Monday, April 16, 2012

Repost: Tenure, for Better or for Worse

(The original post and comments can be found here.)

In her Friday postFSP 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 the 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 waste 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 the 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 member and a university typically lasts for over three decades, during which the professor'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 member'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.


Barefoot Doctoral said...

"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."

Thank you. In a labless science, the absence of tenure may also add the demand that I flit from university to university, from research group research group, going to centers where my interests are currently hot. While I would love this life if I were single and never wanted children, this is not my situation.

Anonymous said...

Thank you! That's a great explanation of the usefulness of tenure, as well as of the problems around. Thanks!

Barefoot Doctoral said...

Just so you know, your post started a conversation over at Chez Barefoot about the whys and wherefores of tenure, specifically on how it interacts with faculty service requirements. Again, thanks for this post.

Massimo said...

One thing that people outside academia often fail to understand is that tenure is a recruiting tool. Any university not giving tenure would immediately put itself at a tremendous disadvantage, because most people will gladly earn less money, in order to have tenure.

In a world where tenure is present, not offering it means being stuck hiring the ones who are not good enough to be hired at a place that does grant tenure. And this is really where the discussion ends, for all practical purposes. Same for retirement age.

I am personally not wedded to tenure, and I can see good reasons for doing away with it, but these reasons are all "academic" (no pun intended), because market forces in the end determine the outcome. Same reason unsuccessful CEOs get to leave with handsome severance packages, after driving the company to ashes, or football coaches after overseeing the relegation of the team to a lower league.