Thursday, April 30, 2009

You Can Go Now

Mandatory retirement for professors at age 70 was eliminated in US university systems because it discriminated against people based on their age. The consequences of this have been much debated, and I am not going to provide a comprehensive review of the topic.

I am, however, going to defend the statement I made in a post yesterday. I wrote that I think mandatory retirement might be a good thing.

I stated that opinion after also noting that I thought post-tenure review should be implemented in a way that has real consequences. These two topics go together. In fact, a real post-tenure review system would negate the need for mandatory retirement. In a post-tenure review system, active faculty, of whatever age, wouldn't have to retire if they didn't want to, but those who weren't functioning at the level expected for research and/or teaching must retire, after sufficient review and time for change in activity level. Perhaps some sort of phased retirement schedule could be arranged to give the retiring faculty time to plan their future.

It is essential that such a system be implemented in a fair and constructive way, but that it have real consequences for those who are (ab)using tenure as a way to have job security without actually doing their job. Such a system would likely have the most dramatic effects at research universities, though even in these places it should be possible for someone to negotiate a research : teaching balance that is considered acceptable.

Such a system would also have to take into account that life and research are complicated and that an unproductive year or three is not grounds for being fired. For example, some of my colleagues have changed their major field of research in the course of their career, and, as a result of such a change, needed time to get back on track in terms of funding and publications. A fair system would be flexible enough to accommodate this and other career-altering events and would therefore not simply count publications or grants.

As a first step, the very lightest of reviews with modest standards for faculty productivity could be initiated. This would detach some faculty barnacles from their rocks, and that would be a good thing.

20 comments:

John V said...

It's not clear to me that faculty within a department can agree on who is productive, even given their personnel files. People nearly always just side with subjects closest to their disciplines.

It is abundantly clear to me that review panels outside the department within the university have little clue. They fall for fluffy CVs, and a few sniping complaints carry disproportionate weight, and ancient accomplishments are overvalued.

Specialists in the same field at other universities may have an idea of the value of a subject's research, if not teaching and service, but are always more motivated to help their friend than provide an objective opinion.

I don't see how serious review could be based on appropriate criteria without tremendous effort, many letters of reference, and Dean's of anomalous backbone and judiciousness.

Fernando Pereira said...

Bringing up mandatory retirement only confused the issue. Designing review mechanisms that are fair, effective, and resistant to manipulation may be difficult, but mandatory retirement is guaranteed to be unfair and ineffective. Unfair for the obvious age discrimination reasons that the law covers, and ineffective because the prospect of mandatory retirement at age 70, say, does nothing to encourage greater faculty productivity at age 40 or 50. On the contrary, the prospect of forced retirement would only concentrate science faculty minds on lucrative consulting sidelines to fatten that retirement pot.

Anonymous said...

Tenured deadwood who refuse to teach or keep up with research go / get pushed / get forced / get *promoted* into admin positions like dean, chair, grad student coordinator, etc. How do you get rid of them then?

Anonymous said...

Perhaps you would like to comment about unrealistic expectations of administrators as it applies to grants and publishing. This is closely related to your suggestion of post tenure reviews. I am a full professor in Chemistry at a state university and even our most active faculty have great difficulty obtaining grants and publishing. Yet our dean and other administrators have unreasonably high expectations for grants and publishing. I fear that under your system, post tenure reviews would result in the majority of the faculty in my department being fired even though many of them are extremely hard working, effective teachers who also play a valuable role carrying out research with undergraduate and Masters students. They also do all the service functions in and for the department, because we need to "protect" the research time of our untenured faculty so that they may hope to be able to obtain tenure under the unreasonable expectations for obtaining grants. I agree that some faculty do become "dead wood" but they are in the minority. IMHO a system of post tenure review such as you describe would need to have built in protection where the primary responsibility for the review would be at the level of the department, and not mainly in the hands of the administration.

Anonymous said...

FSP you are way out to lunch on this one: mandatory retirement without exceptions is wrong as it makes active researchers pay the price for deadwood in the department. If you have deadwood, remove the deadwood, don't go on roundabout ways to get rid of them.

This happened to us a few years back, when we lost three very active prize winning superstars to mandatory retirement. Sure we also got rid of a couple of inactive professors at the price of three superstars.

Anonymous said...

Hmm... I thought FSP was saying that the mandatory retirement and post-tenure review were connected. So I don't think she's advocating age-based mandatory retirement, but instead activity-based mandatory retirement. Based on this the superstars would stay and the inactive ones would still go, regardless of age.

Anonymous said...

I think there should be a mandatory retirement at the age of 65 or 70 like in any other job as there is a need to bring in new blood in each and every department, however there should be provision for 5 year extension for those who are active in teaching/Research. This can go for another 5 years and so on. This will eliminate those who are just fad up and don't like their job anymore but those who love their job to continue will have chance for extension.

Ann said...

How about replacing tenure altogther with, say 20 year contracts? That is enough time to allow peopel the flexibility to change fields, do something controversial, etc, but not hang on to a sinecure when their productivity is waning. Particularly productive faculty could get their contracts renewed, once.

Anonymous said...

Question: What is "emeritus"? Are they still taking up a slot that could go to a younger prof, i.e. do they cost a lot of money? I've never understood. I think it means you keep your office and some facilities access, not your pay.

Anonymous said...

I wonder what could be done about young, tenured, yet unproductive faculty? I suspect such creatures are relatively rare, but after working oneself to death for 10 years to get tenure, I can imagine the temptation to "kick back" at that point.

Obviously retirement is not an option if the candidate is 30-40 years old. Promotions are a possible incentive to work harder, but some might be perfectly happy to remain as a marginally productive associate prof. forever.

Ms.PhD said...

I agree... mandatory review at 70. This could be a good thing all around, since it might give a little more impetus to help junior faculty start younger than age 42?

I have only one gripe about your proposal as stated: an unproductive year or three are fatal for postdocs or untenured faculty.

I'm not sure why I see the reason for inequality. Why do tenured faculty get job security when no one else does?

And when the whole "system" relies on the assumption of mentorship, but tenured faculty are under no obligation whatsoever to mentor effectively-? How much sense does that make?

There's no part of your proposed tenure review that will account for faculty who screw over their own powerless postdocs.

Rosie Redfield said...

"faculty barnacles" is excellent.

female Science Professor said...

Emeritus professors may do some teaching in addition to their research but they don't take up faculty slots (lines) anymore.

Siz said...

What should age have to do with it? Just because you worked your ass off to get tenure doesn't mean you should just be able to sit back, do no research and teach the same course you've been teaching for 10 years. It hurts a department when faculty stop taking students, take up lab space, do an awful job teaching and coast by doing 5-7 hours of actual work a week.

Believe me, there should be a post-tenure review every 5-7 years. My college has recently begun to implement that and the only people I hear complaining are the older faculty in my department who aren't doing anything in their job description.

My department is clogged with non productive faculty who refuse to retire even though they're not taking graduate students, not doing service and constantly being referred to as "the worst teacher I've ever had."

Do your d@mn job or get the f*ck out.

Curt F. said...

Crazy thought of the day: maybe Marc Taylor's call to "end the university as we know it" wasn't radical enough.

How so? Anonymous at 4:53 illustrates an oft-hidden tension faced by those would manage a university faculty: the success of a faculty member is these days evaluated in large part by that faculty's ability to attract federal grant funding. But, obviously, the federal purse strings are not controlled by the university administration. And tenure guarantees that it is hard to push out the "deadwood" and reward the effective.

Isn't one possible answer to "end the federal R&D enterprise as we know it", and to vest more authority for R&D funding decisions at institutional levels? With deans and/or department heads allocating a significant chunk of the research dollars for their department or school, they will suddenly have the power send unambiguous signals to the faculty under their management about how productive they are perceived as being. Such signals, coming directly from your colleagues and your boss, might do more to spur retirement than getting grant-rejection emails from some program officer is DC.

I'm sure there are lots of downsides to this model. In fact, until recently, wasn't the UK university system funded much like this? They seem bent on going more towards the American model, but was it the funding model or their execution of it that they didn't like?

Anonymous said...

We have mandatory retirement in the UK, although people are still allowed (even encouraged) to continue teaching--it's the expectations of research performance that are relaxed. And yes, people lose their offices in the dept. but I think on the whole it's not a bad idea. People who want to continue in active research do, and those who don't are still available and encouraged to do what many senior faculty do in terms of focus on teaching. My only question is where do you draw the line, 65 or even 67 seems too early, 75 seems a bit late. Can we not acknowledge that physical bodies lose the ability to perform once we are past 50???

Comrade PhysioProf said...

I totally agree, FSP! In medical schools, this shit would be very easy to assess, and would be completely non-subjective. This would be my suggestion: after five years without any externally funded research support, your fucking ass is grass.

Kevin said...

University of California has post-tenure review every couple of years. Being fired is not one of the possible outcomes, but no increase in salary for many years is. There is no evidence of a large accumulation of over-age professors in the system---most of the "deadwood" want to retire.

In short, post-tenure review can be made to work without the club of mandatory retirement, and mandatory retirement seems to be unnecessary for clearing out the deadwood.

So what's the point of trying to link the two?

Jackie M. said...

Sometimes, FSP, you seem to be extremely prejudiced against All Persons In Academics Who Are Not Exactly Like You.

EliRabett said...

A better solution is a rolling contract. AKA the football coach solution. Each year there is a review. If the past year's work has been satisfactory, the faculty member receives a new seven year contract. If the work was not satisfactory the faculty member has six more years on the old contract