Farewell to Tenure?

Jul 06 2010 Published by under Careerism, Education

trends-in-faculty.jpgData on tenured and untenured college instructors are overviewed by a bit in the Chronicle of Higher Education. They included this old chart and indicated that the numbers for 2009 are expected to worsen.

Innocuously titled "Employees in Postsecondary Institutions, Fall 2009," the report won't say it's about the demise of tenure. But that's what it will show.
Over just three decades, the proportion of college instructors who are tenured or on the tenure track plummeted: from 57 percent in 1975 to 31 percent in 2007. The new report is expected to show that that proportion fell even further in 2009, dropping below one-third. If you add graduate teaching assistants to the mix, those with some kind of tenure status represent a mere quarter of all instructors.

This lack of institutional commitment affects the side of academic employment that focuses on primary research too. In our case it is the expansion of so-called soft-money jobs. These are those in which one's professorial appointment (tenure or not) depends on the ability to hold major research grant funding. From sources outside of the local University, of course.
You can blather on all you like about academic freedom and whinge about the good old days. Spout about quality of education and instruction.
But this is about management-labor economics, pure and simple.
The situation will not improve until the Professoriat understands that they are nothing more or less than labor and responds accordingly. With unified action.

28 responses so far

  • Joseph says:

    I suspect that there are models of academic competition in which tenure would not be required for the system to work well. However, the modern system where a candidate has several key filters and over 20 years of preparation (10 years post-high school education, 5 years as post-doc and 5 years pre-tenure professor seem reasonable guesses) at low (or negative) levels of compensation does not appear to be an ideal environment to remove job security at the end of the process. If we wanted to move to a model of soft money positions then one would either want to consider a model of "superstars" who make extreme amounts of compensation (this is the model for professional sports and acting) or a model in which the costs are not so front-loaded while the compensation is deferred.

  • There are aspects of our experience as academics that make organizing and mounting unified actions difficult, but we do hard things all the time.

  • Everything abotu life in the United States is about competition. I notice that even Obama, in his speeches, speaks constantly about being competitive, especially with other countries. I have this naive hope that academy can try to reach beyond normal American competition in favor of universal knowledge. Tenure is crucial to allowing this to happen.

  • Gruffi Gummi says:

    Joseph has raised an extremely important issue: because of the past low compensation, established, mid-career scientists have a lot catching up to do. There MUST BE some tangible rewards, either in the form of job security, or star salaries (such salaries need to additionally compensate for the inherent injustice of the progressive taxation system that wants to see the current salary only, and does not give a damn about the income during the past 20 years).

  • D. C. Sessions says:

    If we wanted to move to a model of soft money positions then one would either want to consider a model of "superstars" who make extreme amounts of compensation (this is the model for professional sports and acting) or a model in which the costs are not so front-loaded while the compensation is deferred.

    How much money and time do aspiring pro athletes or actors have to invest before they find out whether they'll recoup the investment?

  • Dereck says:

    accurate, it is difficult to know when they will do ....

  • bill says:

    5 years as post-doc and 5 years pre-tenure professor
    Bwahahahahahahahahhahahahaaa!!!

  • whimple says:

    The situation will not improve until the Professoriat understands that they are nothing more or less than labor and responds accordingly. With unified action.
    The situation is NEVER going to "improve" and tenure in fields dependent on extramural funding is going away and is not coming back. Unionization is futile because the upcoming cohort is so lean and hungry that they will do anything and accept anything that gives them a shot at the brass ring, which is exactly why unionizing post-docs and/or grad students has consistently failed every time it has been tried.

  • becca says:

    whimple, I understand why unionization can *feel* futile (as an undergrad at University of Illinois, I got to watch some interesting battles). That said, I'm unsure about your rationale. Wouldn't your logic apply to... oh, I don't know. Every unionized group ever? I'm a pretty lean and hungry grad student, but not even I fancy myself in the plight of an early 20th century textile factory worker.

  • whimple says:

    Would it apply to every unionized group ever? You betcha. That's what offshoring and outsourcing is all about. Only the professional societies (like MDs) with a lock on restricting the supply side of the equation have managed to keep themselves in gravy.

  • D. C. Sessions says:

    There are a few critical differences between grad students (at least) and the more common unionized work classes. Notably, the classical union worker isn't heavily invested in hir job and at least in principle can go elsewhere fairly readily. (Company towns cast more than a bit of doubt on this principle.)
    This means that a strike threat is at least credible.
    A grad student strike? "If you don't comply with our demands, we're going to stop work on our research. When we turn blue and don't have a dissertation to defend, then you'll be sorry!" sort of lacks the sense of power that "we walk out and your factory shuts down" conveys.
    Add that, at least according to rumor, blackballing is alive and well in academia. This has special importance to postdocs.
    Cynical as I am, the matter is more than a bit close to home since $DAUGHTER is an officer in her GSU.

  • DK says:

    Tenure is not necessary. Tenure only benefits professors. The society as a whole would benefit from abolishing tenure system and putting educators where everyone else belongs, a market place.

  • Joseph says:

    "The society as a whole would benefit from abolishing tenure system and putting educators where everyone else belongs, a market place."
    Markets are pretty amazing things but they do some things rather poorly. Mark Thoma has a good discussion of the criteria for a market to work efficiently:
    http://economistsview.typepad.com/economistsview/2007/02/markets_are_not.html
    Research is, in some important respects, a public good and, like other public goods is hard to place into a market easily (in the same sense that is hard to privatize the road system). Furthermore, the NIH style grant system is an attempt (so far as I can tell) to handle the information problems with basic research in the most rational way possible under the circumstances.
    This is not to say that change and reform are not possible; they are. But I find it odd that tenure is attacked whereas other forms of job security are not (for example, there is no widespread call to privatize the military). The university and NIH system are designed to introduce as mush competition into research and teaching as you can with a single buyer dominating the marketplace (that would be the federal government, via student loans and research grants).
    Earlier in the thread, bill laughed at my conservative assumptions of 10 years as a PhD pre-tenure; this is a long path to get to adequate compensation. It's fine to propose an alternate model but to simple call for a market seems like an awfully skeletal plan . . .

  • DK says:

    Research is, in some important respects, a public good and, like other public goods is hard to place into a market easily (in the same sense that is hard to privatize the road system).
    Interestingly enough, my local utility company has no tenure system. Weird, right? And even more surprising, our defense forces don't have a system where one is guaranteed a job and a salary independent of one's performance. Hmmm.

  • grumpy says:

    "And even more surprising, our defense forces don't have a system where one is guaranteed a job and a salary independent of one's performance."
    I'm not saying the situation is ideal, but if we didn't offer veterans lifelong benefits you and I might be out pounding sand in the Middle East right now.
    but, tbh most I could care less whether the professoriat unionizes. Faculty already tend to have great benefits and diminishing lifelong job security is just not that big of a problem. There are millions of people dying of AIDS in Africa, etc.

  • Joseph says:

    "Interestingly enough, my local utility company has no tenure system. Weird, right?"
    Well, the local utility might have a union which is performing the same basic role of making sure that employees are not fired due to political factors. If you replaced "tenure" with "unionized job security" then you'd likely have the same basic outcome, to be fair. Most agencies that safeguard a lot of public money have fairly tough employment rules to avoid political whim in employment (see public sector unions for the federal government).
    "And even more surprising, our defense forces don't have a system where one is guaranteed a job and a salary independent of one's performance."
    Military health benefits? That is a lifelong and guaranteed form of compensation that becomes independent of performance after a certain period of service (curiously enough, in the same neighborhood as tenure if you count basic training forward as being the same as undergraduate forward). One can lose such benefits for serious wrong doing but tenured professors can be (and are) fired for serious issues all of the time.
    It's a good exercise to remember that tenure is a form of compensation and we do not often regulate compensation (and, when we do, it';s not ever been a great idea -- think of the caps of CEO direct salary compensation and how that worked out). It's not a disaster if it goes away but it is a odd thing to focus on as a positive good to eliminate it.
    Maybe it would be better to call it something else?

  • Interesting discussion. I am in a hard money TT position, but dependent on extramural funds to support my research. I would not have left my job at National Lab to go to academia (incidentally taking a $10,000 pay cut) without the chance for tenure. As Joseph said before, tenure is a form on compensation. Without it, academic researchers would need a replacement compensation (like more money).
    In terms of unionizing grad students--a story from my PhD U. There was always a drive among the humanities/social sciences/arts students (who have a truly difficult time supporting themselves without loans) to unionize, but the STEM students were always paid well enough to live on with some extras, so overall unionization efforts failed. Until the administration changed the health plan for grad students without telling anyone. Literally--my roommate went to pick up her monthly meds (former copays $5-10, she took 3 or 4) only to find out that the new copay was $30, and she couldn't afford her meds. A grad student friend who was 8 months pregnant could no longer see her OB, and found this out at her checkup ("Sorry, we aren't in your new insurance plan." "What new insurance plan?" "You are now covered by the welfare healthcare system and we don't take it." "Do you know anyone I can see who does?" "You'll need to go to the public clinic. It is on the other side of town.").
    Unionization succeeded pretty much immediately after this incident. My department tried to spread FUD saying we would then be paid like the English grad students, but we could easily see that no one would come to our department in expensive coastal city if they really didn't supplement our salaries *like they already were doing* over what the U gave them per student. Grad students have one other weapon other than a strike--they can tell prospective grad students not to come. This works really, really well (I've seen it done at 3 campuses), but is kind of a nuclear option for negotiations.

  • DSKS says:

    It feels as if this subject is moot given that institutions have a lot of wiggle room around the tenure subject when it comes to a need/desire to let someone go (pressure to resign vs firing? tom-ah-to vs tom-ay-to?).
    However, I'm not sold on Joseph's argument from public good. That old chestnut was cracked long ago when central planning revealed itself to be a colossal drain on public resources in addition to providing no persistent incentive to produce (deadwood everywhere). There is already a meritocracy at work (well, perhaps that's an act of faith, but that is at least the objective of the model, no?), and one can reasonably ask why, at some arbitrary career stage, that model should be abandoned in favour of a perpetual reward?
    On a related matter ,I thought that tenure was originally intended to protect the innovators and revolutionaries from the traditionalists in power? But as any feminist or other pro-civil rights advocate will tell you - these currently representing folk on the wrong side of the tenure divide for the most part - quite the opposite is now true; there is an argument to be made that tenure is in fact protecting the academic institution from the whims of change rather than protecting the changers from the whims of the institution.

  • Jim Thomerson says:

    Universities exist so professors, students, etc. can more effectively do their work. Are the professors the university, or is it the administrators? I think the Professors. Universities are among the most long lived of human institutions, so the they tend to move and change at a glacial pace. Tenure allows a professor to think it reasonable to put some effort into making a needed change which may not come to fruition for many years. Having call staff, etc. stocks the university with people who have no long term commitment to the university, and puts the guidance of the university more and more into the hands of administrators, who tout the virtues of 'flexibility".
    There are faculty unions, which generally result from things having gone really bad at a particular university. I don't know how effective or worthwhile they have been.

  • bayman says:

    Tenure-track academia is a vestige of our aristocratic European past. The soft-money granting scheme represents the Capitalist free-marketization of science. It is The AmericanDream of research. It's not just about money, it creates a whole different scientific culture. All Americans should be proud of the death of tenure. It is the most important and unique American contribution to Science.

  • DSKS says:

    "The soft-money granting scheme represents the Capitalist free-marketization of science."
    Err... no not really. The incentive structure is entirely at the whim of a Federal agency, not the natural forces brought about by the exchange of goods and services; grant funding/subsidisation is all about central planning (albeit with the benefits of peer review), not free markets. And that's as it should be, I think, because even the elements of private enterprise that could generate the kind of start up capital to pour into laborious basic R&D projects continually balk at the high risk-benefit ratio; let the Feds get the ball rolling, and if something comes up, the free market will jump in &c...
    Nevertheless the following is still true, regardless of where the money is coming from,
    "But this is about management-labor economics, pure and simple."

  • bayman says:

    The incentive structure is entirely at the whim of a Federal agency
    A Federal agency which is entirely at the whim of the marketplace, corporate lobbies and the voting populace no?
    Anyhow perhaps it is not a completely free-market, but the grant system is certainly a much more open, merit-based forum of competing ideas. Giving the idea that anyone can be a scientist as long as she communicates good project ideas and executes them. This is a huge cultural shift from an aristocratic system based entirely around Academy politics.

  • whimple says:

    the grant system is certainly a much more open, merit-based forum of competing ideas...
    ...except that the people deciding who get the grants are the same people that are competing for the grants.

  • Jim Thomerson says:

    What percentage of grant related reviews are made by tenured professors? I would suspect a large majority.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    In the NIH system, most of the primary reviewing is by associate professors and above. This is in part because there is rule (which whimple loves) that reviewers have to have already acquired their own grant. There are exceptions but this is the baseline. There is also a thought that the burden of reviewing can kill very early career folks so they should be spared service for their own good. You get this from all sides, including the newb asst profs themselves-it is a reality but I am against hard rules. Finally, there has been an explicit push in recent years to diminish the number of assistant professors on panels. This comes, IMNSHO, from senior folks getting triaged or having to revise a grant for the first time ever in their careers. Instead of putting the blame where it appropriately belongs, they start complaining about the newbs who are killing their grants with their inferior reviewing talents.
    I point to the data that I've seen that at worst assistant professor rank reviewers made it to about 10% of all reviewers. Not reviews, reviewers. I point to where assistant professors are more likely to be ad hocs, more likely to get a lighter load and the relative impact of one person on the disposition of grants. Throw in the lesser confidence you might expect more junior people to have when doing this new task alongside senior folks, again, with ad hoc experience instead of repeated panel experience. It doesn't add up to me.
    So I argue for more junior people to be involved in review.

  • Martial says:

    Absent tenure, there will follow exodus to industry for PhD's and private practice for medicine by all with talent, leaving universities with a contingent labor force, very unlikely to produce any work beyond that deemed absolutely necessary. Some sort of brass ring must exist. After age 40, prestige means very little. For some fields in medicine, such as pathology, the oversupply is such that the work will get done, albeit inadequately so. In such fields, as the pay bears no correlation to the productivity, one might well expect increased "demand" to occur for "service".

  • Gingerale says:

    I agree with Joseph (#13). Except I'd rather say "much" instead of "mush" (sorry on that, Joseph!).

  • Zen Faulkes says:

    For what it's worth, professors at the University of Texas system cannot engage in collective bargaining. It's illegal for state employees (except fire fighters and police). I'm not sure how many other states for which this might be true.

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