Monday, January 21, 2008

Deadwood: End of an Era?

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.


Anonymous said...

I was thinking something similar the other day, but it was more like, "Is our world going to go to shit because my generation is so damn lazy (myself included)?" I am a almost finished with my PhD and on the job market with all of my friends. We are the laziest bunch of people you can imagine.

We don't want to work. We don't care where we get jobs (as long as we have one.) Most of us don't want jobs at research universities because we think it is too much effort. We don't care about prestigiousness, but rather care if we are near the beach. We would rather work at teaching colleges where we teach 3, 4 even 5 classes so we don't have to research. We don't want to research on nights and weekends. We would rather go out with our friends who work their 9 to 5 jobs. We don't even care about trying to make that much money. We are fine with our $50K a year and don't really care to write books in order to make more.

So in the end, if it is up to my generation of 25-35 year olds then yes, there will always be deadwood, perhaps more so.

Dr. Bad Ass said...

Current version of deadwood here:
Professors Not Present. Three years ago, this professor got a year off for maternity leave because she adopted a 6-year old child; I really have no problem with this one, except that her child did not arrive until the end of the school year that she took off. The following year, she took a sabbatical. This year, she's on a Fullbright in a far-away country. OK, I know that she "deserves" all of this, but hey, there is work to be done here!

Anonymous said...

Nice post. I was just talking about this a few days ago.

What can be done to reduce the damage they cause to a department? Forced retirement came up but we don't know if there are rules/laws against that. Or what about salary reduction? Not just a few dollars, we are talking about a considerable chunk of their checks.

Deadwood faculty might prevent the hiring of new professors (budget issues, availability of physical space, etc.) and in that sense not only are they affecting the current status of that department, but also the future of it. I can understand a Nobel laurate not doing research anymore, but most deadwood do not even fall close to that category.

Anonymous said...

I'm male, white, 63.
Number of papers published this year? Zero. So I'm deadwood? ;-)

Looking back, my most productive time (6 books, >50 papers) was in the 5 years between age 40 and 45.
But none of this was lasting (Proof:the books are out of print).

But I also know senior faculty whose only contribution is to put their name as 'co-author' on papers written 100% by their postdocs :-( Hidden deadwood methinks.

Number of papers may correlate with quality but not necessarily so. Number of Patents may also be an indicator. Administrative position correlates negatively :-(

I know what you mean, FSP, but wouldn't it be great to have a predictor for 'breakthrough' work ? :-)

Anonymous said...

Maybe I would be a strong runner-up for gold medal, as I agree with your cynical colleagues, primarily because I also think that most tenure-track assistant professor who apply for tenure get it.

Anonymous said...

Before you assign the label "deadwood" to someone, be sure you know about all of their accomplishments. Otherwise you might be mislabeling the person who set up an important community outreach program, or the person who redesigned the curriculum, or who got the grant for undergrad training, or who organized the faculty union, or who takes a group to an education abroad program in Africa each year. You might even be labeling the dept's best teacher as deadwood. There is an arrogance to young faculty classifying older colleagues as deadwood. It strikes me as ugly and unnecessary.

Schlupp said...

anonymous, FSP made it rather clear that she was not just counting papers.

The assumption that a bad researcher probably is a good teacher (and is counter point that a bad teacher must be a scientific genius) is astonishingly common. Doesn't really correlate with my experience, though.

Anonymous said...

From my observations, people who (appear to be) deadwood are usually associate professors, not full professors. I'm not sure why that is.

Well, actually I have some ideas, but I'm more comfortable just stating the observation.

Cherish said...

Maybe it has to do with the tenure process itself. I wonder if the recently tenured professor you wrote about the other day may one day be a candidate for "deadwoodedness".

Jenny F. Scientist said...

What I dislike more, personally, are the ones who did something a bazillion years ago and nothing since. I'm thinking particularly of a certain prestigious-prize-winner whose lab now does terminally outdated methods on terminally outdated questions. And for this he gets grants.

Anonymous said...

Sometimes people keep up their jobs because no one's put an alternative to them. It can be useful for chairpeople to go around to the older profs and ask if they're going to have enough money/healthcare for retirement, and if fear of not having those things is preventing them from retiring. For a department (perhaps more in humanities than sciences, depending on the structure) it can be cheaper to encourage those people to retire by making sure their pension is sufficient etc., thereby freeing up lab space for a new and energetic prof. I don't want mandatory retirement either, but this seems like a situation where chairs should step up to massaging these folks along, if possible.

Anonymous said...

Some of us older faculty members had a lunchtime discussion a few weeks about wondering why so many of the new young faculty are so "high maintenance". I think if someone comes into a department with odd expectations, others may look like deadwood to them. I also find myself wondering why FSP and others are so busy monitoring what others do and judging them harshly. Someone else's productivity is none of their business, especially when they don't know the goals or obstacles of their colleagues. I see this as a means of reassuring yourself that you are wonderful by comparison. If the deadwood all went away, how would you feel better about yourself? How would you feel if you found out that the experienced faculty all sit around talking about how naive and incompetent the newcomers are, with their hopes for publication that will inevitably come to nothing because they are just as mediocre as the ones who came before them. That kind of game is what you are playing here, and I think it stinks.

Doctor Pion said...

Sounds like one of your colleagues is working on a proof of principle concerning future deadwood.

In physics, a large part of the reason for deadwood was the high hiring rate during the late 50s and early 60s. [Here is a link to an article on physics PhD supply, for those unaware of the history.] When below average grad students get tenure, there will be deadwood. When I was a grad student, the lecturer I TA'd for claimed that Work could never be negative!

However, I think most of what you see are faculty who have retired in place after a solid research career. The only reason for them to actually retire would be if the university forced them to teach a much heavier load to make up for reduced research production and thereby freein up the time of junior faculty for research. Some do this, most don't.

The question for the future is how many young faculty see their N years as a postdoc and N years on the tenure track as giving them an entitlement to slack after tenure, and how many will continue to work hard because they like doing science?

In my teaching institution, I see young faculty without tenure who don't work as hard as people who are 5 years from retirement.

Anonymous said...

ole phat stu - I don't think FSP is talking about everyone getting prize-winning results. It is just about working has hard as you should. You are getting paid for being, not for have been. I also question those who put their names in papers without having done much/anything, not sure what can be done though.

anon 1 - As much as the past work means, I think it doesn't give anyone the right to stop working. Now, it's fine if they don't publish anymore, as long as they teach, or they KEEP establishing programs that either help the community or bring money into the university. I think FSP is talking about the people that absolutely didn't/don't do anything. I have no problem calling them deadwood!

jenny f. scientist - I know some people like the ones you talk about. It is really depressing. I know first had about 2, they get a big fat check and really don't do anything. The way I see it only a Nobel Laurate can afford to do that, but I think none, or very few actually go down that path.

FSP - looks like you touched a sensitive spot. I say keep complaning about the things that could be better!

Anonymous said...

Very interesting question, FSP. I note that some comments suggested that the associate professor level contains a lot of deadwood these days. I am coming up for tenure in 2 yrs. My excitement and enthusiasm for science remains undiminished, but after 4 yrs of endless grant writing, manuscript writing & multiple revisions, intensive mentoring, teaching, and a lot of university service (all with a working spouse and a small child at home), I'm starting to feel a bit tapped out. I think this can lead to a "deadwood"-like state, as opposed to just laziness. Science is as fun as ever, but the culture of academic science in the current NIH era is not as enjoyable as it used to be.

Female Science Professor said...

I hope you can find a good pace and balance that lets you enjoy your career and family life without going (too) insane. Maybe you will get a leave or sabbatical after tenure (or, at some institutions, immediately before the tenure review) and recharge a bit.

Anonymous said...

I disagree with anonymous at 3:22. It is our business if others in our department are not productive, because it greatly affects the intellectual climate of the dept. At least in the humanities, much of our work benefits from conversation. The two other people in my dept. who work in my area are both lazy as can be and do not keep up with current literature. When I try to talk to them about my work, they can offer very little help, and we can't just shoot the breeze about the latest books that have come out because they haven't bothered to read them. It would be so different if we all had active research programs that we could talk about.

Anonymous said...

After reading the comments, I can't see anything positive about labeling people as deadwood, even if everyone involved is anonymous. What happens when a less productive older person hears or read such talk? 1) Nothing gets better, and 2) They feel worse.

It's like using judgmental words when talking about people who haven't stayed in good shape. Of course, there's no point in denying that some people are in better shape than others, but when you're evaluating people, even if they're unnamed, what's the point in doing it in a way that makes nothing better and somethings worse?

I'm a recent hire and had no opinion on this before reading the comments above (the word isn't used in my field), but they convinced me.

Female Science Professor said...

You're right that there is nothing positive about labeling someone as deadwood. That's not the point. The point is/was to wonder whether the number of extremely unproductive tenured faculty (call them whatever you want) will remain steady or decrease owing to a change in hiring practices/job availability about 30 years ago.

Am I a woman scientist? said...

I highly disagree with the opinion that deadwood does no harm and isn't the business of others in the department. Deadwood does tremendous harm.

"Deadwood" are staff members (regardless of rank or tenure) who do not meet even the basic work requirements of a college/university position: a full-time contribution as some mixture of research, teaching, and service. I have seen deadwood assistant professors but not many; that tenure-or-leave sword hanging over their necks is pretty sharp.

When I was an undergrad, there were several nearing-retirement profs in my department who hadn't published in at least a decade, but they were spectacular lecturers and student advisors... they were largely responsible for the high percentage of undergrads in our department going on for advanced degrees. Despite their (lack of) publications, these profs were NOT considered deadwood by anyone. They advised more than their share of students and taught more than their share of classes.

In my postdoc department, there were three tenured faculty members who had not published in a decade plus, taught a one-semester class every other year (the bare minimum for full-time faculty there), and between them advised one Master's student for the 2 years I was there. My postdoc advisor was hired in as department head SPECIFICALLY to encourage these three to work or retire. I can't begin to describe what a thankless task that was for him. The time and effort it took on my advisor's part to deal with these guys was time and effort he could have spent on his postdoc and three grad students.

This topic is definitely a sore spot for everyone. From the younger generation's point of view, it is incredibly humiliating to be denied tenure based on some deficiency (the grant money issue is a common one) by a department with tenured members who haven't met that level of achievement in a decade plus.

And my deadwood prediction: The tenure process has gotten more difficult, and declining school budgets don't allow for superfluous staff anymore. Deadwood will decrease.

Anonymous said...

I guess it's just the judgmental aspect of the word that bothers me. If you hired someone years ago when standards were lower and they're continuing to work at the same low level, it just seems wrong to use a judgmental word like "deadwood". Suppose my department got much better over the next few decades and I continue to do what I've been doing. What should I do, leave because the younger people think I'm not up to their standards? Sorry, I'm doing what you hired me to do. If you don't like it now, maybe you should have thought harder when you made me the offer.

Maybe it's just that I'd rather put the blame on the administrators and the hiring practices than the people themselves, who are probably doing what you or I would do if we were in the same situation.

Anyway, I do think that tenure standards have risen over the past several decades, if only because of the recent slow-down in the expansion of the US university system, compared to the time after the second world war. That, and because some fields (not mine) have become much more serious in recent decades and so they attract better students.

Jenny F. Scientist said...

The person in question in fact is a Nobel prize winner. Alas.

Anonymous said...

I find the whole article mean spirited, showing no respect for elders. Look, there is deadwood among those who just got a job or tenure (they just hang out with the right people, often). Give me a break. When you get to a certain age, do you want people kicking you out or applying stringent processes to you while you face paying a mortgage, kids in college, etc.? Retirement benefits are soon going to be a figment of the past; everyone will be working. I also think you should judge people after you have engaged with them. I also feel that you have to tell people what they are doing wrong before they can fix it, so blame the performance review process.

Female Science Professor said...

You can argue about whether any particular person is deadwood, but it is not an issue that such people exist and that most of them are senior professors.

Anonymous said...

This is an interesting discussion, and there is nothing mean or disrespectful in this post. It is a fact that there are older professors who would not get promoted by today's standards. The rules changed a few decades ago in terms of hiring and productivity expectations. So it's an interesting question as to whether this population will be replaced or will decrease in size. I think this is an excellent topic for discussion.