The latest rant against tenure is in Slate.com. I have nothing against such discussions. Tenure, what it means, who gets it, and how it is gotten are important topics to debate and (re)consider from time to time. Any discussion of tenure, however, would benefit from accurate information.
The Slate.com article (by Christopher Beam) starts with a cute analogy. Imagine if cooks and waiters in a restaurant could not be fired! And not only that, but "they can say anything they want.. publicly and without fear of retribution." If it sounds absurd in a restaurant context, how can it possibly make sense in academia? I'm not sure, but maybe it's because a university is not a restaurant?
I learned from this article that lots of people want to get rid of tenure, even professors who are "constrained by its conventions". We would much rather have constant job insecurity.
Tenure is not cost effective for universities: "Keeping a professor around indefinitely.. simply costs a lot." In fact, we each cost our university $10-12.2 million over 35 years after getting tenure. You do the math and figure out if the numbers quoted in this article apply to you, factoring in institutional contributions to benefits.
I think it's a cheap shot to mention how much it costs to pay someone over a 35 year career. And it's strange not to mention the alternatives: e.g., hiring adjuncts at low salaries with lousy benefits and no job security.
Paying professors is really inconvenient for university budgets: ".. because most universities pay tenured professors out of their endowments, each professor freezes up tens of millions in otherwise-liquid endowment money for a generation." Are you paid from your university endowment, sucking the economic life out of your institution, providing only highly skilled labor in return?
It really is too bad that universities have to pay professors at all. It is true that it is customary for people, highly skilled or not, to be paid for their work, but it would be so much better if professors would work only for the privilege of having a small office with erratic climate control and a few friendly rodents. "The life of the mind is its own reward" (according to the article).
"If the average university tenured about 15 fewer professors, they'd be in the black."
Professors are standing in the way of balanced budgets!
Then there are some other paragraphs that can be summarized as follows: academic freedom is a joke, even tenured faculty are too afraid to speak up about controversial topics so tenure isn't even needed, tenure discourages intellectual flexibility and interdisciplinary research, tenure makes professors lazy.
Most of this fascinating insight and authoritative information comes from Professor Mark C. Taylor, chair of the Department of Religion at Columbia University, and author of a book that will come out soon and break the news that tenure is bad.
If you can't be fired, what's to stop you from refusing to teach "an extra course"? "I honestly don't know what a lot of academics do a lot of the time," says Taylor.
The only thing stopping me from teaching "an extra course" is that I am too busy teaching my regular classes + graduate seminars, doing research, advising graduate and undergraduate students, mentoring postdocs, writing papers and proposals, giving talks at conferences and other universities, organizing speaker series, serving on committees, editing a journal, reviewing papers and proposals... and so on. I am not unusual (in this respect). Don't they do at least some of these things in the religion department at Columbia University? How can someone write a book on academia and have no idea what "a lot of academics" do with their time?
How can someone not factor research grants or the contributions to society of research of all sorts into the equation when discussing what professors bring to a university? It seems that we just take, take, take.
Would a system of renewable contracts really allow professors to break out of the "publish or perish" mania? Methinks it might have even the opposite effect. If there were no tenure, the rat race would never end. And, since academia is apparently equivalent to a customer service industry, consider what renewable contracts for advisers would do to their graduate students and postdocs, not to mention the research infrastructure that we build in part from grants and in part from our institutions, and use to train our advisees.
Another person cited in the article seems a bit more informed about academia and what ails it than Professor Taylor. Cathy Trower of Harvard University provides some ideas for "reworking" the tenure system without abolishing it:
"Create a tenure track that explicitly rewards teaching. Give interdisciplinary centers the authority to produce tenured professors. Allow for breaks in the tenure track if a professor needs to take time off. Offer the option of part-time tenure, a lower-cost alternative for professors who want to hold other jobs. In other words, make tenure flexible rather than a monolithic, in-or-out club."
Those ideas are worth discussing. Some of them solve problems, foster positive change in academia, and benefit faculty and students. I suppose they are a bit boring for general readers of online magazines, but it was a relief to see that paragraph at the end of the otherwise appalling article.
10 months ago