Monday, February 16, 2009

Budget Axe

As the economic crisis drags on and worsens, I would like to discuss some more issues of how the poor economy affects Academe, in addition to the ones I listed in a previous post. Some topics this week:

1. Will tenure track faculty be denied tenure for budgetary reasons? and
2. How can researchers get equipment proposals funded if the proposals require matching funds and matching funds are scarce to non-existent?

Topic 1:

Some of my tenure track friends who were nervous about coming up for tenure in the next year or so were already nervous even before the economic crisis. The tenure process does seem to have that effect in general. Some of them are now even more nervous, convinced that their academic unit will try to save money by denying them tenure.

Let's assume that a certain assistant professor was likely to get tenure under ordinary circumstances. A department is very unlikely to vote against tenure for budgetary reasons because economic decisions of this sort are seldom made at the department level and therefore economic considerations aren't used in evaluations of tenure at the department level. It is not in a department's interest to solve a budget problem by losing a tenurable tenure-track faculty member and therefore possibly the faculty line altogether.

In fact, at least one of my tenure-track colleagues wonders whether the economic crisis makes it even more likely that she will get tenure in her department, owing to the department's wish to retain the faculty line (not to mention their acknowledgment that she is doing her job well).

At higher levels of administration, economic considerations may be more important, but even so, according to various university tenure codes that I found online and read recently, there are strict requirements about whether and how economic considerations can be used in personnel decisions involving tenure-track faculty. In fact, universities that are having a major fiscal emergency can also shed tenured faculty after following various procedures and trying other money-saving measures first.

Will universities deny tenure for economic reasons anyway but not admit to this being the reason? Maybe, though I am not quite so paranoid yet as to believe that. Most universities have pre-tenure evaluations for probationary faculty, and possibly also annual progress reports, and it would be unusual (and lawsuit fodder) if the pre-tenure indications were positive but the tenure decision was negative.

So far, my friends and relatives who have lost their jobs have been computer programmers and lawyers. Although universities in economic crisis can fire tenured faculty, those of us with tenure have a lot less to worry about than many of our friends and relatives with less secure jobs. Tenure-track faculty have the usual things to worry about, but I don't know yet of any budget axe tenure victims.

Perhaps the most precarious positions in academia right now are those of adjunct faculty, who have difficult and uncertain positions even in better economic times.

19 comments:

Alex said...

Being at a state school in a state that has come perilously close to budgetary Apocalypse, it is not completely unthinkable that my administration might make tenure decisions based on economics. Yes, there are a million and one rules against it, but when there is simply no money at all, the usual rules do not apply. I think this crisis will be averted, but who knows?

And I have reason to worry: There were 3 hires in my department my year. Of my cohort, one person has significant political advantages. Another is in a specialty that my department values very highly. (And this person is doing a good job in that specialty.) That leaves me: More grants and papers than either of the others, and definitely stronger than the politically connected person on teaching and service, but lacking the political defenses and working in a specialty that is not quite as mission-critical. If the budget axe falls, it will fall on me..

Anonymous said...

I doubt denial of tenure for economic reasons is a problem at reputable institutions. If it is any reassurance for worried junior faculty, they should know that the only vacant positions that always are returned to a department at most institutions are ones left open after a tenure denial. No sensible administrator wants a department to vote for tenure only because they are worried that they will lose a position. A side effect of these policies is to eliminate the financial incentives of a dean towards denying tenure -- and in fact the counterincentives become pretty strong once start-up costs are included.

Of course, that is also one reason that administrators become pretty cautious with tenure track lines at the first hint of impending budget problems. --Anon Dean

Mrs. Comet Hunter said...

I'm not sure how it works with TT professors, but I know that our university has changed the hiring scheme. Even for jobs that were posted at TT - they have been changed to non-TT.

I think you're right though - if one is already on the TT then they will most likely still be granted tenure. It's the step before that is changing.

John said...

I'd agree with your friend, getting a positive tenure vote in the department is now easier than usual because the faculty line is likely to disappear if vacated.

Also, it may take confidence for a department to muster the energy and self-esteem necessary to decide someone is not good enough, and we are not confident this year.

This is at the department level. Often, the dean, provost, or chancellor has the final say, and need not follow even unanimous votes. With their knowledge of the bottom line and distain for some departments, they will probably be more harsh.

So overall, I'd guess this will be a bad year to come up for tenure, depending whether budgets turn out to be as untenable as some project.

Anonymous said...

I would be more concerned that due to the economy faculty on the tenure track may have difficulty getting grants funded and that would of course make getting tenure more difficult.

Anonymous said...

I would add recent graduates and current postdocs to the list of precarious positions. I am currently waiting to hear back from numerous faculty applications, and already a significant percentage of the searches have closed due to budget constraints.

Given my credentials (and a healthy economy), my colleagues have expressed their opinion that I would likely have had little trouble securing a faculty position. However, it appears highly unlikely that I will be successful this year. This leaves me contemplating a second postdoc (unusual in my field of computer science) or perhaps even leaving academia altogether(!).

squawky said...

It may be interesting to see how these cases turn out - although I don't think any administrator is likely to admit that they've made a tenure decision for economic reasons.

I'd have to read it in detail, but I'm pretty sure our faculty contract with the university stipulates that tenure and promotions are not related - so gaining tenure doesn't necessarily include a salary bump. While that seemed odd when I read it originally , now it makes a lot of sense... when the economic crises happen, there's no reason to deny someone tenure because of an associated promotion.

plam said...

For some reason, I was reading the tenure rules at McGill University a few years ago. They encode the option of a "would-be-tenured-except-we-have-no-money" decision on a tenure case. It seems to be gone now. I wondered what effect such a letter would have (apart from one's being out of a job:) it's easy to produce such a letter and doesn't create any obligations.

John said...

Regarding the second comment, I know of no rule requiring positions vacated by denial of tenure to be returned to departments.

Departments get an annual allotment of slots, with a possibility of talking the Dean into more for exceptional opportunities, but the schools I'm familiar with, the dean can add or subtract some, and doesn't have to follow a rigid formula.

Ms.PhD said...

Nope, I think postdocs have it worse.

amy said...

I'm in the same position as Alex, though, sadly, I'm *not* more productive than my cohorts (probably because I spend too much time reading blogs...) We just had a college-wide meeting last week, and the news was depressing, but most faculty seem committed to doing furloughs before firing any TT people. I'm definitely nervous, but my heart really goes out to ABDs and post-docs right now. Universities are going to use this as further excuse to change TT jobs to adjunct jobs, and there are simply going to be fewer good jobs available in the long-run.

Ianqui said...

I'm up for tenure right now, and it seems pretty clear that I'm about to get it (passed the dept, P&T, and divisional dean. Now at the provost.) A friend at another institution is in the same boat. I'd think they'll make other cuts before they deny tenure b/c of the economic crisis, on the assumption that someday we have to get out of this mess...

Anonymous said...

At my institution our chair's solution to the budget crisis is to reduce non-tenured faculty lines in our unit by a minimum of 35% or as much as 55% dependent on what the final state budget will look like. However, the dean has promised to cover these shortfalls through unfilled tenure-track faculty lines.

TheRedBaron said...

I am at a UC school and was told that I could not stand a chance of getting tenure this year (or for the foreseeable future) because the economic crisis has led to a hiring freeze. By "hiring freeze", I'd assumed that meant they weren't going to hire any new assistant professors, but it actually meant no university funds can be released to new people (although they will pay the faculty they pay now). Because of this, I now plan to leave the university and get a job elsewhere. The way it works for us is that most of us are on soft money (grant money), but as the lab becomes very large, it is usual to give the PI tenure, i.e. their salary is underwritten by some university support. So if that stops for the foreseeable future, a lot of labs will dissolve at the UC schools (I will be moving my lab elsewhere). Interesting times...

Fernando Pereira said...

@TheRedBaron: I'm guessing that you are at a med school, where much of the funding for faculty comes from grants. TT means something very different in the med schools I know than in schools that get much/most of their income from undergraduate teaching, as most arts, science, and engineering schools. I'm sorry that this makes it that much harder for you, but unfortunately it's been a problem that hit even top med schools since the NIH budget growth flattened back in 2005 or so. The one possible silver lining is that the NIH budget is getting a significant bump from the new stimulus bill.

TheRedBaron said...

@FernandoPereira: Thanks Fernando for the nice note, yes you are right, I am in the med school. Like you say, most research faculty (PhDs) in U.S. med schools these days are 100% paid from grants, which I think started when NIH grants were fairly plentiful. A lot of these positions are called "in-residence" positions, which is in some ways like the "adjunct" title in other schools. The funny thing to most outsiders is that we are also reviewed for "tenure", i.e. after 8 years as assistant professor, we can be fired or promoted to associate professor. So when we get tenure, it does not actually mean we are getting any money from the university, so there is no actual job security. What used to happen is that eventually, once someone became a full professor, they were often given an FTE, which means that the university would pay them about 50% of their salary in return for the multi-millions of grant money they were bringing in. Due to the economy being in a mess, UC has put a freeze on these FTEs, so they will start to lose a lot of good people (this is a false economy as there is a huge net revenue gain from having these people at the university). I agree with you that in the new administration NIH funding may get a boost (as will NSF too), which is definitely a good thing.

Anonymous said...

I am up for tenure at a large university in Canada. This university has been in a hiring freeze for two years due at first to fiscal ineptitude (of staggering proportions) then because of the worldwide financial woes. I have passed the dept level vote (unanimous) and the faculty level vote (not unanimous). I consider myself to be on the bubble; I went up a year late due to publication delays.

I have raised this question about the university's finances vis a vis tenure, with a couple of tenured people. They immediately shut me down, as if to insinuate that even mentioning this possibility were rude or cynical. I would not be surprised if I were denied by the provost or president's office, but money won't be mentioned as the reason. In my case, they could credibly deny without mentioning it.

I should be nervous, but I am not, really. I have done the best I could, period. We shall see.

Anonymous said...

"Will universities deny tenure for economic reasons anyway but not admit to this being the reason?"

Approximately 30 years ago, this happened to my father.

Our family won the ensuing lawsuit about 20 years ago, and thus my parents could afford college for me.

Anonymous said...

What about this scenario: Department votes overwhelmingly in support of a candidate for tenure but the decision is overturned by the college...