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.