Uh, yeah. They've had that system in the University of California system for years. Simultaneously - lecturers with varying degrees of respect and job security (the latter can be contractually "guaranteed," but not the former) and the so-called "ladder faculty." The two-tier system is deeply flawed; I really don't know if I think the lecturer system would ultimately work on its own. Maybe if it were a fresh start somewhere. Too much institutional baggage at the UC.
What will keep tenure alive and widespread? (The key word in that sentence is ‘will,’ as opposed to, say, ‘should.’)

I'll post part of a comment I left on Megan McArdle's blog yesterday:

Nonetheless, I think tenure will remain as a lure for superstars in the profession if nothing else: for schools that are competing to get the best faculty, tenure will remain a strong draw.

In addition, I still haven't seen anyone address Lorne Carmichael's argument in "Incentives in Academics: Why is There Tenure?":

"Loosely, tenure is necessary because without it incumbents would never be willing to hire people who might turn out to be better than them-selves.

The analysis is consistent with several other aspects of the academic environment. It provides a rationale for "tenure-track" appointments and says something about the standards that can be used for tenure decisions. The job security derived here is not absolute. Incumbents (454) can be released if they fail to meet exogenous standards of performance (i.e., engage in "gross moral turpitude") or if the separations are voluntary (contract "buy-outs" or early retirement). In times of financial crisis, when involuntary separations are inevitable, the model suggests that entire departments be eliminated. This is because the members of one department do not choose the new hires of another. The framework used for the analysis is quite general, so it also makes predictions about the form of other organizations in which members have input into overall decisions" (455).

(Carmichael, Lorne H. "Incentives in Academics: Why is There Tenure?" The Journal of Political Economy, Vol. 96, No. 3 (Jun., 1988), pp. 453-472)

If—and this is a big "if"—only people within the discipline can evaluate others within the discipline for hiring and promotion, then tenure will probably remain far longer simply because it will be the only way to get coherent departments together.

Until you get past the hurdle of having only people within the discipline being able to evaluate others within the discipline and those in a department not wanting to hire themselves out of a job, I don't think you'll have a sufficiently persuasive case to get rid of tenure altogether, whatever the benefits.

If you want a copy of the paper, send me an e-mail. In all the discussions about tenure rolling around the Internet and magazines, I don't think I've ever seen this paper discussed, which means it's either a) not good / been refuted and I'm unaware of it or b) no one knows about it.

In any event, for non-research institutions the excellence-in-research issue that this presumes won't matter. Maybe the real bifurcation will be in research-heavy institutions that need tenure for good research departments and non-research-heavy institutions that don't because they'll judge faculty more on teaching/service.
I have never been able to reconcile the coexistnce of tenure and or the other (maybe), but both? Completely crazy.
Ivory said:

My students, after one year of post-bac training, make a salary about 1/3 more than the average starting assistant prof at my college (90k v. 60k).

For the record, 90k is 50% more than 60%, not 1/3 more.

Tenure is going to go very suddenly, as the demographic crash that is coming will put many colleges out of business.
Since the for-profits thrive on growth and the publics choke on it ....

For the record, our CC loves growth and effectively profits from it. It really depends on how well the college is managed by the administration.

In any case, the comparison to for-profits isn't relevant because none of them follow Dean Dad's model of using contract faculty rather than adjuncts. The model they appear to use has quasi faculty who manage the adjuncts, much like professor is listed as the instructor of a large university class but all the work gets done by TAs.
"Maybe the real bifurcation will be in research-heavy institutions that need tenure for good research departments and non-research-heavy institutions that don't because they'll judge faculty more on teaching/service."

I don't understand why tenure is associated with research but not with teaching. At my institution tenure is more important for teaching than for research; the President doesn't care about my latest publication about "queer sexualities in X," but he/she does care (and has cared) about what goes on in the classroom. Thank god tenure exists so that we can offer an up-to-date curriculum.

One thing that I think will protect tenure at my institution? Our relatively unattractive location. With our low salaries, our state's terrible support for public higher ed (we usually rank 48th, 49th, or 50th), and our town's lack of certain amenities, tenure is the one thing we can offer. We don't live in an area with tons of un- or under-employed Ph.D.s, but we need those Ph.D.s for accreditation, so that we can offer our upper-level and graduate courses, etc. No one is going to move here for 5-year contracts.
And speaking of accreditation, this is another thing that keeps the tenure system intact. In particular, our accrediting agency expects that a certain percentage of faculty teaching general education courses (for example) must be ladder faculty. Unless the accreditors stop mandating that sort of thing, the discussion of ending tenure really is a non-starter, for this reason along with the others listed here.
Our CC doesn't have tenure. We have full-time faculty and adjuncts. The problem is that most of the adjuncts are teaching more courses than the "full-time" faculty. In my department, we have one full-timer, and ten adjuncts. That's the department. Adjuncts don't have benefits (sometimes they don't even make minimum wage). They are "part-timers" even when they are pulling full-time loads, including committee work and student advising.

This is not what adjuncting is supposed to be for.

There shouldn't be a "steady supply of adjuncts from grad schools." Adjuncts should be experienced people returning to teach an occasional class, an opportunity provided to students in place of their professor who is taking the semester off for one reason or another. When you start using adjuncts as long-term solutions for teaching your classes, you are doing something wrong.

A lot of places have switched to doing something wrong, in the name of moving to "contracts" or getting rid of tenure. When my husband goes to work in the real world, and he does his job and does it well, he has a reasonable expectation that he will still have his job this fall, and next spring. As an adjunct, the pins and needles is constant. When moving to contracting instead of tenure, there needs to be clear expectations of what job security will and will not be. Trying to raise a family on a year-to-year contract is nearly impossible unless there is a reasonable expectation that if I do my job, my contract ill be renewed.
"When you start using adjuncts as long-term solutions for teaching your classes, you are doing something wrong."

From an economics perspective -- why? Are you having difficulty filling slots and/or has quality suffered a lot? Because the college is going to need some reason to pay three times as much per class if it's going to switch over to full-timers.
To answer DD's question: Money will keep tenure alive.

The tenure/adjunct servitude model is by far the least expensive method of filling classes with something that appears to be teachers. It will continue to work until a generation or two passes and there is finally a collapse in grad school applications, at which point things will get very bad very quickly.

At that point, the assault on K-12 should have been successful enough that HS will explicitly be prison/babysitting, and so college will be exclusively social signalling for 80% of its attendees.
There shouldn't be a "steady supply of adjuncts from grad schools." Adjuncts should be experienced people returning to teach an occasional class, an opportunity provided to students in place of their professor who is taking the semester off for one reason or another. When you start using adjuncts as long-term solutions for teaching your classes, you are doing something wrong.
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