Thursday, June 24, 2004

Thoughts on Tenure...

At my new deanship, I’m confronted again by the same silly economics I’ve seen throughout higher education. In the face of a budget crunch, we can buy computers, hire secretaries, and expand our most expensive programs (the ones students are breaking down the doors to enter), but we can’t hire full-time faculty.

There’s something fundamentally wrong about this. If college provides nothing else, it should provide opportunities for students to interact with professors. Professors are the one category of expense I am expressly forbidden.

How did this happen?

Part of it has to do with the availability of alternatives. We can ‘adjunct out’ classes – hire adjunct instructors at $1600/course to teach what used to be taught by full-timers – much more easily than we could hire temps as secretaries. Ph.D.’s with teaching experience are thick on the ground, but do you know how hard it is to find a good secretary these days?

Stay in school, kids…

Part of it has to do with the fatal combination of tenure and the repeal of the mandatory retirement age (last set at 70, until the Supreme Court killed it). Despite what the AAUP says, tenure really does effectively guarantee employment for life. Unless the professor commits a felony (or sexual harassment), the cost of the process necessary for actually discharging someone with tenure is so extreme that it’s simply not worth it. Whatever the merits of the tenure system as a way to protect freedom for controversial research (its original purpose), it kneecaps institutional flexibility. When you combine it with the lack of a retirement age and seniority-driven raises, a college can easily find itself laden with an expensive, unproductive, top-heavy full-time faculty, whose costs it can’t cut.

All of the cost cuts, then, are borne by the next generation. Since we can’t trim costs on the high end, we simply stop hiring entry-level full-timers instead. Young scholars are frozen out of full-time employment, despite frequently having better qualifications than their elders (and being willing to work for about half as much). The institution is stuck with unmovable, expensive employees at one end, and highly mobile (because badly exploited) casual labor at the other.

There’s a fundamental dishonesty at work here. The idea of tenure is considered sacrosanct, but the institutional costs of tenure have become intolerable. Rather than facing the dilemma squarely, colleges have been taking the easy way out for the last twenty years by effectively grandfathering one generation and exploiting the next. Tenure isn’t being repealed; it’s simply being rendered inaccessible. Repealing it would run the risk of dampening the enthusiasm of prospective professors, who might turn to more lucrative fields, and thereby dry up the pool of available adjuncts. Better to hold out the mirage, to keep the desiccated survivors crawling across the desert floor. After all, someone has to teach freshman comp.

The dangers of continuing down this path are several. Obviously, the more adjunct-heavy an institution gets, the more difficult quality control becomes. With constant turnover, a department chair frequently has to roll the dice to staff that last section. Students lose, since their younger instructors come and go (making them useless as sources of letters of recommendation, academic/personal advisors, etc.), and the older ones taper off as they head towards the finish line. The younger generation of scholars loses, as it has to try to pay off its student loans on adjunct or “visiting assistant” (read: temporary) wages.

More subtly, it’s not at all clear where the next generation of deans, provosts, and presidents will come from. Historically, they have come from the faculty. However, most of the current full-time faculty have either already been there and done that, or have reached a stage in their careers where additional responsibility simply holds no interest. Behind them, the pipeline is dry. So few tenure-track faculty have been hired over the last decade or two (and the few who were got those jobs by being single-minded research machines) that new candidates are simply not developing.

Presidents can come from many different areas, including outside of academe altogether, and I expect that non-academics will quickly become the norm. As college presidencies have become defined almost exclusively as fundraising positions, it makes a certain amount of sense to look to people who are well-connected to wealth, as opposed to teaching. Deans and provosts, though, deal with the internal machinery of the institution, and really need to be conversant with academic realities. They need to have taught.

My own career path is an anomaly. I was able to move quickly into administration because I did an (unintentional) end run around the usual procedures by working first in an institution that was not bound by a tenure system. Since nobody had to die before I could move up, I was able to gain relevant experience at a fairly early age. That experience got me hired at an institution where I am younger than 90% of the full-time faculty in my division. (Literally. I counted.)

This year I’ve lost (to retirement) four tenured professors from my division and one secretary. We’re replacing the secretary.

The tenure system’s pathologies are so deeply entrenched by now that it’s hard even to imagine alternatives or solutions. The obvious answers – long-term (3-5 years) renewable contracts; national single-payer health care (health insurance is the budget-buster for hiring full-timers); a return to a mandatory retirement age – are just not politically feasible, and won’t be for the foreseeable future.

From a budgetary perspective, labor is such an overwhelming part of the budget (over 90 percent) that there just isn’t another way to achieve meaningful cost cuts. By the time you factor in fixed overhead (electricity, HVAC, office supplies, etc.), the remainder is trivial. Technology doesn’t help, since computers don’t grade papers. Unlike most private-sector enterprises, technology is almost a pure cost center for us.

What makes all of this more than just idle ranting is the simple fact of mortality. Mandatory retirement may have been repealed, but physical frailty hasn’t been. When the current crop of full-timers starts dropping in large numbers, colleges will finally have to start making the tough decisions they’ve been putting off for twenty years. My worry is that we’ve grown so accustomed to adjunct-ing everything that we’ll simply continue to do so. Like the proverbial frog in the pot, we won’t even notice as we boil to death.

Better to step up now.