17.12.15

RETHINKING TENURE.

Sometimes, revisiting the archives turns up material that is timely in a different way.  Today, among the backlog of the incomplete posts is a collection of material on academic tenure.  Start at 11-D, where Laura McKenna was still evaluating an academic career.
It's liberating to be done with academia (well, I'm 90 percent sure that I'm done). I'm going to APSA this year, but it's mostly as a tourist. The word on the street is that academia's employment woes should continue for the next few years. I'm moving on. So, I can freely say that these guys speak the truth.
It has only gotten worse. The latest nugget out of higher education (sounds like institutions pretty low on the food chain, but these things have a way of diffusing through the system) is the use of contract employees as department heads.  But perhaps that's a consequence of trashing the tenure track faculty, as the same individuals telling these stories also spoke of institutions hiring people on the tenure track, then releasing them after five years, record notwithstanding.  And it's a consequence of running higher education like a business.
The only positive aspect of the tenure system is the relief on my friends' faces once they get tenure. Grad school and the tenure process is grueling and unstable. People put off buying homes and starting families. Tenure marks an end of torture and the beginning of a normal life that other people enjoy in their 20's. I worry that without tenure, the hazing from peers would continue forever.
Five years ago, we were not yet deep enough into Hope and Change to see that a normal life beginning for twenty-somethings is yet another vanished aspect of the lost America That Worked(TM).

The "these guys" Ms McKenna was referring to were the dean at Anonymous Community (before he revealed his location as the Pioneer Valley) and Megan McArdle, at the time with Atlantic.

Ms McArdle brings a skeptical, outsider perspective.
You have a small elite on top who have lifetime employment regardless of how little work they do.  This lifetime employment commences somewhere between 35 and 40.  For the ten-to-fifteen years before that, they spend their lives in pursuit of the brass ring.  They live in poverty suck up to professors, and publish, for one must publish to be tenured.  It's very unfortunate if you don't have anything much worth saying; you need to publish anyway, in order to improve your chances.  Fortunately, for the needy tenure seeker, a bevy of journals have sprung up that will print your trivial contributions.
That's true in part, and false in part.  In any discipline, there is no lack of interesting and profound questions, but the publish-or-perish mentality does skew research efforts, why else is the expression "minimal publishable unit" a term of art?  In any discipline, there are also journals people read, and journals that exist solely to provide solace.  But even before improved database management made possible the daily updating of journal, article, and researcher impact factors, departmental promotion committees understood what a strong contribution was, and what vita padding was, and at the college or university level, everybody understood the way a case might be spun, and establishing the requisite regional or national or international reputation couldn't rest on a list of publications in the journals that provide solace.

She might have a stronger point where the positional arms race, or shattered dreams, or obsessiveness with an academic career, influence behavior.
At the end of the process, most of the aspirants do not have tenure; they have dropped out, or been dropped, at some point along the way.  Meanwhile, the system has ripped up their lives in other ways.  They've invested their whole youth, and are back on the job market near entry level at an age when most of their peers have spent ten years building up marketable skills.  Many of them will have seen relationships ripped apart by the difficulties of finding not one, but two tenure-track jobs in the same area.  Others will have invested their early thirties in a college town with no other industry, forcing them to move elsewhere to restart both their careers and their social lives.  Or perhaps they string along adjuncting at near-poverty wages, unable to quite leave the academy that has abused them for so long.
Skeptical observers have noted some of these things for a long time.  I still may have a Progressive article from 1975 that refers to Ph.D.s as the new migrant workers.  And the dual career, two-body, or trailing spouse challenge has been present for a long time.  (Why is it that in the academic novels set in those isolated college towns, you can almost count on a toxic couple providing major plot complications?)  What appears to be changing now is the appointment of contract faculty as department heads, but perhaps that's evidence of the college bubble popping.

But the quest for academic tenure produces a sort of conservatism.
Doesn't tenure protect free intellectual inquiry?  Diversity of thought?  Doesn't it allow teachers to be more demanding of students?

Perhaps--but the question is, at what point?  Most scholars in their sixties are not producing path-breaking new research, but they are precisely the people that tenure protects.  Scholars in their twenties and thirties, on the other hand, have no academic freedom at all.  Indeed, because tenure raises the stakes so high, the vetting of future employees is much more careful--and the candidates, who know this, are almost certainly more careful than they would be if they were on more ordinary employment contracts.  As a result, the process of getting a degree, getting a job, and getting tenure has stretched out to cover one's whole youth. So tenure makes young scholars--the kind most likely to attack a dominant paradigm--probably more careful than they would be under more normal employment process.
It's difficult to evaluate that claim, particularly with "contract employment" overlapping heavily with "cheap labor."  Thus it's going to be difficult to evaluate the research records of underemployed recent Ph.D.s, which for my purpose refers to any individual pursuing an academic career without a tenure-track appointment.  Perhaps that cohort is full of freeway flyers attempting to patch an income together out of six gigs.  Perhaps among that cohort are individuals pursuing a high-risk research strategy, in the hopes of writing the next Critique of Pure Reason or proving the Goldbach Conjecture.  At the same time, yes, the young scholars might be milking the same cows that their predecessors found productive -- on the times I participated in searches for faculty working far outside my field, I knew I could still depend on a few buzzwords (representative agent, or Lucas Critique, if it was a macroeconomist) turning up in most of the dissertation spiels.  On the other hand, that might be a signal of the new Ph.D.'s curiosity ... the most promising dissertations might be the most difficult.  But getting that work published, particularly expeditiously ...
Academics within the tenure system are probably more careful about weeding out heresy, because they'll be stuck with it if it manages to sneak in.  Tenure can easily be used to entrench the ideological or scholarly commitments of a department's powerful members, reducing diversity rather than enhancing it.

The current tenure system only protects revolutionary, dangerous ideas to the extent that they spring full blown from an academic's head after he has secured tenure, startling the hell out of everyone who hired him.  Or perhaps after he's secured his full professorship.  Or after he's managed to move to a better class of research institution with a nicer salary.

Since I don't know of many cases where this has happened, I find it hard to believe that tenure is crucial to preserving the spirit of free inquiry at our nation's colleges.
It's more likely that years of downsizing, and increasing teaching burdens and calling it productivity, and "interdisciplinarity" fads conspire to compel departments to make safe hires.

Ms McArdle concludes by describing tenure as "outmoded."  We'll return to that later.

Also in Ms McKenna's post is the adminstrative perspective, as seen by Dean Dad.
The cost of tenure goes far beyond the salary of the tenured. It includes the opportunity cost of more productive uses that had to be skipped to pay for a decision made decades earlier in a different context. (We actually have people for whom staff jobs were created when their tenured speciality went away. That’s a direct cost of tenure.) It also includes the cost of the various bribes that have to be paid to the tenured to get them to step up to acknowledge institutional needs: course releases (a direct cause of adjunct hiring), preferential scheduling (whether it makes sense for students or not), and even cash stipends (which have to be paid for somehow).
That's Mike Munger's point about tenure as a hire. And yes, closing departments is hard.  That's not something confined to community colleges.  Early in the current restructuring craze, the University of Pennsylvania decided that even a highly-regarded regional science program was an expensive luxury, and the tenured faculty had to go to economics or geography or mathematics.  But this "institutional needs" stuff deserves a variant of the World War II "is this necessary" question.  After a while the cooperative people get tired of being asked to help out with the latest administrative initiative (diversity, interdisciplinarity, high school outreach) and getting slammed at review time because their research or course preparation has deteriorated.
Whenever we allocate course reassignments for full-time faculty, we hire adjuncts to make up for it. Sabbaticals? Adjuncts. Grant work? Adjuncts. Someone has to teach the classes the tenured faculty won’t. (As one embittered adjunct put it in a department meeting, “I teach so you don’t have to!” Exactly.) Aristocrats need serfs, and the tenured need the adjuncts.
Perhaps that's a statement of failure elsewhere.  It's not as if the sabbatical-eligible population in any department at any year is a surprise.  Thus, there's an opportunity for deans and department heads to negotiate with faculty eligible and applying for sabbaticals to schedule them in such a way that the courses the specialist absolutely, positively, must meet run at their predictable or pedagogically desirable times.  Grants?  Can you say indirect cost return?  And in a solid research environment, perhaps the best way to cover the course is with a visiting professor, a specialist in the same area from another well-respected university?  That presupposes a solid research environment, perhaps years of gutting faculty morale by downsizing and by admitting unprepared students and calling it access, rather than tenure are at work?

There is one observation in Dean Dad's post that is as valid today as it was five years ago.  "Explain to the rational taxpayer why he should continue to pay progressively more for someone unaccountable (faculty) managed by someone incompetent (administrators)."

We'll return to this observation again.

At about the same time all the above appeared. Ilya Somin of The Volokh Conspiracy also weighed in.  Some of the links may have subsequently expired.  But here's the money quote.
Tyler [Cowen] notes that “the schools which have done away with it — the for-profits — have carved out a big niche but they have not displaced traditional non-profit, tenure-driven higher education in most fields. Few parents dream of sending their kids there.” However, for-profit universities have many other differences from traditional colleges. They compete with the latter primarily on price rather than quality. Does anyone seriously contend that the University of Phoenix would be more competitive if it adopted tenure?

Tyler also makes the reasonable point that before we abolish tenure, we need to think carefully about what the alternative system would look like. There may not be any one system that would be best for all institutions. Competition and experimentation could lead to useful innovations.
The University of Phoenix appeared to be a threat, particularly to the not-particularly-distinguished local converted teachers' colleges then.  If you sit by the river long enough, your enemies' bodies will float past you.  Professor Cowen suggested that restoring mandatory retirement itself might help.  Yes, or buy your advisor a train set.  Working on the railroad is less depressing than documenting the world going to hell.

At the University of Wisconsin's Madison campus, even the rumblings of modified tenure are enough to get the research stars testing the job market.  Further, any steps to abolish tenure, or modify it going forward in order that tenure-trackers face a more contingent future, suggests substantial transition costs.
Respondents -- all of whom had tenure or were on the tenure track -- also opposed eliminating tenure even if they were to retain tenure themselves. Sixty-five percent over all and 70 percent of top research faculty said they’d strongly oppose changes affecting only future faculty members. Relatedly, 86 percent of respondents said recruiting new faculty members with “relaxed” tenure protections but increased pay would be much more or somewhat more challenging.

Faculty members generally think tenure works at their institutions, according to the data. Some 83 percent of respondents said their current departmental standards for achieving tenure were “about right.” Fifty-two percent said tenure is most of the time a good indication of the quality of a tenure holder’s instruction in the classroom, as well as his or her research achievements.
Yes, there's more than a little self-interest in those responses.  And yet, an emergent institution of long standing may not necessarily be outmoded.  Moreover, the best response to the perception that higher education is being run by terminally stupid administrators might be for the faculty, with the procedural protections of tenure, reclaiming stewardship of the institutions, something that the serial administrators neither comprehend nor respect.

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