Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Cutting Through a Little BS About How Tough Tenure Is

If you want to be really depressed about academia, read these reactions to the Huntsville murders in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Let me try to boil things down to the simplest possible terms:

(1) There are not as many paying tenured positions in colleges and universities as there are people who want those positions.

(2) Because of this mismatch in numbers, there must be some way of allocating those positions.

(3) You can either fully allocate at the time of hiring or later in the process.

(System A) If everyone or nearly everyone you hire 'automatically' gets tenure, then you've decided to make a very significant allocation decision based on on-paper materials and a brief interview. The hiring process will therefore become extremely high stakes (even more so than it is now), and therefore getting hired will be exceedingly difficult.

(System B) If, on the other hand, you allocate positions based more on post-hiring performance, then getting hired will be somewhat less difficult but getting tenure will be much harder.


Because of the mismatch noted above, in either system the requirements for getting hired or getting tenure will continue to ratchet up until the number of people 'qualified' matches the number of positions. This means that simply having earned a Ph.D. will not be the sole 'qualification' for a position (note my use of scare quotes) and additional "qualifications" will evolve (these will of course include luck, political connections, etc).

This situation cannot be fixed as long as there exists the mismatch of the number of people who want to be professors with the number of paid positions to be a professor.

There is no solution that can solve this problem, just as there is no solution to solve the 'problem' of the number of people who want to be famous authors, movie actors, rock stars or professional athletes being far greater than the number of job openings for authors, actors, rock stars and athletes.

Making it easier to get tenure once hired does not solve the problem, it only pushes the decision back from the tenure process (where the candidate is known and has a six-year track record) to the hiring process (where the candidate is less known and has only a grad school record).

The desire to make it easier to get tenure once someone is hired may seem kind to the particular person (whom you know as an individual), but it is unfair to the many, many other people who would like that job, who may be more qualified, but who haven't had a chance, possibly because they were passed over in the hiring, possibly because they entered the job market a few years later, etc. So by reducing the requirements for tenure--whatever they are--you are doing an injustice to all of these people.

Reducing the number of Ph.D.s awarded, a proposal mooted frequently (usually by people who already have Ph.D.s; people applying to grad school who want to get Ph.D.s. are usually less keen on the idea) does not solve the problem, it only pushes the decision process back from the hiring process to the graduate school entrance process, where the candidate has even less of a track record.

If the number of Ph.D. slots were radically reduced, a person who did not go to an elite institution and compiled a stellar record while there would not be able to pursue a Ph.D. and become a professor.

That in turn means that very significant decisions with long-term ramifications will be based in large part of the performance of students when they are juniors in high school. The choices you make when you are sixteen or seventeen years old--or maybe when you are eighteen or nineteen--would shape your permanent employment possibilities in ways even greater than they do today.

As long as the demand for a thing--professor jobs--is greater than the supply of that thing, the 'cost' of it will increase. The Chancellor of the Pennsylvania state system writes: "if rising scholars need to give up any semblance of a normal life to obtain a doctorate or tenure, then that program's values are out of alignment. I, for one, do not want institutions full of people who sold their souls for a degree or for tenure. I want balanced, well-rounded scholars."

Nice sentiments, but I would ask Chancellor Cavanaugh how he is going to allocate scarce resources: to the person who has a "semblance of a normal life" or the person who works the hardest for it? If I am willing to put in only 40 hours per week of work to get a tenured position, should I really take that position away from someone who is willing to put in 50 hours per week?

What should the allocation be based on, then? Where I went to undergraduate? Where I went to graduate school? People pay lip service to the 'quality' of research being better than quantity, but aren't two excellent articles better and two innovative classes better than one excellent article and one innovative class?

And let me tie this back to the murdering freak, Dr. Amy Bishop, who had very serious issues (such as killing her brother, beating people up in IHOP over a booster seat, and possibly mailing bombs to people). I am probably not the first to have dealt with the entitlement mentality of people who went to extremely elite institutions for undergraduate, continued for grad school and then are shocked and offended that they ended up not back at those elite institutions, but at "lesser" places and then found themselves, even at the "lesser" place not as good as someone with a humbler pedigree. These people, because they are not criminally insane, don't shoot anyone and, thankfully, settle for sneering, griping and politics. But the root sense of entitlement festers there.

Forgive me for being too Foucaltian, then, when I say that calls to restrict the number of Ph.D.s produced, for example, or to lessen tenure requirements so as to make the hiring decision carry more weight, come in part from a desire to remove competition from people from humbler backgrounds who want a professorial job very much indeed and are willing to put in the hours to get one. The system is extremely flawed, but putting more weight on the earlier part of the process seems like it will have the effect of making certain elites have an even greater advantage than they do now.

I don't think that the current system is good by any means, only that it is marginally better than the proposed alternatives. At least people have freedom and a chance as opposed to being locked out of a career because, hypothetically, you turned down admission to the Ivy school so as to live closer to a girlfriend in college (or, more seriously, as happened to one close friend, your mother died from cancer your junior year in high school and so your previous straight-A grades suffered significantly, causing you to get into Rutgers instead of Princeton).

The current system is wasteful and cruel because people put in years of effort to give themselves a chance at a job but then don't have a good place to turn if the chance doesn't work out. But this is not the slightest bit different from the entertainment, publishing and sports industries. Yet we don't hear calls to keep kids from practicing their music or their acting or their writing or their baseball skills, even though the chance of their making a living in these fields, and the financial payoff for years of work, might be even lower than in academia.

And here, I think, is the psychological root of the problem. People in entertainment, art, sports, politics and publishing tend not to have achieved nearly all of their early success mostly by being dutiful even though the successful ones work extremely hard. Academics, on the other hand, since grade school have been rewarded for being dutiful. When dutiful is not enough--when talent in multiple areas, and, most significantly LUCK--becomes a very large variable in the equation, the academic personality revolts and thinks things are unfair and need to be change.

Things are indeed unfair. I'm not the starting second basement for the Boston Red Sox, people have not filled Giants Stadium to hear Mike Drout sing and play guitar for the Tattered Remnants, and none of my books are best-sellers yet. There weren't enough of these jobs to go around, just as there are not enough professor jobs to go around. Yet no one is calling for professional baseball or the recording industry or the publishing world to discourage people from playing Little League or taking guitar lessons or writing novels. We should think about why the same situation in academia is seen as a failing, and we should be exceedingly careful that attempts to fix the system don't end up imposing one that is even more unfair and destructive. Freedom needs to include the freedom to take risks that don't pay off: when you want something very valuable, that a lot of other people want, there is unlikely to be a clear path to getting it.


Chris said...

Well written.

John Cowan said...

Most of your logic is impeccable, but the question remains: why should universities offer anyone a job for life? No other line of work does that.

As for the 40 hours vs. 50 hours, though: For many decades medical interns used to work 100-hour weeks (every other night and every other weekend). On investigation, that turned out to be a seriously bad idea. You really don't want doctors who do nothing but work; for one thing, they make too many nasty mistakes (duly covered up in those days). A race to the bottom is not likely to produce the highest-quality professors, either.

Steve Muhlberger said...

I think I said in an earlier comment I hope we'd hear more from you. This was the kind of thing I was hoping for. Thanks for the no-BS analysis.

John Emerson said...

Yet we don't hear calls to keep kids from practicing their music or their acting or their writing or their baseball skills....

Middle class parents do everything they can to discourage these career plans and to encourage alternative plans, if only as backup. This is true even for classical music; classical musicians don't earn much. (My son is a musician and a lot of the parents who encouraged music in youth for its character-building qualities would have been very happy if their child had chosen a music career.)

Furthermore, kids don't go $50,000 in debt to play baseball.

I see things getting worse as state legislatures start cutting budgets and the no-hope grad schools start disappearing. There will be a domino effect, because if the #50 philosophy school stops offering a PhD, there will be fewer jobs for graduates of the #1 school. My own alma mater doesn't even offer a philosophy BA.

I agree, though, that humanities grad school should be considered a long-shot career and that no one should go in without a backup plan.

John Emerson said...

"would have been very UNhappy"

Music in school, medicine or banking when you get serious

Another Damned Medievalist said...

John, we have students at SLAC who are there because they want to compete, and D3 is the best they can get. Some even dream that they will make it to the pros. For this, they pay $30k a year.

John Emerson said...

That is weird. Is SLAC major-college sportswise?

With college sports I think the rule is the same as grad school, don't do it if they don't pay you.

Michael said...

John, my father was one of those who worked 100-hour weeks: I remember very well how his shifting from being on every day AND every other night to every day AND every third night seemed like an amazing blessing.
That system was terrible on people and families, but it produced extremely committed doctors. My dad still goes into the hospital on Christmas morning, gives up vacations, etc. The young docs in his practice won't. We're going to see some major problems in the medical system when there aren't any old school doctors left.

Michael said...

John, I don't have a real defense for tenure, though I'm a beneficiary. I suppose it allows colleges to pay us a lot less, though over the life of the contract that might not be the case. Mostly it's a signaling mechanism, like a peacock's tail, showing that the college has committed very significant resources to the faculty and hence that faculty must be special. Maybe.

Michael said...

John E., I think the analogy to classical musical training is a pretty good one. Musicians know they have to have a back-up plan. Humanities people should,too. And actually I think that they do. Even back in 1991, when I started grad school, we all knew what the job market odds were. We joked that if you specialized in medieval, you had to wait for someone to die to get a job. Supposedly contemporary grad students who are brilliantly smark dodn't know what we knew in an unsophisticated M.A. program in Missouri in 1991.

John Emerson said...

I'd be terrified to be treated by a doctor that had been on duty 32 of the last 40 hours, and it can get worse than that.

there's a lot of blame the victim with disgruntled post docs and unemployed PhDs. I think that the energy should be put into warning future victims.

If people went to grad school only when it was reasonable to do so, in the end I think that a third to half of the grad schools would close down. This is probably something that could be answered precisely.

Some people will say afterward that it was worth it anyway, but I'm not sure that that isn't whistling in the dark. You can read and study on your own time, and you don't have to put up with the hazing.

JoVE said...

I think there is still a lot of room to reform the tenure process to make the requirements more transparent.

It is also possible that you can have a system that enables you not to keep people who really won't work out while assuming that your hiring process is a good one and providing a supportive environment in which new hires can meet the required standards.

BTW, a PhD was never the only qualification for a tenure-track position.

Anonymous said...

I get my depression about academia more locally than this. I think much of this is spot on, specially the necessity of hiring the unbalanced overachiever, but as Tom Elrod has said at Wordisms the mismatch of tenured jobs and applicants is not constant, but worsening because of the ending of tenure lines. So can't the causation go one step further back, to 'there isn't enough money to fund enough tenured posts for these people'? Then you have room for some change over time and that in turn helps explain the reaction that some of the people who have been trying to pass the message that John Emerson argues for here when he says, "I think that the energy should be put into warning future victims", have been getting.

(Can I just thank Prof. Drout for opening up his blog to OpenID comments, by the way? This is the first time I've been able to comment here despite often wanting to.)di