Tenure

August 31, 2012

The notion that tenure provisions in the contracts of University Professors or school teachers means that they are uniquely protected against firing for incompetency is a scurrilous lie.

Many, many job places that do not have anything called “tenure” do in fact have procedures in place, formal or otherwise, that respect the duration of service to the place of employment.

The notion that those more senior than oneself are undeserving of the job titles, promotions, payrate and/or privileges that you do not currently enjoy is a nice comforting meme. But if you are going to advance a strong accusation against the seniority system and argue about who “deserves” to have a job and who does not, you better bring some ammunition.

Or, you know, run for office as a Republican where that kind of unverified ranting convinces someone useful.


UPDATE: Zen reminded of his post on a peer reviewed article examining career arcs. The key points:

The models indicate that as competition increases, many people can be taken out of the career pathway by… blind, stinking, clueless, doo-da luck.

Just as one can seemingly succeed through alignment of circumstances with a normal level of talent and effort, one can wash out through no fault of one’s own too.

But the competition turns out to be very important in this model; and that relates to tenure. Many people want to see tenure replaced with a series of recurring short-term contracts. The authors imply that the short-term model could be harmful for the development of science. A failure in one short-term contract could derail a productive researcher, since early career shocks can ripple throughout a scientist’s career.

And this is why we’re in the state of “Do it to Julia, not me, Julia” backstabbing panic about the NIH budget situation. The immense fear on the part of all many of us that the next grant rejection means the end of our career is palpable. Visceral. The anger of the young that they are “better than” half of the existing faculty and therefore deserve that person’s job is clear. Very clear.

but be careful about that to which you aspire. Our history of pure Darwinian tooth-and-nail employment is not a pretty one. The dawning of the industrial age showed us how that goes down.

Job protections are there because on average they make all workers’ experiences better. Not there to protect the lazy and incompetent. That effect is an unintended consequence.

So when you are ranting your rants about the deadwood tenured fucks, please, do your homework. Show us how dismantling Professorial tenure is not going to rapidly devolve us to the level of the itinerant Adjunct Professor.

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No Responses Yet to “Tenure”

  1. miko Says:

    No. It is true that contracts and faculty unions allow for firing for cause, but in reality this is so rare that every single is individually reported in the Chronicle

    Faculty unions, who handle all grievances against tenured faculty, are dominated by same and will go nuts defending any tenured member against personnel action. They are notoriously a dead-end for any junior faculty subject to misconduct by senior faculty — read the Chronicle forums on harassment and bullying by tenured faculty and union (non)responses.

    Firing someone with tenure — even for blatant misconduct — often takes years, fighting the union, fighting in court, etc. Historically, courts have been extremely deferential to tenure in public institutions, recognizing a due process property right that exceeds the tenure rights conferred by faculty contracts, and is unlike any protection in other types of public sector job. This makes any attempt to fire someone with tenure exceptionally easy to litigate. Except under extreme pressure, universities would much rather ignore the faculty/staff/student victims than go after someone with tenure.

    This bears no similarity at all to the at-will employment of almost everyone else with a job. This also has no relationship to whether senior people “deserve” their job/pay. Most of them do. It is saying that those who don’t deserve their job/pay are being arbitrarily protected by a broken system.

    To claim that tenure is not a special privilege and protection is absurd and at odds with what even the strongest tenure proponents (e.g., the AAUP) have to say about it.

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  2. miko Says:

    I should clarify: I’m not even against tenure. I just think its responsibilities and restrictions (and standards for conduct) should be as strongly enforced as its rights. When faculty unions show nothing but knee-jerk defense of anyone with tenure, there is a problem, as when courts interpret tenure as a guaranteed job for life.

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  3. becca Says:

    uhm, hello. Everyone but you IS dealing with “pure Darwinian tooth and nail employment”. Yes, it’s sick. Yes, I’d infinitely rather deal with the inequality that exists currently by getting most jobs elevated beyond “at will” employment (i.e. bring others closer to tenure), rather than remove tenure for the few. But this idea that you aren’t special is poppycock of the most pernicious kind.
    And frankly, it’s in poor taste to ask those with less power than you to protect your power. Use your tenure to fight for unionization of adjuncts, grad students and postdocs, not just to cover your own sorry bum if you fail to get grants renewed.

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  4. physioprof Says:

    KILL THE RICH *AND* THE OLDS!!!!!!!!!11!11!!11!! GUILLOTINE!!!!!!!!!!111!!11!

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  5. miko Says:

    Yes, “I just think its responsibilities and restrictions (and standards for conduct) should be as strongly enforced as its rights” = KILL.

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  6. bill Says:

    Kill AND EAT. FTFY.

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  7. argh Says:

    What other workplace in the US has anything *remotely* similar to tenure? The only thing I can think of is the “golden parachutes” that CEO’s get automatically when they’re fired- but even then, they can be fired instantly for no reason.

    I’m also pro-tenure but you need to be realistic about how special it is when you defend it.

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  8. Virgil Says:

    Tenure arose in the inter-war years, due to a shortage of good professors, as a bonus to help universities retain people and stop them jumping ship. It is an idea that has far far outlived its time, since there is now no shortage of professor wannabes.

    As a result of this change in demographics, tenure most certainly has lost much of the definition it once had. As told to me by my chair upon being awarded tenure… “congratulations, now it means if I want to fire you I have to give six months’ notice instead of two”. Bottom line, if the administrators want to get rid of you, they will find a way (usually by sequestering your lab space or piling on the teaching until your life is a misery). “Academic Freedom” hasn’t really been a reality since before the Mc Carthy years.

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  9. arrzey Says:

    A balanced age distribution is critical to the health of any department. A dept with an average (let alone median) age in the upper 60’s can’t keep the one or two young people they try to hire. And, realistically, a department with an average age in the 20’s is going to be fucked over by every other department in the school or college. One of the critical jobs of the chair is to defend the dept at the next level up. When positions are in short supply, cagey, political, and good at infighting, dept chairs can make a difference to what a dept gets, or in these days, how deep the budget cuts are going to be.

    If tenure is abolished you can bet that the more expensive people (prof greybeard et al) will have a harder time getting re-appointed. The world will quickly fill with itinerant adjuncts. How can I say that – look at the growth of TT positions vs. adjunct positions. Further, if you let adminaidiots evaluate people, all those young folks who cant’ get funded won’t likely even have 6 years to prove themselves.

    Yes, I’m an olde farte. But, I am at an institution (Big Name Medical School) that did away with tenure. So, indeed, I’m subject to periodic reviews, and it does get ugly if your chair doesn’t like you. People spend more time covering their ass some days than doing their work.

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  10. Grumble Says:

    Virgil is right: “Bottom line, if the administrators want to get rid of you, they will find a way (usually by sequestering your lab space or piling on the teaching until your life is a misery).”

    I’m at a med school that still has the quaint old tenure institution. I know more than one tenured prof who has the dean breathing down their neck about getting and keeping grants, complete with threats to take away lab space.

    So, as a younger prof, I hardly envy (or resent) the tenured at all. Their boats are only slightly less likely to sink than mine. My dean is actually the one who thinks they are “deadwood fucks.” I view them as a tremendous resource, who can help me with advice, grants, navigating the college’s bureaucracy, etc.

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  11. whimple Says:

    I know more than one tenured prof who has the dean breathing down their neck about getting and keeping grants, complete with threats to take away lab space.

    If you don’t have any money to hire any people, what are you going to do with lab space anyway?

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  12. @argh. Exactly. Tenure is pretty special, and the tenured should recognize this, even if it isn’t the all powerful job protector some people think it is. Most people, even in science don’t have any job protections (at least in the US; I know “socialized” countries make a point of protecting workers). Basically the HR manual says that you can’t be fired for your race, religion, gender (and in some some states, sexual orientation), but *everything* else is fair game.

    Boss finds your laugh annoying? Doesn’t like your taste in shirts? That’s fair game for dismissal in most jobs. Basically the other other group with any sort of protections besides tenured academics are unionized workers, but the Republicans have basically declared war on their remnants (which weren’t in great health even before that, given that industry was their stronghold).

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  13. zb Says:

    I think the case law ending mandatory retirement in the US was the death knell for tenure as we’ve known it. We’re seeing the adjunctification of the work force now, with fewer people on tenure track, and fewer people who join the tenure track being tenured (with higher and higher bars to reach). Eventually, a vanishing minority of staff will be tenured and we’ll see the end result.

    My solution is to offer people long term contracts, not 1, 5, or 10 years, but 20-30 years. Then, there can be an age-independent cycling of workers while still allowing productive 70 year olds to keep on working.

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  14. becca Says:

    Ew. You eat the *rich* not the *old*, people. C’mon. Old people aren’t juicy.

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  15. Beaker Says:

    Here is the problem. Funding is tight for everybody. When insufficient grant money flows into the department, everybody suffers. Perhaps the tenured lose lab space or have to take additional teaching responsibilities, boo hoo. But the untenured get canned, because they can be canned. Outside of academia, in the real world, the old fuckes get canned because they cost too much. So, yes–tenure has an impact.

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  16. Jim Thomerson Says:

    I retired in 1997 so I am a dinosaur. I have thought that the faculty and students are the university. The faculty is long term, the students transient. Universities are among the most long lived of human institutions. Tenure allows me to feel like part of that long existence. Tenure is why I was happy and willing to spend time designing a new science building which was not started until ten years after I retired. Why would I have a long view without tenure?

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  17. qaz Says:

    We need to remember the point of tenure, which is to ensure academic freedom – that most professors are working on things that will not come to fruition for decades. A tenured professor is supposed to have the freedom to chase the crazy things that no one else believes is worthwhile. As we’ve talked about in discussions on this blog, there is a 30 year gap between most basic science results and their societal impact. This means that a short-sighted business model (are there any long-sighted business models left?) rejects basic research. (And, yes, I know that with the current dependence on funding for success, it is getting harder and harder to actually do your science even with tenure.)

    Rather than arguing about removing tenure, shouldn’t we be figuring out how to encourage MORE stability, not less?

    (PS. The McCarthy thing was an aberration, as evidenced by how we look back on it, similar to the point made by Miko at the top of this discussion – breaking tenure is so rare that the Chronicle discusses each one specifically. I don’t know what really happened with this law professor that was described in the Chronicle article that started all this, but she had a “one-year contract”, which doesn’t sound like tenure to me.)

    This is all about balancing the improvements in efficiency one gets from having a tenure system with the inefficiency one gets from the deadwood that survives in a tenure system. In my experience, most tenured professors work their tails off, and real deadwood is pretty rare. (We have one person in our department of >30. And, I know for a fact that several faculty (including me!) work harder and are doing better work because we have tenure. The amount of money I bring into my department now because I was able to make a transition to a different field more than covers that deadwood person. If you add up all the successes, it outweighs the failures tremendously. At least in my department.) More importantly, what’s the inefficiency of the alternate system? We already complain about having to write so many grants all the time, imagine if we had to defend our research program to our universities and to evaluate all those research programs internally every year?

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  18. Jeremy Berg Says:

    Tenure does provide some stability, but not necessary financial support (at least at medical schools-see http://www.aafp.org/online/en/home/publications/news/news-now/professional-issues/20100524tenure.html ).

    The results from the 111 medical schools that offered tenure for their clinical faculty were:
    46 schools, or 41 percent, had no financial guarantee associated with tenure.
    Of the 49 schools, or 44 percent, that did offer some type of guarantee, only three schools, or 6 percent, offered total institutional salary. Most often, the schools offered a base salary.

    The results from the 119 schools that offered tenure for their basic science faculty were:
    45 schools, or 38 percent, had no specific financial guarantee associated with tenure.
    Of the 59 schools, or 50 percent, that did offer a specific financial guarantee, only seven, or 12 percent, offered total institutional salary. Like the clinical faculty, basic science faculty members were offered some type of base salary.

    According to the report, “more schools have redefined and limited the financial guarantee associated with tenure for their faculty. Now 4 in 10 medical schools offer no financial guarantee.”

    At institutions where I have served, tenure did prevent a faculty member from being terminated on short notice, but did not prevent their salary from being reduced to 0 over a period of years.

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  19. I understand qaz’s argument that the security of tenure helps long/risky research projects (it’s the standard argument in favor of the system), but I don’t get Jim’s argument that he wouldn’t have bothered to provide service like helping design a new science building without it. Non-tenured (and non-tenure track) people like me provide service all the time; I’m not sure being an PLOS ONE AE or reviewing papers for other journals are really objectively valuable for my career; I just do them because they seem to be the right thing to do if you care about science.

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  20. miko Says:

    The original/stated purpose of tenure is to protect academic freedom, not job security. However, tenure status is uncorrelated with willingness to teach or research controversial topics.

    http://chronicle.com/article/Does-Tenure-Really-Work-/25565/

    And Dr. Zen has noted that he has rarely seen anyone “use” tenure as a position of strength/advocacy.

    http://neurodojo.blogspot.com/2011/03/what-have-you-done-lately-that-needed.html

    And yes, for most scientists, secure funding –> secure job, not the other way around. So not sure how tenure helps.

    Many institutions have no tenure. I tried to find horror stories about them, but could not.

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  21. Grumble Says:

    “If you don’t have any money to hire any people, what are you going to do with lab space anyway?”

    This is part of the whole idea behind tenure: allowing very smart people with what seem like crazy ideas and risky projects to have some stability to pursue their interests. The payoff (to society, and even to the college, in the form of patent royalties, etc) can be huge. If colleges want to invest in their faculty with the expectation of those payoffs, then they should provide some stability to the tenured. I’m not saying their labs should be fully funded for years and years – but to hound tenured faculty constantly about a lapse in funding runs counter to the whole idea behind awarding tenure to begin with.

    If college deans want to play the game this way, then they should just abolish tenure to begin with, and state upfront that they no longer want or expect the long-term payoffs from investing in faculty.

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  22. MediumPriority4Life Says:

    I’m in my fourth year and can not wait to get to the tenure phase. The department if full of old faculty that preserve the status quo and do not want to hear pretenure faculty ideas. I’m raising a ruckus when (I think ill get there) I’m tenured.

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  23. Jeremy Berg Says:

    In my experience, tenure does protect faculty members from being terminated for relatively minor issues such as personality conflicts with the chair or others. This allows tenured faculty members to question authority, policies, etc. without fear of retribution (at least to a large extent). In this sense, I think tenure adds substantially to the stability and vitality of an academic environment. At the same time, the fact that tenure does not fully guarantee salary and other resources for an indefinite period at many institutions provides ongoing incentives for productivity for tenured faculty and fairness and flexibility to the institution.

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  24. Dave Says:

    Tenure is for pussies.

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  25. Jim Thomerson Says:

    Thinking about it, tenure is probably rooted in a concept that disappeared before your times. Institutional commitment, where the institution is committed to the welfare of those employed, and the employees are committed to the welfare of the institution. It used to be that people would spend their whole working life at one institution, as I did, and feel, and be appreciated as, an integral part of the institution.

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  26. anon Says:

    assholes don’t deserve tenure

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  27. miko Says:

    Jim, LMGTFY. We don’ t have to wonder about the probably origins of tenure. There are many online resources that tell us the actual origins. Faculty composition was often controlled by donors. The AAUP invented or at least codified our modern concept tenure to protect academic freedom against the influence of donors and other public or private interests of the university. Academic institutions have never had any more “commitment” to their employees than any industrial or commercial entity. Any appearance of such came about from the work of organized labor.

    In our next episode: organized labor descends into any empty shell of self-interest.

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  28. Jim Thomerson Says:

    I have never been a union member. Our sister campus faculty unionized, and I suppose some benefits accrued. However, I mentioned my retirement agreement to colleagues there. They had no idea what I was talking about, so I quickly changed the subject. My university no longer does retirement agreements because of state financial difficulties. You notice my use of “my university”. Do you think of your institution that way?

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  29. miko Says:

    Whether you’ve been a member or not, modern tenure exists because of unions. We also have unions to thank for most of the abuses of tenure, e.g. enforcing only the rights and pursuing only the interests of the tenured at the expense of non-tenured and non-TT track faculty.

    I’m a postdoc, so when I think of my place of work as an institution at all rather, than as the dark room I sit in all day, it is in the context of how I’m going to leave it.

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  30. qaz Says:

    Miko writes: “Faculty composition was often controlled by donors. The AAUP invented or at least codified our modern concept tenure to protect academic freedom against the influence of donors and other public or private interests of the university.”

    And this is no longer a problem… why?

    If anything, the donor situation is getting worse because donors have started demanding control over who is hired, what they can do, what they can study, and what they can say and publish. If tenure is one small step towards controlling this, then hallelujah for it! We should be defending it, not trashing it.

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  31. toto@club-med.so Says:

    “and fewer people who join the tenure track being tenured (with higher and higher bars to reach).”

    Actually that’s one thing I’d like some solid stats on, preferably broken down by sector. We’ve all heard of the adjunctification, but is it true that “tenure-track” positions are turning into glorified post-docs?

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  32. miko Says:

    Tenure only controls this for the tenured, a rapidly diminishing percentage of faculty. This trend will continue, as universities have changed their personnel practices as an end run around the protections of tenure. Faculty unions, who perceive the privileges of tenure to be a zero sum game with respect to the untenured or non-tt track, only defend these rights with respect to the oldest (and wealthiest) academics.

    Everyone’s academic freedom should be protected equally regardless of rank, and no one should have a guaranteed job for life.

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  33. rs Says:

    “We’ve all heard of the adjunctification, but is it true that “tenure-track” positions are turning into glorified post-docs?”

    We recently have a hire of new department chair’s post-doc in TT position and everyone in department assumes that he is a puppet TT to hold the flag of the lab until chair returns back after his 5 year term. Don’t know if this is a trend or an individual case.

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  34. miko Says:

    “We recently have a hire of new department chair’s post-doc in TT position ”

    Holy shit. Do you work in the Stanford Prison Experiment?

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  35. rs Says:

    I work at PRU (a public research university) in midwest.

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  36. Faculty unions, who perceive the privileges of tenure to be a zero sum game with respect to the untenured or non-tt track, only defend these rights with respect to the oldest (and wealthiest) academics.

    I don’t know if this is generally the case, but my own faculty union works very hard to protect the rights of lecturers (sometimes to the extent that some of the senior tenured professors complain about it — in other departments, thankfully, not my own).

    Also worth noting: a good bit of the challenge of removing incompetent academics is *not* union rules so much as the unwillingness of the folks who are supposed to be doing performance reviews of various sorts to note the incompetence when they see it. Which is to say, the processes to ensure quality work better if people actually use them.

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  37. Alex Says:

    Noting anything negative in a performance review is “uncollegial.”

    Hence our retired cold fusion guy still has his own lab space while productive TT people are sharing.

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  38. AcademicLurker Says:

    Everyone’s academic freedom should be protected equally regardless of rank, and no one should have a guaranteed job for life.

    Tenure /= guaranteed job for life.

    Pass it on.

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  39. miko Says:

    @Dr. FR… there are, of course, good unions. However, the experience of people I know is more consistent with what you find in the Chronicle forums re: jr faculty and unions. The faculty union at at the large, well-regarded state university where my spouse works has never appealed (that is 0 times) a grievance from a junior faculty member to arbitration. Ever. They go to the wall every time if it’s someone with tenure. One reason is that a significant proportion of the jr faculty grievances involve tenured faculty. Hmmm.

    Lurker, yes. All CBAs have provisions for firing for cause. As discussed, this is so rare that every single time it happens, there is a sky-is-falling article in the Chronicle. And usually a lawsuit.

    I think faculty of all ranks should be on 7-8 year contracts, should have identical academic freedom protections and rights with respect to review and reappointment, and renewal based on faculty P&T and external peer review.

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  40. Dave Says:

    Don’t forget also that most university contracts state that tenured faculty can be fired in times of “financial exigency”. Since the recession hit, universities have been defining this phrase rather loosely.

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