Tenure without a major grant

Mar 24 2016 Published by under Careerism

The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that some Universities are being more flexible on previous grant-related criteria for tenure. 

Interestingly, University representatives refused to identify faculty that have been tenured without major grants. 

I sure hope we don't find out this is another source of bias for the traditionally empowered demographics.

25 responses so far

  • AcademicLurker says:

    I sure hope we don't find out this is another source of bias for the traditionally empowered demographics

    I wouldn't get your hopes up...

  • drugmonkey says:

    To be clear, I welcome University P&T Committees recognizing that grant getting today is far different than grant getting 20 years ago. But the refusal of Deans to admit how many exceptions have been made and under what circumstances is.....alerting.

  • AcademicLurker says:

    I agree that it's great if schools are acknowledging the reality that the days when you could require 2 R01 equivalents for tenure are gone (unless you want to just fire everyone after 7 years). But it wouldn't surprise me at all if "X is a good guy. We know he'll hit the pay line eventually so let's keep him around." is an argument that gets applied more to some demographics than others.

  • Philapodia says:

    P&T committees are generally made up of faculty who are "in the trenches", and so are more tuned into the actual funding situation (or how they were when they were junior faculty long ago). A lot of Deans at MRUs and even riffraff state schools are businesspeople with little experience as faculty and really have no idea what being faculty or trying to get tenure is like. My Dean wasn't faculty before joining our Uni and has never written a grant in his life, yet can tank my career because he just looks at raw IDC amounts with absolutely no idea what it took to get to that number or even what the current funding environment looks like. Several other upper administrators at my Uni are also like this. Perhaps all upper administration at Unis should be filled by tenured full professors so they can make informed decisions.

  • drugmonkey says:

    I am not confident that senior faculty who got into the game 30 years ago are fully aware of the relative ease of grant funding then vs now.

    Nor am I confident that faculty are good about recognizing their biases when making supposedly objective judgment about scholarship.

  • odyssey says:

    I am not confident that senior faculty who got into the game 30 years ago are fully aware of the relative ease of grant funding then vs now.

    Nor am I confident that faculty are good about recognizing their biases when making supposedly objective judgment about scholarship.

    Many of them are not on both counts. But to play Devil's advocate here... I'm not too surprised that uni officials are keeping mum about who has been granted tenure without major funding. Doing so would open them up to issues (e.g. lawsuits) with faculty who were denied tenure in the period between the funding downturn and the recent realization that canning everyone is probably not a good strategy.

  • The Other Dave says:

    I know this is going to be unpopular, but...

    I think this policy might be a mistake, if these places are falling victim to the sunk cost fallacy. They're forgetting that past performance is the best predictor of future performance, and when they grant tenure they're committing to 20+ years of salary and space, which ultimately is worth way more than the cost of hiring someone new.

    That said, it's true that something has to change. It's no longer economically feasible, given current funding rates, to hire new people and set up their lab every 7 years. But that doesn't mean the institution should commit to those people long term. Giving tenure is not the answer.

    Instead, the more financially reasonable option is to invest less in hiring and setting up new labs. Basically, as the return on investment falls, the investment also needs to fall to keep pace.

    The only real tricky part is ensuring that good candidates still want your job even though you're being cheap in the hiring process. Fortunately, there's such a glut of excellent postdocs desperate for jobs that this isn't a problem. Institutions have a lot more negotiating power during the hiring process than they used to. An uppity candidate threatens to walk? No problem. You tell them there are 10 other equally qualified people waiting for the job and he can enjoy one of the zillion non-tenure track positions out there that he's likely to be stuck with. And if you want to twist the dagger you can remind him that the instant he takes one of those positions to pay the rent, his chance of getting a tenure track position with his own lab is pretty much out the window. Oh yes he'll grovel then.

    You don't think this scenario is happening? Ha ha it's happening at my university. The administration is saying that we need to even MORE strongly enforce promotion standards (including major federal funding before tenure should be granted). And they're happy to let searches 'fail' if they're not happy with the candidates after negotiation.

    Of course, the article is talking about Florida State. The policy might make sense for them, so that's assume they're acting rationally. What they're saying is: "We can't compete for major federal funding, so that's not going to be an official part of what we require for our faculty." Basically, they're giving up as a major research university. It'll be cheaper for them to hire people, pay people, and they won't have to worry about maintaining cutting edge research facilities. Education is a booming business anyway. Many places -- especially big places like FSU that are popular with undergrads -- realize they can make more money from tuition than grants. So better for them to go after the students and let UCSF and Johns Hopkins squabble over the NIH funding.

    We in the U.S. are so used to the combination of American style higher education coupled to German Research University that has dominated for the last few decades that we forget there are lots of other models. The French have big segregation between research institution and educational university, for example. The 'jack of all trades' combined researcher/educator professorship is dying. Both research and teaching are becoming too competitive. But that's OK, right? It means that the quality of both should improve.

  • Dave says:

    Of course this has to happen. It's totally laughable when average schools require multiple R01s - or an R01 renewal - before granting tenure. They wont have any faculty moving forward. When the majority of people on the P&T committee don't have federal funding, it's a sign.

    Different story for the best schools, of course, where they can pick and choose the very best. They can afford to make funding demands.

  • Dave says:

    ...and I would say that one reason schools might be reluctant to release details is that they dont want to be seen as a small-time player that can't attract funding. It could be an attempt to protect their 'reputation'.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Doing so would open them up to issues (e.g. lawsuits)

    As well it should. The tenure process is notoriously abusive and biased. Many participants (Chairs, Depts, P&TCs and Deans) are variously eager to use allegedly objective standards or ignore them for allegedly compensating reasons as it fits their biases. I am happy to see light cast upon these problems.

    The French have big segregation between research institution and educational university, for example.

    My impression is that the current drumbeat against high overhead, soft money research institutions does not bode well for this scenario ever becoming a reality in the US.

  • drugmonkey says:

    they dont want to be seen as a small-time player that can't attract funding.

    The ones that agreed to be quoted in the article already wend down this road. Protecting the specific faculty doesn't walk this back.

  • Newbie PI says:

    My tenure documents are due to be submitted to my departmental promotions committee by the end of this year. I will have been in this Assistant Professor position for just over 4 years. (I still cannot understand why exactly they call this a 6-year tenure clock, except that it takes another two years to collect letters and then go through all the different levels of review). I've had four grants within 5% of the NIH payline, but am still unfunded. Based on the university's published requirements, I should not get tenure. But I'm hoping they will strongly weight my productivity and eventual likelihood of getting funded.

  • Morgan Price says:

    Describing Dr. McNeil as a tenured faculty without funding is silly. His CV lists ~$2M of research funding! And yes he had co-PIs on those grants, but still, I doubt that he's any sort of financial risk.

    The other professor discussed in the article, Dr. Cui, seems to have been scientifically productive despite receiving no funding outside of his startup package. (And writing 21 unsuccessful grant proposals, yikes.) So saying that Florida State is "giving up as a research university" by keeping him around just sounds wierd.

    PS Am I the only one who thinks it absurd to base tenure on "the scores faculty members receive on unapproved grant applications"?

  • qaz says:

    I thought the goal of science was to discover things. (@TOD, haven't you been the one complaining that the business of science was getting in the way of the science of science?) So if someone is productive during their pre-tenure run, why should we care if they got grants? If someone was independently wealthy, would we demand they go get NIH grants to do their science? In theory, scientific productivity does not necessarily depend on bringing in grant funding (*). I would think that someone able to scramble enough to do great science (**) in this funding climate, however they have scraped it together, would be tenurable.

    * In practice, money makes it easier to do science. As DM always points out, people who get HHMI grants do lots of good science in part because they have lots of money.

    ** As I understand it, no one is suggesting giving tenure for people not publishing or not producing.

  • The Other Dave says:

    My impression is that the current drumbeat against high overhead, soft money research institutions does not bode well for this scenario ever becoming a reality in the US.

    Uh... Have you been looking at the distribution of NIH funding between different institutions? A lot of places have less funding, but some places are fine or doing even better than ever. There is increasing disparity between what are de facto research institutions in the U.S. and everyone else.

    Am I the only one who thinks it absurd to base tenure on "the scores faculty members receive on unapproved grant applications"?

    What do you think tenure is based on? At least the grant scores come from a committee focusing on something specific and operating with some oversight. But many tenure cases come down to anonymous subjective letters from people in the field. If one of those people is having a bad day and says something bad... Oh, you should see the terrible effect this has on all the P&T panels and the dean.

    I thought the goal of science was to discover things.

    Yes, for sure. I think it's absurd that everywhere in society we are rewarded for doing more with less. But in academic research people only care about how much money we spend. Imagine a business sales team at the quarterly meeting... "We had a great quarter!" CEO: "Really, how many units did you sell?" Sales team: "Well, hardly any, but our expenses are way way up!"

    The reason this absurd situation exists, of course, is because the goal of science is to discover things, but our job as research scientists is to bring money and fame to our institution. As long as indirect costs on federal grants are as high as they are, expenditures will be an important measure of performance. If we want to fix this problem, we simply need to make the federal agencies cap indirect costs. But to do that we will have to fight all the rich successful institutions that have become dependent on this pork. It's pork. Our industry is no more admirable than any of the many other taxpayer sucking catastrophes that exist in our society.

    Whoa.... I gotta stop. I almost sounded Republican there.

  • sel says:

    " So if someone is productive during their pre-tenure run, why should we care if they got grants? If someone was independently wealthy, would we demand they go get NIH grants to do their science?"

    Both these situations mean that the university does not get any sweet, sweet overhead from the researchers. A university shells out (increasingly ridiculous) amounts of startup funds when they hire tenure-track professors. They want to see some return on their investment. That comes from the overhead on large federal grants.

    I'm currently at one of the sad-sack "second tier" research universities mentioned in this article. (I'm not in a NIH-geared bio-related department though, which I guess was the focus). The last two profs who didn't get tenure in my department were denied....because they didn't have a big federal grant.

  • The Other Dave says:

    "If someone was independently wealthy, would we demand they go get NIH grants to do their science?"

    Yes.

    Some departments and institutions actually discourage their people from applying for grants with little/no overhead. Those sorts of grants don't make the institution any money. In fact, those sorts of grants may be money losers because the institution still has the expenses of managing the money and providing resources, but they get nothing to cover those costs.

    And anyway, if you're independently wealthy you should just set up your own research institute and 'work' there. That way you can avoid all sorts of bureaucratic hassles, and when/if you do get an NIH grant, it goes into your pockets instead of the university president's.

    And is there a PI here who hasn't spent some of their own money on research expenses? At least wangled a seminar or chat with a colleague some place where you were going on vacation, to make that trip tax deductible? "Business lunch expense" also applies to people whose business is science.

  • dsks says:

    " They're forgetting that past performance is the best predictor of future performance, and when they grant tenure they're committing to 20+ years of salary and space, which ultimately is worth way more than the cost of hiring someone new.

    Only that's just not true anymore (maybe never was). The only thing the institution is guaranteeing is 20 yrs a as a faculty member with ~50% salary coverage. There is no guarantee in re research space and no guarantee as to what duties will be required to be fulfilled.

    Indeed, I think it's the realization of just how plastic tenure can be made to be that is causing universities to lighten up. Now they know that a faculty member can simply be driven out by attrition, it's less critical to be discerning at the tenure mark. Give em another shot, why not? If they blow it, take their space and give them the freshman bio course &c.

    I honestly don't see tenure lasting much longer as a thing with actual meaning. At least not in the sciences.

  • Dave says:

    They're forgetting that past performance is the best predictor of future performance

    I immediately want to punch people in the face when they say this. It's such an outdated view when it comes to funding.

    I honestly don't see tenure lasting much longer as a thing with actual meaning.

    It will at the top, top schools only I think.

  • JC says:

    I honestly don't see tenure lasting much longer as a thing with actual meaning. At least not in the sciences.

    You mean in the biomedical sciences. In all other areas, it's seems to still be alive and well.

  • AcademicLurker says:

    You mean in the biomedical sciences at Medical schools and research institutes. Even the biosciences still have tenure that means something at other types of academic institutions.

  • jojo says:

    "I honestly don't see tenure lasting much longer as a thing with actual meaning.

    It will at the top, top schools only I think."

    I think the opposite...

    There's no way that major research universities are going to abolish tenure in Biology departments in colleges of natural sciences. Yes, there are adjuncts & instructors but a big sell at each of the departments I've been in is that most of the courses after intro - if it even exists - are taught by TT or Tenured faculty (team taught for the year 2 courses). Biology is and will always be an incredibly popular major and there will always be a demand for faculty to teach these courses. And as we move to "second tier" or lower that demand gets higher & higher as undergrads expect the faculty to teach more of the classes.

    It might be true there's not going to be tenure much longer at fully soft-money institutes or Med schools. It does seem to be more of a relic at such places so may be true there. I don't really see too much of a problem with only the top institutes having the luxury of keeping full time soft-money researchers.

    "PS Am I the only one who thinks it absurd to base tenure on "the scores faculty members receive on unapproved grant applications"?"

    If they don't actually get a grant but otherwise have a really good record, it seems logical to me to look at the scores, no? If they are pretty damn good/borderline that would be a reasonable indication they are likely to get grants in the future.

    So if "getting a major grant sometime" and re-capping overhead is important to the institution this would seem to be a next-best thing to actually getting a grant during the 4-5 years prior to tenure.

  • drugmonkey says:

    I am not sure any particular grant score is a good indication of being likely to get a fundable score within any particular timeframe, personally.

  • becca says:

    DM- I don't think *I* know the answer to that, and I doubt many tenure committees do... but it seems something that could be statistically modeled

  • AcademicLurker says:

    but it seems something that could be statistically modeled

    Sounds like an interesting project, maybe you should apply for a grant...

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