Field of Science

No tenure, no way!

The New York Times is carrying an interesting but misguided discussion of tenure today. As usual, the first commentator warns that without tenure, academic freedom will die:
As at-will employees, adjunct faculty members can face dismissal or nonrenewal when students, parents, community members, administrators, or politicians are offended at what they say. If you can be fired tomorrow, you do not really have academic freedom. Self-censorship often results. 
Mark Taylor of Columbia replies, essentially, "oh yah?"
To those who say the abolition of tenure will make faculty reluctant to be demanding with students or express controversial views, I respond that in almost 40 years of teaching, I have not known a single person who has been more willing to speak out after tenure than before.
Instead, tenure induces stasis, a point to which Richard Vedder, an economist at Ohio University, agrees:
The fact is that tenured faculty members often use their power to stifle innovation and change.

You might, reading through these discussions, almost think that universities have been slowly doing weakening the tenure system because they want to increase diversity, promote a flexible workforce, and reduce the power of crabby old professors. Maybe some administrators do feel that way. But lurking behind all of this discussion is money. Here's Taylor:
If you take the current average salary of an associate professor and assume this tenured faculty member remains an associate professor for five years and then becomes a full professor for 30 years, the total cost of salary and benefits alone is $12,198,578 at a private institution and $9,992,888 at a public institution.
I'm not sure where he's getting these numbers. The numbers at Harvard for the same period is $6,320,500 for salary alone. Assuming benefits cost as much as the salary alone gets us up to our $12,000,000, but that's for Harvard, not the average university. Perhaps Taylor is assuming the professor starts today and includes inflation in future salaries, but 35 years of inflation is a lot. I'm using present-day numbers and assuming real salaries remain constant.

In any case, money seems to be the real factor, mentioned by more or less all the contributors. Here's Vedder:
My academic department recently granted tenure to a young assistant professor. In so doing, it created a financial liability of over two million dollars, because it committed the institution to providing the individual lifetime employment. With nearly double digit unemployment and universities furloughing and laying off personnel, is tenure a luxury we can still afford?
Adrianna Kezar of USC notes that non-tenured faculty are often not given offices or supplies, which presumably also saves the university money.

Professors make choices, too.

So universities save a lot of money by eliminating tenure. And certainly universities need to find savings where they can. What none of the contributors to the discussion acknowledge, beyond an oblique aside by Vedder, is that tenure has a financial value to professors as well as universities. Removing tenure in a sense is a pay cut, and both present and potential academics will respond to that pay cut.

Becoming a professor is not a wise financial decision. The starting salary of a lawyer leaving a top law school is greater than what most PhDs from the same schools will make at the height of their careers should they stay in academia. And lawyers' salaries, as I'm often reminded, can be similarly dwarfed by people with no graduate education that go straight into finance.

Most of us who nonetheless go into academia do so because we love it. The point is that we have options. Making the university system less attractive will mean fewer people will want to go into it. It's really that simple.


Bob Carpenter said...

Judging by that AAUP study, average academic salaries are going up on a real-dollar basis. Perhaps not as quickly as tuition, but it's still pretty staggering.

For instance, in the last ten years, assoc profs at Harvard have gone from average 12-month-adjusted salaries of 71.6 to 116.9, a 63% rise in a time where there was only about 30% inflation.

At the same time, instructor salaries only moved from 48 to 56.9, a move of 18%, which is a real drop in wages.

GamesWithWords said...

Again, I think it's the relative numbers that matter more. Adjusted salaries may have gone up some, but I doubt the growth is anywhere near that of the competition (particularly law, business & finance).

I list that as the competition, rather than instructor, because I think most people who consider salary when choosing a profession are more likely to look at the numbers for the top of the profession than the bottom.