Thursday, March 4, 2010

A Little Perspective On Tenure

In comments, anonymous 6:59 provides a refreshingly even-handed perspective. I would quibble with the word 'will' in the first sentence; while I see some worrying handwriting on the wall, I think it's far too early to go past 'might' and head straight to 'will.' Anyways, I thought it was worth reproducing the comment in full:
It seems to me that there are forces at work that will ultimately lead to tenure positions being very rare and reserved only for the superstars who can command this. When we'll reach this state of affairs in the US is an open question that I think will largely depend upon what happens with state budget crises over the next 3-5 years. But for this to be the common state of affairs, given the pace of change in higher education might require another 20 years. It will depend I think on how long the "buyer's market" in academia continues.

Tenure is not in any simple sense a fiction. Its existence is that of all contractual arrangements and legally enforceable agreements, which is to say sometimes it is worth it for an organization to violate it, but it places a pretty high price on doing so. So for example, if at my SLAC, tenure were to be violated in any significant sense it would have consequences for morale (very important at SLAC) and for the successful operation of the college. It is in most cases a "nuclear option." At a large state school of middling to mediocre quality it's not so important. At a high end University it would ruin, I think, the institution chances of hiring the best talent.

That said there are all sorts of limits of tenure, since it is not absolute. Removal of academic programs can result in the elimination of tenure lines and therefore the faculty who hold them. (At some schools one is tenured to the college and so that even elimination of an academic program might not involve elimination of the line so much as a change to another department.

What's crucial is that tenure gives you grounds for a certain set of institutional and legal processes that limit the reasons for which you can be terminated. The most important of these protections is "corrupting the youth of Athens." Unfortunately, many faculty are under the somewhat silly idea that tenure means that they are guaranteed a job no matter how shittily and incomptetently they behave.

So, the idea that tenure provides additional security is I think correct, and I think it is a complex multi-variable problem of practical reasoning to determine whether or not a particular VAP is preferable to a particular TT job.
--Mr. Zero


Anonymous said...

I think that the post is more or less right on the money. I think we will see more and more contract-jobs rather than TT. By contract jobs, I mean jobsthat say 'we don't give tenure, but offer renewable long term contracts' -- so one gets hired with a 1 or 2 year contract, if that goes well, you get a 3 year contract, and by the time you 'would' be getting tenure, you can get a 5 or 7 year contract. These jobs usually find a way to maintain academic rank titles. This is already happeing at places like SCAD (Savannah College of Art and Design) and some smaller SLACs, and some big-time Universities do this in non-prestige departments and programs for incoming freshmen and the like.

Because we are trained to seek TT as the best option, and b/c contract-jobs can look a lot like VAPs, this might not seem so hot. But a 3 year (renewable)contract is more security than most employees in most places get.

Anonymous said...

OC here: Let me add a couple more optimistic thoughts.

I think a lot of SLAC's rely on a faculty which does more than they are required to do. The high-contact residential SLAC model results in a bargain between faculty who are willing to invest themselves in their students for purposes other than money and a community/college that gives them some modicum of safety to do so.

I think that if tenure were eliminated at schools like this, even if it were replaced with 5 year contracts, the effort would not be worth it to invest more than the contract stipulates. Thus, I think that residential small liberal arts colleges may end up being, along with R1 schools, the bastion of tenure.

There are, I believe, about 300 of such institutions in the country and they educate somewhere around a few percent of the student population however.

Any school that wants to compete with the big boys and girls for talent will find it difficult to scrap tenure, though they certainly can continue to create the unjust two-tiered faculty until the adjunct revolution.

But, it seems to me that you either must pay administrators (the model of many cc's I think and for profits) to maintain coherence, allocate work, etc., or you must have a nucleus of faculty who have enough at stake in the long-term success of an institution to care. To the degree that we go the former route, higher education will further become degree mills. To the degree that we want to continue what is "distinctively american" in higher education (from the title of a recent collection of essays), we probably must continue the tenure model, despite its inefficiencies and problems.

Just speculating.

Anonymous said...

but what do we mean by 'security' here? do we mean simply that three years is longer than one year? do these contracts come with academic freedom protections? is the chair of the department or some mid-level yet high-salary administrator going to tell you what to teach and what grades to give? we are trained to see tenure track often not only as the best option, but the only option, and i think that spending all of our time thinking about tenure means that we accept some pretty terrible working conditions for the sake of what is, for many of us, never actually going to happen.
not coincidentally (and in response to a comment on the other thread, sorry), the difficulty of facing this, and then trying to figure out what to do about it, is one of the reasons that graduate students don't tend to teach themselves about higher education as a "business."

Asstro said...

One issue associated with tenure that I think gets far too little play is not so much the morale question nor the academic freedom question, but the very structure of the university.

Universities are structured considerably differently than for-profit companies, non-profit charities, and even government bureaucracies. Though there is certainly some hierarchy and accountability in every institution, universities are mostly functionally horizontal, meaning that many of the important actors are not under any direct authority from higher-ups. This is partly by design, and I frankly think it serves to produce much better research, a much more conducive learning environment, and a community that functions "for the right reasons." The tenure system serves to reinforce this horizontal structure.

It's true that sometimes tenured professors decay into deadwood, but more often than not, tenured faculty run the show, and they do so largely because they are invested in making sure that their university, their research, and their students are doing well. They continue producing reasonably high quality research, they take younger students and sometimes faculty under their wing, they engage in the governance of the university, and so on.

If tenure were to dissolve, I think you'd see not only job security go out the window, and I suspect far more than academic freedom or faculty morale would go out the window too. What you'd see is a disintegration of mentoring relationships, likely an increase in competition among faculty members (both intra- and inter-university), among other things.

I'm sure some will object to this characterization, and there are pitfalls also associated with the current structure, but I for one was grateful for the freedom guaranteed my professors, and I'd like to see that freedom continue on into the future.

Anonymous said...

Because we are trained to seek TT as the best option, and b/c contract-jobs can look a lot like VAPs, this might not seem so hot. But a 3 year (renewable)contract is more security than most employees in most places get.

It may be that employees in other sectors don't get that kind of security. But I suspect it's also the case that those employee's aren't necessarily looked down upon if they accumulate a string of 1-2-3 year positions. If it's the norm in industry X that no job's secure, then that industry would seem to lack the social practice necessary to underwrite the attitude of 'New PhDs go stale'.

Anonymous said...

Asstro is right on the money I think. If faculty are going to invest in an institution and thereby the education and lives of (some) students to the degree that they customarily do, they need some guarantee of that investment being worth it. That's the tragedy of this sort of thing:

Anonymous said...

I just found out today I officially got tenure. Yah!

Dylan said...

Something that hasn't been mentioned so far is that in Academia you get some extremely talented people earning their PhDs and competing for jobs. These people go through an amazing amount of training with little financial renumeration compared to what they could've gotten in the private sector had they pursued a different career path. Why do we do it? Well, the answer has a lot to do with tenure. (Note: in Europe there isn't tenure exactly. The PhD also takes half the time to earn.) What if tenure wasn't something we thought we could get? How many of us would've pursued an academic career? Very few of us. I wouldn't have. If universities dump tenure, or if it becomes really rare, they're going to deal with fewer and less talented people becoming qualified to teach at their institutions. At state universities, it will mean fewer and less talented PhD students to do teaching too. That should result in a university degree decreasing in value. It may be in their short term interests to restrict tenure. I don't think it's in their long term interests. (Of course, I'm not claiming that they're thinking of their long term interests!)

Anonymous said...

Rusty's back!

zombie said...

It strikes me as unlikely that contract workers will be willing to invest in students and/or a department to the same extent that tenured faculty would. In my last adjunct job, I was there for 4 years, on a year-by-year basis. I saw the value of being in an institution on an ongoing basis there. I got to know my students. They took multiple classes from me. An actual student-professor relationship developed, where I knew them, they knew me, and there was some continuity in their education. An institution staffed by temps -- even 3 year temps -- can't have that kind of continuity. My duties as an adjunct did not require me to advise students or get involved in the department. But somebody has to do that kind of stuff, or you really don't have a department, or an institutional history. Even restaurants, with their revolving door of employees, have some institutional continuity, I should think, in the owners and managers. Otherwise, you are reinventing the wheel constantly. A functioning academic department needs that too, but it needs more than that, or colleges will become like restaurants -- students and faculty both shuffling through, and neither investing in the institution.
Now tell me. If you graduated from a place like that, would you feel any kind of kinship or affection for it? Would you be at all inclined to make those alumni donations, or go back for alumni weekends and reunions? I doubt it. Schools need their alums, which strikes me as one financial incentive to have tenured faculty. Tenured faculty give a place its personality, culture and history. Is that a compelling enough reason to maintain tenure? I hope it counts for something.

Anonymous said...

@Asstro: That makes sense. I'm now more inclined to support the institution of tenure. This also suggests parallels between law and accounting firm partners in the business world -- making partner is more or less like making tenure.

...however, couldn't we restructure the university so that it wasn't so flat organizationally (and thus migrating away from tenure to a perhaps more efficient and effective model)? If not, then does that suggest all other business models which do not rely on making partner are less effective, etc.?

It seems you can still hold out the carrot of job security (retention and promotion) and financial incentives to prop up morale, just as they do in most other ventures. Same would apply to adjuncts.

Tenured professors have a great deal, maybe the best in the workplace. Naturally, they would want to cling on to that model and the perks that come with it. But it's still not obvious that tenure is the best thing, all things considered, i.e., for the university, for students, for graduate students seeking jobs, etc.

Anonymous said...

Rusty Jones (Oklahoma) hired by Harvard. AOS: Classical Philosophy

Posted by: Sean D. Kelly | March 04, 2010 at 08:14 PM

As was said in another the real world, no one turns down a job offer from Harvard (except perhaps to accept an offer from Stanford, Yale, Oxford, or another equally elite school).

Anonymous said...

Just one addition: the example of Hampshire College, in Amherst, MA (I'm an alumnus). It is a school where faculty are very much involved with students in an extremely intensive way, but which lacks tenure. I believe that faculty receive two successive 3-year contracts, and then 10-year contracts after that. (I presume that there is some reasoning behind 10 years other than the pun with 'tenure.')

To be fair, Hampshire is an extraordinary community, and I doubt that this model would work at many places. But it has worked there.

Xenophon said...

At a school where no one has tenure, not even deans, it's really not that bad. Faculty are incentivized to keep themselves marketable, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. What really sucks is being on a contract when other people around you have tenure. So I'm more concerned about the trend towards reducing the percentage of tenure stream people on a faculty than I am with the elimination of the institution completely.

BunnyHugger said...

Zombie: You seem to be assuming that three-year temps will only be there three years. (Or maybe you're not. But, someone might be.) At my current institution I am in what is essentially a lecturer position. There's a pretense by the university that it's a temporary position, but in fact most people have the assumption of renewal unless, well, they're not. I'm in my fifth year, and there are two other lecturers in my small department who have been there longer. We aren't required to do service, but we are permitted to and some (crazy or not) do. Many such lecturers stick around fifteen years or more. Most students probably don't know the difference between their "regular" professors and the contract faculty.

I'm not by any stretch defending such a system. But in a market where many of us can't find jobs any better, we're not necessarily going to be transient.

Anonymous said...

Xenophon and Anon 9:37 make a good point: It may not be the lack of tenure that drops morale -- it's the lack of tenure in an environment where some have tenure. If no one has tenure, then it's possible for a solidarity among faculty to exist.

As Anon 9:08 suggests, this solidarity and morale exists in countless companies in the business world, which do not rely on making tenure or partner. So why not in academia.

On the other hand, academia may be an exceptional case in that there's a limit density of potential schools (employers) in any given town. That is, the switching or moving costs are high, so it would be good for your employees (the faculty) were they to have tenure or some longish-term contract to keep their job. But tenure isn't the only solution to that inconvenience.

For instance, pressure could be applied to create an industry standard in which job offers (for out-of-town hires) include relocation reimbursement. So the institution then has an incentive to keep its faculty and make thoughtful hires.

zombie said...

Bunnyhugger, I agree that some "temps" will stay on so long as their contracts are renewed. I stayed four years in my last adjunct job. I loved the school. I would have loved to have been there forever (but not on a year-to-year basis). Given a choice between a "permanent" TT job and a contract job, I'd definitely feel more commitment to the TT, because the commitment would be reciprocal. That assumes, of course, that there's a TT job in my future.
Maybe I'm biased, since I went to a tiny SLAC as an undergrad, knew all my profs personally, socialized with them, and felt a real connection to the place and the institution. The profs I had back then (a long time) are still there.

Anonymous said...

(i) Tenure means you earned it. In an ideal world, you are an awesome teacher and a good researcher or vice-versa. If you are not both, then you should just GO (though charitably your worth is really heavily weighted with teaching as against publishing, unless you are one fricking awesome researcher).

(ii) Tenure means you can push the envelope of teaching and research. Make your students uncomfortable in their intellectual skins; question the status quo of printed scholarship. Your job is to put that Socratic sting of numbness into the fray. (It is NOT to merely use profanity and attitude in blogging--a not-so-subtle distinction lost on many with fingers freed by that extra glass of pinot noir.)

(iii) Tenure means you have responsibility. It is a gift of confidence--that you will continue the pattern of quality of teaching and scholarship that you established in the tenure-track--and that you will not slack off just because you can't easily be fired. That's a matter of character--the kind of character that your colleagues bet on by voting to award you tenure. It's up to you to be a good bet--or to win with tenure an academic Oscar for your mere portrayal of Best Actor/Actress for Socratic Pretense as Being A Real Philosopher Who Cares About Anything. In which case your subsequent career might tediously enunciate year-by-year your disqualification for the Oscar. Like maybe Nick Cage after Leaving Las Vegas? I'm just saying.

Anonymous said...

I'm a firm believer that the tenure model is bad for most universities, at least in the humanities. The goal of every university should be to provide their students with the best possible academic experience, as well as produce the best possible research. When individuals know that they will be up for review every 3 or 5 years, they will continue to produce at a high level--there is an incentive for it.

With that said, I wonder if there are some schools that need a tenure system in order to recruit decent faculty members. Specifically, I am currently a finalist for a TT position at a school located in the middle of nowhere. There is no question that my social life, my wife's career, etc., would suffer if we made this move. There is no way we could justify such a move if some degree of job stability was not guaranteed. (With that said, personally I'd love relocating as the position seems wonderful, but, even though it seems wonderful, there's no way I could justify doing it for a 1-year contract that was indefinitely renewable.)

However, consider schools like Boston College, Boston University, or MIT (since someone just mentioned Harvard). They are all located in or around a city that most people would be quite happy living in--intellectually, socially, etc. Why would such a school ever need to provide tenure to faculty members? These schools could operate like professional sports teams and just buy the top scholars and teachers. They could continue to pay them good salaries until they stopped producing, and then just cut them. That seems to be a much more effective way to get high quality teaching and research. Why isn't something like that done?

Anonymous said...

The so-called "dead wood" created by tenure are faculty who would rather do anything but be good scholars and teachers after tenure because there is no longer any incentive to do otherwise. Every piece of dead wood I've ever met has been a life-time academic, going straight from undergrad to grad school and into a TT position. Since they've never known the "real world" of work outside the ivory tower, they truly believe that what they do is a typical job on the order of digging ditches or waiting tables. Wake up! If you've ever experienced the 9 to 5 hustle, you quickly realize that an academic appointment is the best of all possible worlds. You're more likely to relish it and continue to be a good scholar and teacher even after you've achieved tenure. The lifers are more likely to become dead wood.

Anonymous said...

I am stunned by the number of comments criticizing the institution of tenure as being inimical to quality teaching and research, suggesting that if people had to re-apply for their jobs periodically they would produce better research and be better teachers.

The image that these commentators evoke is that the academy could be a beautiful meritocracy, if only the creative potential of independent scholar-contractors could be unleashed by the incentive system that would be created upon the demise of the tenure system.

This assumes, of course, that colleges and universities post-tenure would be GOOD at evaluating merit -- i.e., that the institutions to which those independent scholar-contractors would be re-applying are good at assessing which people are good researchers and good teachers. This, however, is highly questionable.

Teaching evaluations, the standard measure of teaching quality are notoriously unreliable. And, as far as research is concerned, non-philosophers wouldn't know the difference between Phil Studies and Phil Papers if their lives depended on it.

In the current system, at least, the tenured members of one's department can -- in the ideal case -- provide some check on administrators' and non-philosophically trained faculty's errors in assessing young philosophers' teaching and research at tenure-time.

If tenure is abolished, however, presumably it will devolve to administrators to make decisions about which faculty-members will be allowed to re-up and which ones will be let go. Do you really want to leave such decisions to administrators?

I, for one, do not.

Anonymous said...

I can provide one small bit of evidence from recent experience that I think cuts against the ongoing-review model.

I'm up for tenure next year, in a good but not top-ranked research university. Though I had several excellent publications at mid-TT review and appeared to be cruising toward tenure, I've gone into overdrive in the past three years, depriving myself of sleep and much else, trying to get as much quality material as I humanly can accepted at prime venues by next fall. If I had to keep this up permanently, three-year-review by three-year-review, I'd quickly dry up as a philosopher. The only thing that enables me to do this now is the previous decade in grad school and early on the TT in which I was reading, conversing and actually thinking -- rather than pushing everything toward publication.

When there's so much at stake -- I have a family; I can't easily relocate -- one does whatever one has to do. But I don't kid myself that what I'm now doing has much to do with philosophy. Yes, it's important that we publish -- some. But it's not good that we're driven to publish as much as we possibly can. That way lies... if not madness, at least something close to the opposite of philosophy.

You can say 'Well, let's not make assessment merely a matter of counting publications.' But with administrators and academics from other fields in the picture, as they will always be, assessment will always hugely be a matter of quantity. There is such a thing as overproduction -- I'm doing it right now, since I can assure you that I'm sending things to journals that I shouldn't and wouldn't under less pressing conditions. Overproduction is bad for philosophy. We should actively discourage it, not further institutionalize a demand for it.

Anonymous said...

Anon 10:07 I see the point you're making, however looking over the list of tenured faculty at the institutions you mention as examples, I don't really find all that much tenured "dead weight," if any.

It seems that the hard tenure standards in place do the work of "pruning" at the top philosophy departments. If your complaint is that lower tiered institutions accumulate "dead weight" by granting tenure, I don't see how "location" is the relevant factor that would change this. Faculty members at state and city universities--wherever they are located--cope with very different demands than those at research institutions.

Anonymous said...

Chiming in, in support of tenure. I agree with what Anon 9:01 says about pushing the envelope and Anon 1:34 says about administration decisions.

If an administration is a good one, then maybe tenure isn't necessary and good practices will be rewarded and poor practices won't, but administrations aren't always (often?) good.

Tenure is a necessary component of a strong faculty governance system. If the faculty is going to take charge of an institution, then lack of tenure will seriously weaken this ability.

This isn't to say that there aren't abuses of tenure. Of course, it isn't perfect but the downside of a tenure-free environment is a weakened (or non-existent) faculty governance system.

Of course, tenure does not guarantee strong faculty governance and I think that we do a fairly poor job of preparing faculty to be active members in the improvement of their universities, but that's a different issue.

Anonymous said...

There's another point regarding tenure, merit, ongoing review, and incentives to be productive scholars and good teachers. There are many institutional incentives beyond tenure: promotion to full, posting to lucrative and prestigious administrative positions, merit pay, reduced teaching loads, choices of classes, travel money, institutional/departmental/disciplinary respect, etc. On-going review is a fact of life in academia, though with tenure your ability to earn a livelihood isn't threatened every few years.

Xenophon said...

The comparison between tenure in higher ed and partnership in, e.g., law firms is a good one. But there's one important difference: colleges are nonprofit. Partners in law firms get pushed out when they stop producing -- i.e., bringing in cash. If we left it to tenured faculty to ostracize their own like law firms do, what would be the grounds on which they'd do this? Probably personality conflicts (fit) and academic freedom issues. Precisely the sorts of things that tenure is alleged to protect against. So I'm not sure a partner model would be a good replacement for the tenure model. I think the best solution is to ensure that grad students in all fields develop skills so that later in life they can move out of academia into something better than Starbucks.

Anonymous said...

The lifers are more likely to become dead wood.


This assumes, of course, that colleges and universities post-tenure would be GOOD at evaluating merit -- i.e., that the institutions to which those independent scholar-contractors would be re-applying are good at assessing which people are good researchers and good teachers. This, however, is highly questionable.

This assumes that colleges and universities are good NOW at eveluating retention, promotion, and tenure cases. The horror stories of a-hole colleagues and politics are legion.

If I had to keep this up permanently, three-year-review by three-year-review, I'd quickly dry up as a philosopher.

But if non-tenure were the norm, then you would recognize the importance of pacing yourself. Again, there's no tenure in the "real world", and folks are able to sustain a high level of productivity. Even in the exceptional cases with tenure-like status -- law, accounting, and medical practice partners -- there is a frenzy of productivity in the early years, but they're still operating at a high level and keep current on their field, because the success of their venture (ability to make money) depends on that. There's no analogous incentive in academia.

Left Coast Ethicist said...

Anon 7:26,

I don't know your employment situation, but I'm a tenured full Prof and I think you overestimate the post-tenure incentives that could motivate senior faculty to be productive scholars and effective teachers.

Among those you mention:
Promotion to full: An incentive, yes, but consider. Suppose a person starts out on the TT at age 30, gets tenure mid-30's, and gets promoted early 40's. That person still has about a quarter century of her career left. What's supposed to motivate her after that?

Posting to lucrative and prestigious administrative positions: Seriously? I know of very few faculty who are interested in being deans, etc.

Merit pay: Non-existent in many places (such as the state system I teach in), highly controversial almost everywhere, and usually pretty modest in actual dollar terms. Indeed, at many universities, salary compaction is a serious issue. There's just not much of a way to be rewarded financially for good performance.

Choice of classes: At most places I know of, limited choice of classes is available to people as they begin on the TT, not just to senior faculty.

Travel money: Again, this is available to all tenure-stream faculty on equal terms -- you don't get more of it when you're tenured.

On-going review: Post-tenure review is a joke on my campus!

I'm an advocate of tenure, but one of the legitimate criticisms is that it gives people security but not much incentive to perform well after a certain point. There's less dead wood in academia than critics of tenure suppose, but what dead wood exists is due to their being few genuine post-tenure incentives. The solution here is to develop positive incentives for senior faculty performance while retaining tenure.

Anonymous said...

This assumes that colleges and universities are good NOW at evaluating retention, promotion, and tenure cases. The horror stories of a-hole colleagues and politics are legion.

No. It only assumes that colleges and universities under the tenure system are better than an alternate system in which administrators would do the deciding.

There is absolutely no reason, however, to think that such an alternate system would be better than the existing system.

Indeed, for all of the "horror stories," the system of tenure actually works fairly well at most places. Having recently gone through the tenure process and having scoured the webosphere for recently tenured people in my AOS, my sense is that there are few if any cases where someone was awarded tenure who clearly didn't merit it. (Though I couldn't really gather data concerning those who didn't get tenure despite clearly deserving it.)

Anonymous said...

i want to co-sign anon 2:34's comments regarding pacing oneself, the push to publish everything, etc. as being bad for philosophy. the idea should not be to make the discipline of philosophy more like the "real world" (whatever that is; the demands for constant production described by 2:34 already indicate that the discipline is far more like the real world than we seem to think it is) by looking more closely at contracts. the idea should be to make the contracts *better,* for most of us who will end up working under contracts anyway. tenure is a good contract; my point is, why must there be so few good contracts and so many crappy ones?

Mike said...

There is no doubt about it, we will all be contract workers soon. Therefore, the Gov't should start looking at socializing sevices so that no one will be left without basic life support.

Anonymous said...

Here's an alternative to tenure:

bjk said...

Not haven't visited the Smoker in quite a while, I get the sense that the level of debate re tenure has improved quite a bit. More recognition that tenure is a) in terminal decline and b) is not about academic freedom.