Some colleagues and I were recently comparing notes about some of the other universities we had recently visited to give invited talks. One thing we talked about was the number of deadwood faculty we encountered. We mused (in an admittedly obnoxious way) about whether there would always be a similar number of deadwood -- that is, a continuous supply of new deadwood will replace the retiring deadwood -- or whether the number will eventually decrease owing to a change in hiring/promotion criteria and decrease in tenure-track positions in the 1980's. Perhaps it is ageist even to ask the question, but we wondered:
Will there ever be a time when there are substantially fewer deadwood professors, or will there always be a pod of them in most departments?
Most departments, even highly ranked ones, have a certain number of deadwood faculty. These are typically older faculty who got their Ph.D. in the 1960's-70's. In the sciences, the vast majority are white males, owing to the demographics of academia at the time these professors were advancing through the academic ranks. (Note to those unfamiliar with U.S. academia: There is no mandatory retirement age. You can be a professor forever if you want).
By deadwood, I don't mean someone who has slowed down a bit in their research productivity with time. There will always be older faculty who do less research than they did in their youth -- this may well be the case for me eventually -- and there are some excellent ways to rebalance the distribution of research - teaching - service to accommodate this in a fair way.
By deadwood, I mean someone who has never been productive but who advanced through the academic ranks at a time when standards were different. Deadwood faculty are professors who, by today's standards, would not have made it as far as they have. The hiring process was very different > 30 years ago, there were more jobs available for at least part of the time when some of these professors were hired, and the criteria for tenure and further promotion were not as stringent.
It's of course impossible to know whether some current deadwood professors would have had a more active career if the culture and standards had been different in their academic youth. And it's difficult to know whether these faculty would be more active now if post-tenure review were more rigorously applied. Nevertheless, given the current situation and considering the hiring/promotion patterns of the last few decades, my hypothesis is that the number of deadwood faculty in most departments will decrease in the future.
In contrast, my colleagues, one of whom would win a gold medal in the Cynical Olympics, thinks that there will always be enough of a supply of new deadwood to replenish the ranks. These colleagues think that, although tenure is still a terrifying process, most faculty at most institutions get tenure. One of them proposes, though, that one difference in the near future might be that there will be more deadwood associate professors, on the assumption that those who barely make it to tenure won't muster enough energy in the 4-6 years after tenure to make it to the next promotion.
It's too soon to tell which hypothesis is correct, but perhaps it's not too soon by much.
10 months ago