Saturday, July 24, 2010

Tenure's Future

Lots of debate these days about tenure, especially given the economic crisis facing universities.  The NYT has five perspectives on it to promote debate.  I guess I think of tenure the way that we tend to think of democracy and capitalism: the worst systems except for all of the others.

Yes, tenure does provide lots of perverse incentives, including tenured folks doing less once the pressure is off, the challenges of maintaining accountability in the face of job security, and so forth.  I am just not sure that a market of free agency would be much better. 

First, why tenure?
  • The obvious reason is intellectual freedom.  The ability to teach, research and write without being fired for producing unpopular stuff is important for the development of probably all disciplines.  Critics argue that folks are never hindered by the prospect of getting fired.  Hmm, hard to observe non-events.  We do know that state officials regularly grand-stand at the expense of academics at public universities, including most recently the Virginia attorney-general targeting a scientist studying climate change.  Would the absence of tenure create a chilling effect?  Maybe.  
    • People worry about the impact of corporations upon universities as funding may cause administrators to bend (as we have seen with BP recently), and this could be worse if administrators gained more power over the professors.
  • There is also the tradeoff between job security and pay.  Aspiring professors are, in part, willing to take lower salaries when compared to folks with similarly high pay for job security.  Would people seek out jobs in the academic world if there was no job security at the end?  Would they be willing to move across the country/globe for jobs if they could lose their job after five or seven years (whatever the new contract term would be)?
    • Critics would say we need fewer profs, so discouraging folks is a good thing.  Perhaps, but what kind of selection effect would result?
  • Lifetime employment, more or less, also has benefits for the colleges and universities as the folks who tend to run much of these institutions are the professors who develop lots of knowledge about the institutions.  Lots of service by profs is required to make these places work.  If you introduce lots of turnover, what will that do to the running of these institutions?  Shorter term temp-faculty do not provide much service or any in most places, just teaching classes.  So, you could see whatever savings there are in the greater efficiency on the hiring of professors lost by hiring more and more administrators 
    • Numbers of administrators are almost like body counts---just as you cannot have less total deaths from a war (unless resurrection is possible), it is almost as nearly certain that number of administrators does not decline.
How would the academic world run in the absence of tenure?

  • Professors would have to be evaluated every so many years--something like five or seven.  More often would cause way too much work and spinning for everyone involved.  What would this evaluation look like?
    • One could imagine a tenure decision -like process again and again throughout everyone's careers.  This could create lots of pressure to meet whatever metrics there are, and ignore other parts of the job.  Tenure already puts lots of pressure to publish at the expense of teaching, graduate supervision, and service.  So, if one is facing that pressure again and again, it is not clear how this would improve teaching.  It might remove some deadwood or force those that need more incentive to produce more.  But again, the devil is in the details--what counts for renewal?
    • But it would also create much more work as the un-tenure process of constant evaluation requires lots of work--for example, outside letters being submitted (writing those is a heap of work, I can tell you right now).  
    • There would be the possible tendency for profs to protect their kin.  That is, just as cops make lousy overseers of other cops, it is likely that the constant evaluation of each other would lead to a code of mutual protection.  It could be the case that some departments and/or universities will develop the tendency to let everyone pass the evaluation and get renewed every time, as those who are being voted on today might have a vote tomorrow.  
    • On the other hand, it might go the other way.  A particularly poisonous department may end up driving away anyone who dares to challenge the status quo.  Junior faculty are vulnerable enough before tenure.  Of course, the response would be that in a perfect market of free agency, good scholars who face trouble in one department would get snapped up by another.  But I have my doubts about how perfect this free agency would be.
  • Is more movement a good thing?  With free agency (as if), you could expect to see much more movement of professors.  While this would make it easier for folks to leave less desirable locations and dysfunctional departments, it would also potentially mean more jockeying among the more desirable professors and more movement.  Good for them, but what about the students they leave behind?  Stability is not always good, but it is not always bad either.
Clearly, I am biased, as I worked hard to get tenure, and I have depended on that job security.  Tenure is not a perfect system, but it is hardly clear that getting rid of tenure will actually improve things.  It might make it easier to get rid of non-productive folks, but it is not clear at all what it would do to professors, departments, colleges, universities and students.  Looking at how temporary faculty are treated now only should make us pause before jumping to change.  Universities are more than just factories--they are communities.  So, we need to consider what the impact of non-tenure would be on such communities.  Or not.


Phil said...

I think that the model proposed by Cathy Trover is quite appealing, but that's just me.

Steve Greene said...

Wow! You're a blog star!! I'm jealous-- I only get extraneous comments selling shoes.