5.4.17

WHEN THE COLLEGE OF MEDICINE FAILS TO BE A PROFIT CENTER?

Tax Prof follows up on his previous report of a purge of underachieving tenured faculty, if that is what it is, at Wayne State.  The house organ for business as usual in higher education has a story -- it's behind a paywall, and there are enough excerpts that I can get the gist -- of how this might, might, be the opening chops of a more general pruning of the deadwood.  With the usual suspects taking the usual positions.  Then comes a Detroit News editorial suggesting that the College of Medicine has more than its share of underachievers.
Wayne State’s medical school — the third largest in the nation — has stumbled under a budget deficit and accreditation warnings.

In August, it announced that as many as 37 medical school professors could lose their jobs for under-performing. Two dozen of those have left. Five more are under fire in these tenure-revoking hearings. Tenure is most often awarded to full-time professors after a probationary period of seven years at four-year institutions.

At its best, tenure protects academics to think, teach, research and write freely. It provides them stability to publish and invest in a department and gives students continuity. At its worse, tenure protects incompetence and laziness, promising indefinite employment with no accountability or performance standards. Some balance is needed to ensure a robust academic environment as well as to shield institutions from faculty who take advantage of tenure.
Normally, that balance is in the form of reviews for merit raises, and in an increasing number of colleges and universities, post-tenure review and faculty workload policies.  It might be that some of the people who left took their pensions, or perhaps found new employment.  That's still possible, although with hiring freezes, less likely to succeed than it once was.  Note, there is nothing in existing university procedures to bring a for-cause hearing against a productive scholar whose research rubs The Powers That Be the Wrong Way.  The notorious Ward Churchill case in Colorado started that way,  but ultimately his carelessness with citations did him in.

Then, though, the editorial gets into some sloppy accounting.
Mark Taylor of Columbia Universitycalculated that one tenured professor teaching for 35 years costs a private university an average of $12.2 million and a public university $10 million. Universities in 2010 averaged $168 million in debt nationwide. Removing 15 under-performing tenured professors could put a college in the black.
But tenure is a hire, and the university that commits to ten million dollars in future payrolls is expecting to generate some combination of revenue and reputational assets from that commitment.  Dismissing late-career academics for cause might not lead to much loss of revenue, but neither will it get the past payrolls back.

Then the News editors unleash a real howler.
Fortunately, tenure is on the decline as an institution. From 1975 to 2011, the number of tenured full-time college professors dropped by half. In 2014, there were 1 million professors teaching off the tenure-track who made up 75 percent of all college professors. Financially, tenure isn’t bang for a university’s buck.

But whether tenure eventually goes extinct, it persists now. Universities should implement quality measures and basic accountability and hold tenured professors to them. Otherwise, taxpayers lose, institutions lose and students lose.
I'll stipulate that post hoc nec ergo propter hoc, and yet the downsizing of the faculty and the increased reliance on contract and temporary faculty from 1975 to 2011 coincides with the diminished capacity of university graduates over those years.  My prior: no coincidence.  The basis for my belief?  Entrust the first-year courses to senior faculty.  And preserve the institutional memory.

That's true for a College of Medicine, and those first-generation, non-traditional matriculants Wayne State see as their calling deserve no less.

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