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CGCL: Day 2

Lee Altman ’93 provides this discussion of “Tenure Issues in Higher Education“.

Schapiro and McPherson offer a solid examination of tenure from an institutional efficiency perspective, but I do not see explicit mention of tenure as the great non-monetary equalizer of postgraduate life. Doctors, lawyers, M.B.As can point at their paychecks and proudly display their degrees. By contrast, professors can point to their job security and “academic freedom” as the rewards for their years of preparation. For institutional efficiency, tenure’s greatest value may be in equalizing perceived professional status with other careers requiring advanced degrees.

According to the government-sponsored national 2002 Survey of Earned Doctorates, the median years spent in graduate school is 9.0 for the humanities, and the median age for earning a doctorate is 34.7. Prior to finding a tenure-track slot, it is common for candidates to spend years in postdoctoral fellowships, adjunct or non-tenure positions. While it is harder to find statistics on the median age of professors receiving tenure, 40+ years seems a fair estimate.

Where does the real value of tenure lie? Does it primarily serve the needs of institutional efficiency? Is tenure the paramount motivation for enduring many years of arduous doctoral and post-doctoral preparation? Are liberal arts colleges more or less friendly to tenure systems, with their focus on quality of teaching? And can colleges like Williams maintain their quality of education, if tenure declines nationally as an institution?

Good questions all.

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#1 Comment By David On January 13, 2005 @ 1:36 pm

Lee asks “Where does the real value of tenure lie? Does it primarily serve the needs of institutional efficiency?”

Cui bono (who benefits?) is a good question to ask whenever wondering why the world is the way it is. McPherson and Schapiro claim that

The idea that tenure is a wasteful institution for universities runs up against the puzzling fact that the commitment to tenure is one that academic institutions impose on themselves.

Why is this so “puzzling”? Universities are overwhelmingly run by professors. Professors like tenure. All their (professor) friends like tenure. All agree that tenure is wonderful. “Academic institutions” — I imagine Hopkins Hall with a big smiling face painted on the front — do not “impose” anything. The individuals who run those institutions do the imposing. And those individuals like tenure.

Maybe tenure improves efficiency. Maybe it doesn’t. But as long as schools like Williams have the financial resources to maintain tenure, and as long as they are run by the tenured, the institution of tenure will be with us.

#2 Comment By Lee Altman ’93 On January 13, 2005 @ 2:17 pm

Indeed David, for a school with reputation and financial resources of Williams, tenure would seem a safe institution. Faculty retention is a key ingredient in rankings of academic prestige, and no major university can afford to dispense with a robust tenure system. We have U.S. News and World Report to thank for this. If there is a threat to tenure, it appears to be in the less prestigious areas of academia, where adjunct and non-tenure positions have gained ground. Schapiro alludes to this trend, but does not offer much detail.

I am curious whether anybody in the discussion section took a contrary position on the value of tenure. With the focus on instructional quality at liberal arts colleges, does tenure reduce faculty dynamism? I do remember one class at Williams where the professor seemed to be on autopilot, using cracked lecture notes that appeared to date from the 1950s. But that was a rare case, and I will freely admit that most of my classes were taught by exceptional instructors.

Likewise, for Williams students considering careers in academia, I would highly advise reading statistics about employment in your area. In my chosen field of history, the American Historical Association offers excellent yearly statistics, giving a realistic overview of the job climate. While Williams students have many advantages in seeking an academic career, it never hurts to understand the potential challenges.

#3 Comment By David On January 13, 2005 @ 2:40 pm

“Potential challenges” would be a bit of an understatement, wouldn’t it?

We have touched before on the importance of having an accurate sense of the odds in academia. Many Ephs of my generation got Ph.D.’s in history. I know of not a single one with tenure, but I am eager to hear about the counter-examples — surely there must be a few!

As always, you should do what you love to do. There are also some real success stories. Eiko Maruko ’97 is, by all accounts, doing well in the Williams history department.

But any Eph, especially paler/maler ones, considering a Ph.D. in the humanities should take Derek’s comments very seriously.

#4 Comment By Dave’s “Little Brother” On January 13, 2005 @ 9:25 pm

As was the case at Williams, I did not do the reading. However, that will not stop me from offering a comment. As my local school board faces an angry crowd of parents trying to ban books from the local high school, I think it is important to remember that tenure still serves the important, if occassional, need of protecting teachers. I want teachers to have the freedom to choose the book they feel serves the goals of the class best and not worry if angry parents will use that choice as an excuse to fire the teacher.

#5 Comment By David On January 14, 2005 @ 7:38 am

Allow me to help out my “little brother” by highlighting a quote from the reading that are (somewhat) related to his point.

Thus, the direct effect of granting tenure to particular faculty members is to make long-term, largely irreversible commitments to individuals that lock in a university’s answer to the “who” and “what subjects” questions identified above.

Although this is true enough for the “who” — once Williams or the Kansas school department has granted tenure to Joe, they are stuck with Joe — it does not, and should not, have to be true for the “what subjects”. We can have tenure (the “who”) without allowing the tenured to teach anything they please (the “what”).

At Williams, of course, these are no disputes about the complete discretion of professors to choose the books that they want to use. The problem arises when professors prefer to teach classes on topics that they find interesting but which students may not. We then have the sad spectacle of 50 students trying to take class A while 5 are in each of classes B, C, D, and E.

In an ideal world, we would like those 5 classes to each have 15 students. This is a complicated issue but I dislike it when administrators encourage the impression that there is nothing to be done since only a certain professor can teach class A. That is, we need a “specialist” to teach it and none of the folks teaching the other classes is “qualified” to do so.

At the academic level of the vast majority of classes taught at Williams, this just isn’t true. Every Ph.D. has, in graduate school, been through a gauntlet of qualifying exams, the purpose of which is to ensure that she has a thorough and wide-ranging knowledge of her field, whether it be English or economics. In broad terms, the vast majority of professors at Williams are perfectly qualified to teach at least half the classes in their individual departments. This doesn’t mean that they would want to do so, nor that it would be easy, but the College, as an institution, has much more discretion in the classes that it offers than is commonly understood. Tenure is not incompatible with great flexibility in course offerings.

Williams would be a better school if departments/professors were “encouraged” (read: coerced) to better match their course offerings to student interests.

Just because a tenured professor’s favorite topic is Obsurantism does not mean that he has the inalienable right to offer a class in it every other semester that only 3 students sign up for.

#6 Comment By Lee Altman ’93 On January 14, 2005 @ 1:24 pm

Controversies over reading assignments tend to be more of a public university phenomenon. UNC-Chapel Hill has had two major incidents in the past several years, because of summer reading assignments for freshmen. One involved a book about Islam, and the other involved Barbara Ehrenreich’s “Nickled and Dimed.” Because UNC receives public funding, conservatives attempted to sanction the university through the General Assembly. There were some calls for tenure review of the professors who chose the readings. Fortunately this got nowhere, thanks in part to the protections offered by the tenure system.

As for secondary education tenure, that’s another topic entirely. Some public school systems offer teacher tenure very similar to that of university professors. However there are tens of thousands of public school systems, and the variety of policies is truly mind-boggling. It is safe to say that most public school teachers enjoy a fairly high level of job security, but they are not nearly as protected from controversy as professors.

#7 Comment By Derek On January 31, 2005 @ 1:57 pm

This is an interesting discussion. I’d say that one of the reasons for tenure is that it is a carrot to a profession that otherwise seems fraught with sticks. Do not get me wrong — I love being a professor. I love writing and reading and teaching. But if tenure were not part of the process, my life would be rather different. For those of you who read my weblog, Rebunk, you have to understand that even though I do not have tenure, I suspect that i will someday, and that without such promises or expectations, even something like a blog would be a whole lot more problematic than it is. Unless my books sell well, I’ll likely never make a ton of money, though I’ll make a comfortable living. Meanwhile, it takes a long time to get a PhD in the humanities. A long time. Assuming all goes well, you manage to get all the right classes taleken when you should, you run in to no bureaucratic impediments, your advisor is there for your whole time, you do not change your focus, you can deal with living on $15,000 a year or less, you get through comps in a reasonable time, and you get the dissertation done in an unhheard of year, it is going to take you five years. And that is with all of those things hitting right. A delay of a semester or so in each area, another year or two to get the dissertation done, and you are looking at double digit years. Just for the PhD. It is shocking that the job market is so competitive given these circumstances. yet even with that competitiveness, if institutions want to keep good people, they will maintain tenure. Tenure does protect speech. Tenure also allows more senior folks to work on long-term projects that might take a long time and yet appear not to yield fruit for some time. And maybe most important, tenure is a great inducement. Unlike, say, law firms, it is unlikely that the U of Texas system could send me to its beach house in the Caribbean. It can, however, make me a “partner,” which is a basic equivalent of tenure. tenure is a perk of the job for those who arew doing the job well. And while tenure does give some protection, most places have regular post-tenure review, so it is not like being a Supreme Court Justice.

In any case, this is a great project, guys, and i am glad to see my friend Lee running part of the show.

i will link to this winter study project on Rebunk unless anyone objects.

And to be wildly self promoting, it’s been a while sinbce I have posted, so Rebunk is available att: