Field of Science

Tenure, a dull roar

Slate ran an unfortunate, bizarre piece on tenure last week. FemaleScienceProfessor has a good take-down.  Among problems, it repeats the claim that the average tenured professor costs the average university around $11,000,000 across his/her career -- a number that is either misleading, miscalculated, or (most likely) an outright lie. But, as FemaleScienceProfessor points out, tenure itself costs next to nothing, so anyone who says eliminating tenure will save money really means cutting professor salaries will save money but doesn't want to be on the record saying so.

If this seems like deja vu, it is. I just wrote a post about a similarly confused feature in the New York Times. That post is still worth reading (imho).

Which raises the question of why tenure is under attack. I have two guesses: 1) it's a way of ignoring the progressive defunding of public universities, or 2) part of the broader war on science. There are possibly a few people who genuinely think tenure is a bad idea, but not because eliminating it will save money (it won't), because it'll soften the publish-or-perish ethos (yes, the claim has been made), or because it'll refocus universities on teaching (absurd, irrelevant, and beside the point). Which leaves concerns about an inflexible workforce and the occasional dead-weight professor, but that's not on my list of top ten problems in education, and I don't think it should be on anyone else's -- there are bigger fish to fry.


The Phytophactor said...

Has it occurred to any of the critics of tenure, and research, that real education teaches students to learn via investigation, so the teacher had better know how and be an active investigator themselves because you learn by doing it. Would they want a swimming coach who didn't and couldn't swim? Such critics never know what real education is and prefer their made up version.

Lev said...

There is another problem with tenure: It allows professors to do no research and to teach badly with impunity. Unfortunately, some professors indeed do so.

The Lorax said...

@Lev I hear this claim over and over, but other than anecdotes there is never data to back this up. I will agree that there are indeed professors that teach badly and do not do research, does that mean they do not have a function at the university? You know there are a billion administrative duties to make a university function. Regardless, what do you suggest?

I am sick of people (not suggesting you are one of them Lev, but your comment fits for the concept) that take the one potential bad apple as a reason to destroy an entire system. We would rather have hard working adults and their children go hungry than have the chance that a bad apple uses welfare and/or food stamps in an inappropriate way. We would rather have innocent people go to prison than take a chance that a guilty person goes free. We would rather relegate our intellectuals to second class citizenship subject to the whims of political currents than risk having the mythical professor that does nothing useful for the university.

GamesWithWords said...

I was going to write something like what The Lorax said but was beaten to it. I haven't met many (any?) dead-weight faculty, but that may simply be a function of the universities I've been at. Certainly it happens, but then I think most businesses have at least one or two less-productive people on staff that they nonetheless find it impossible to get rid of, and that's without tenure.

So without some quantitative data that (1) this is a real problem, and (2) getting rid of tenure would help with the problem, it's not really much of an argument.

Lev said...

1. I have in fact seen professors that teach badly.
2. If a professor performs an administrative function, that can't be an excuse for teaching badly. It's better not to have him teach at all, but that isn't possible under the current system, either.
3. So I don't have quantitative data against tenure. Does any of you have quantitative data to support tenure?

GamesWithWords said...

Lev: At most research universities (which is most of the universities people usually think about), teaching quality isn't a major factor in tenure decisions simply because high-quality teaching is not a focus of the institution. It's not clear how getting rid of tenure on its own would change that fact, since hiring decisions would still not be based on teaching.

As far as evidence, as I said I know of few if any dead-weight professors (ones who, upon getting tenure, stopped doing whatever it was that got them tenure). So that would be evidence. It'd be nice to have a wider-scale survey. If such a survey existed and showed this was a real problem, no doubt the anti-tenure advocates would have cited it, rather than making up implausible arguments (e.g., getting rid of job security will end the publish-or-perish culture).

Lev said...

Excuse my ignorance, but what is the reason for tenure in the first place?

GamesWithWords said...

If nothing else, it's a powerful motivator to be productive prior to tenure. It allows freedom to pursue high-risk/high-payoff projects, projects that take many years or decades to complete, etc. It's also a relatively cheap way of recruiting faculty, since it's a benefit people like (job security) that costs essentially nothing (so long as universities are careful to tenure the right people).

The Lorax said...

Tenure is a way to protect professors.

You are in the microbiology department and a new chair is hired who wants the department to be all virologists, without tenure they could simply not renew contracts of the bacteriologists and replace them with virologists.

The republican governor doesn't like the mouthy liberal faculty members. She could insist the university fire said professors or the university would get a big reduction in funds.

What's odd about the whole anti-tenure movement, which is a symptom on the anti-intellectual movement in the country IMO, is that the proponents of getting rid of tenure believe the following:
There exists a sizable population of intelligent people that during college decide to work hard to get into graduate school, work really hard for 5-7 years and hope to get a great post-doctoral position, then work really hard for a few more years (maybe doing another few years of a different post-doc), being productive and having the slim hope that you have a project that one of the few university departments hiring would be interested in, actually getting the position, then work really hard for another 6 years and hope you have secured sizable extramural funding, a number of good publications, made an impact in your field so that you can get tenure......and then realize your dream of being deadweight?