Monday, August 16, 2010

Tenure, for Better or for Worse

In her Friday post, FSP discussed the issue of tenure. The article that FSP discussed in her post and a number of commenters brought up the usual arguments against tenure -- deadwood faculty drain university resources, no other industry has perfect job security so why should academia.

For a person with my background, there are very good employment opportunities in industry. My PhD students, fresh out of grad school, get higher starting salaries in industry than mine is now. And that's without bonuses and stock options. And I don't see their employers discarding them carelessly, because industry needs good people with specialized skills, and these people are NOT a dime a dozen. Quality PhDs are not easily expendable, at least not in my field. Since professors are paid significantly less than their industry counterparts, yes, to sweeten the deal and actually get people to work in academia, you need to offer job security.

Now, I am in a STEM field at an R1 institution, a big, well-known, public research university. From where I am standing, being a faculty NEVER stops being a rat race. We have annual review and evaluation, based on which salary increases are calculated. You do poorly, you don't get a raise. If you don't bring in research money or publish papers, you must teach more than those who do. Also, every tenured faculty has a big review every 5 years, so there is quality control in place. We have people retiring who still have federal funding, which means they pulled in the dough and advised students actively for good 30+ years. I don't see any deadwood faculty.

One comment over at FSP place was particularly irksome. In a nutshell, the person hates it when a tenured female professor has a baby and then it's all downhill from there. I think the same person follows by saying that not working is like a drug (the less you work, the less you want to work). Huh? So all people are inherently lazy, and only work because someone is forcing them? Did you hear that, ambitious people?

I do not know of a single tenured female who turned into deadwood due to childbearing. If research productivity suffers at all, it's for no more than a few months. Most of the time, since tenured academic women have established research programs that run uninterrupted during their absence, you would not even see a glitch in the womens' research records due to childbearing. As for being absent from teaching and advising, many women take no time off. Those who do, work extra beforehand or after they come back, or arrange for colleague coverage which they return later. I hate comments such as those above, because they basically state that academia -- a multi-decade commitment for academics -- should never make any accommodation for anyone’s life challenges. God forbid any academic, male or female, should be allowed to temporarily slow down for a birth, death, or illness in the family.

I have several colleagues who have gotten seriously and irreversibly ill on tenure track or shortly thereafter, largely because of the stress. We all have colleagues who ended up divorced or have forsaken having kids altogether because of professional demands. No job should deserve this kind of personal sacrifice without something pretty major in return. In the case of academia, that something is tenure. (For a discussion on whether it's worth it, see Odyssey's post).

My understanding is that you only really want to tenure those people who will not slow down significantly or permanently after they receive tenure. I.e., you want to tenure people who have the fire in the belly that drives them to excel irrespective of external stimuli (or lack thereof). People who are truly ambitious and passionate about their work. People who have worked their hardest towards developing their research program and are not just going to drop it and let it die away.

But, then you don't really need tenure, do you? If these awesome people are the only ones whom you want to tenure, and they will just keep chugging along and never stop, they don't care about or need the protection of tenure, right? Tenure is just for lazy people, right? WRONG! Why? Because 30+ years is a very, very long time. And life happens.

A friend of mine is launching a startup after several years at a major corporation. He's a young and unattached guy with a PhD and a lot of spunk, who can put in all the hours needed into a startup, and that's exactly what he's doing right now. He says he would not be doing this if he had a family, and this may be his last chance to do it, because he plans to have a family in a few years.

Another friend of mine, a lawyer, works for a District Attorney's office in another state. She used to work on cases that were extremely high-profile, stressful, and required long hours; then she got married and had a child and decided to move to a different division, where she can still do her job but with less stress, and she has more control over her schedule.

What I am trying to emphasize is that, in most careers, highly trained people are able to change jobs, or to adjust their work hours and schedule to suit their life's demands. In large companies, there are often opportunities for lateral transfer or going part time. None of these are available for academics. It is very rare for faculty to go part-time because of the stigma of not being "serious enough"; moving laterally within the university is not possible because there are no "less stressful" faculty positions. You can get demoted to a lecturer or an adjunct, but they are so severely underpaid and overall abused that it is hardly a viable option.

In my opinion, tenure track is like dating, while tenure is like a marriage between the university and the faculty: for better or for worse, in sickness and in health, till retirement do us part (most academics will spend the bulk of their independent career at a single institution). While on the tenure track, just like while dating, assistant professors try perhaps a little bit harder to please the object of their affection than they do after receiving tenure. But, ultimately, the relationship is doomed to fail if it's based on incompatibility or pretense, so a long dating period is advisable. Six years (duration of a typical tenure clock) is a pretty long time to pretend to be ambitious, work your butt off, and convince everybody around you (your department, university, and your professional community) that you love your work, are genuinely driven, and have something unique to contribute to science in general and to your university in particular. Bottom line is that a person's real ambition and abilities do come across fairly accurately on the tenure track.

This committed relationship between a faculty and a university typically lasts for over three decades, during which the faculty's children are born, parents get sick and die, and the winds of change in research funding availability blow every which way. If an academic is supposed to put in all these years of work into a university, the university should show comparable commitment during the faculty's trying personal times. Tenure, like marriage, shows the world that the cute couple -- the academic and the university -- are both in it for the long haul.


Anonymous said...

i love this post.

Hope said...

Interesting post. But, to continue your metaphor, I’d like to ask: you don’t believe in divorce? Because it seems to me that after tenure, the university is stuck in the old stereotypical role of the wife who can’t divorce her husband unless he engages in some pretty extreme behavior.

I’m not sure if tenure ought to be abandoned altogether or just seriously modified. I would want to look at the situation in countries without tenure more closely before deciding how to change the current system in the US. Because unlike you, I have run across people who slowed waaaaaay down after tenure. These are folks at R1’s and in highly ranked depts. in their disciplines. They seem to have coasted for a few years on the momentum of the tenure chase and then … just settled into a much less productive life. And it does not appear to have coincided with having kids, or being sick, or having to take care of an ill relative, etc.

We all know that when it comes to marriage, even a long courtship is no guarantee that things will work out. There should be a way for academics to “slow down” when they need to without having to pretend that they’re doing the same job as before, and without standing in the way of people who might do the job better at that point – maybe that’s one of the mods we need to make to the tenure system. No institution should be forced to support someone for 30 yrs based on their performance during the first six.

GMP said...

Hope, of course I believe in divorce. But I also believe in marriage and don’t think that one should get divorced just because there's a bump in the road. I agree that there is room for improvement of the current tenure system to minimize abuse. But I don't think any system would be 100% deadwood proof -- in academia or the rest of the world. Even large successful companies have deadwood, who float suspended by political prowess and leech off the more productive people. See this comment by a person who was both tenured in academia and successful industry.

I think abuses of the tenure system could be significantly minimized if faculty were able to go part-time or move laterally to a variety of positions: some less active faculty may prefer to only teach, some very active faculty may want to focus even more on raising grants. I know a few universities do have parallel teaching-track and research-track professorial positions, and tenure criteria associated with each.

One commenter at FSP place nicely put it that, if there are more than one or two deadwood faculty in a department at an R1, then that’s a leadership problem at the department or college level.

Bottom line: I agree with you that tenure could be improved and that possibilities to move laterally or go part-time would make it better for a lot of people past peak productivity and free-up positions for up-and-comers. However, I also believe that the concept of tenure is essentially good, just as I think that the concept of marriage is essentially good. I would say it is up to individual departments and universities to improve hiring and promotion strategies, as well as design clear guidelines as to what constitutes unacceptable performance, and not hesitate to enforce them, resulting in what are essentially clear criteria for academic divorce.

Anonymous said...

I too really like this post. I think you make several excellent points as to why tenure is still timely. It's also good to be reminded that even 5-10% deadwood doesn't make tenure a bad idea. I'm sure that percentage is higher in other institutions. Have you seen any surveys/numbers to reflect the amount of deadwood in various professional environments?

Dr.Girlfriend said...

Job security makes up for some degree to the lower salary. Tenure also protects you from departmental politics.

Assistant professors are constantly being advised to stay out of politics until they get tenure. Doing away with tenure would allow the departmental bullies to continue to push out individuals who did not support their agenda. Much more would be lost than the odd piece of "deadwood".

Great post btw.

Anonymous said...

Articles against tenure (such as the are usually written by or quoting humanities professors who most likely have a different experience than STEM faculty. No one seems to comment on this fact.

GMP said...

Anon at 7:47 AM and Anon at 2:42 PM, I am glad you enjoyed the post.

Anon at 2:42 PM, I am sorry, but I don't have data on the amount of deadwood in various environments/industries. That would be interesting to find out. I presume any such study would have to designate certain people as deadwood -- say, based on supervisor evaluations -- and then there would be the issue of why they were not fired before. I am sure that does not look good for the supervisor or deadwood employee, who are then likely to work against or around deadwood classification. Overall, a likely scenario is that the amount of deadwood may be severely underreported. Alternatively, one can go by anonymous "peer review" among coworkers -- perhaps that would be a good indicator of who works and who doesn't... It's interesting to ponder (at least for me, a non-sociologist) how such studies could be implemented.

Dr. G, you bring up an excellent point about politics in academia. This is indeed a major reason for the introduction and persistence of tenure -- protection of faculty from other faculty, administration, and legislature.

@Anon at 9:51: Articles against tenure (such as the are usually written by or quoting humanities professors who most likely have a different experience than STEM faculty. No one seems to comment on this fact.

You are correct. My gut feeling is that many people think this but will not say/write it. I suspect the reason is that it is really easy to make these statement sound as though STEM faculty and humanities faculty are somehow in different universes. While criteria for excellence and promotion may differ in STEM and humanities, I think humanities faculty actually have much more to lose by abolishing tenure -- the issue of the freedom of speech is much more relevant for their classroom teaching, and their employability outside academia is generally lower than for STEM faculty.

It is true, however, that mainstream media seem to always tap humanities faculty for interviews on all issues academic. I never cease to be amazed by the dearth of STEM voices in mainstream (academic) media. I don't know if this is because no one asks any STEM faculty for their opinions or if STEM faculty don't want to participate...

Female Computer Scientist said...

Great post and well said. "Life happens" is a really important maxim that people seem to forget about when they discuss this topic.

prodigal academic said...

Great post, GMP. I think a lot of people forget that academics are highly trained, highly competent people who desire compensation accordingly. That compensation can take the form of higher salary, or it can take the form of other benefits like tenure. Tenure keeps the price of talent lower for Universities.

I also agree that tenure both protects against departmental and University politics, and also against life events (everyone has a family, even if they don't have kids) that may cause temporary sips in productivity. I certainly wouldn't have left my higher paying and reasonably secure National Lab job for academia without the possibility of tenure as a protection for me.

There are probably improvements that can be made to the tenure system, but we don't seem to have a deadwood problem at Prodigal U (in that there is a lot less deadwood here than at National Lab). I also agree with the commenter at FSP's blog that more than one deadwood faculty in a department is a management/leadership issue, not a tenure problem. I'd consider giving up tenure in exchange for long term contracts and much higher pay, but that seems unlikely in the current economic climate.

Ace said...

Great post. I was also fascinated by all the replies to that post. Some people just have no idea what our lives are like!

I wondered if that Anon comment was a joke or trolling... Like you I'm at large public R1. I don't know a single woman who's become deadwood after having children. I see a lot of women (and men) working very very hard to remain good scientists and good parents. In fact, in my entire time at universities since grad school, I have met one faculty who was remotely called deadwood and he's male, no children. (He's not even entirely deadwood, just doesn't have grants and publishes less).

Ace said...

By the way, good point about the lack of some flexibility options in academia - On the one hand, depending on field, we have some amazing options (like working/writing from home, my favorite). But the inability to make a lateral move, or part time work on the tenure track is an issue. As an asst prof with a chronic illness that is sometimes significantly disabling, I am very worried about this aspect. I don't even have a single day of sick leave!
There is so much trust between prof & university... Sticking to the illness example, the university needs to believe that a faculty member with a medical issue is not simply going to crash and go on disability the moment they get tenure. And most academics would not. I've seen people keep working on their deathbed because this is what they love to do...
In your analogy, the dating period is important to establish that trust. And by and large most pre-tenure faculty are not faking their dedication (at least where I work where they try to hire selectively and tenure most people).
As in marriage things can change in the long term but a mutual commitment can and does enrich quality of life, if it is indeed a good match...

GMP said...

FCS, Prodigal, Ace, thank you very much for your thoughtful comments!