Sunday, December 30, 2012

Why I Have a Big Problem With Academic Tenure. From Business Week.

What’s wrong with guaranteed-job-for-life tenure?
James C. Wetherbe

In business, adding competitive value is key to ensuring jobs and customers. Lifetime job security is the antithesis of competition. The ultimate benefactor of competition is the customer. Without competition, organizations devolve into the equivalent of the local department of motor vehicles, where a “socialistic monopoly” on issuing licenses creates painful inefficiencies.

After nearly 40 years in and out of academia, I have discovered that tenure can have the same kind of debilitating effect on professors. I came to disdain tenure and the way it protects subpar, complacent performance by the few who make the majority look bad. It was more about job security—guaranteed-for-life unless you do something really heinous. During the 13 years I had tenure, I grew weary of the sarcasm and wisecracks about it from business people with whom I consulted.

So I resigned tenure 20 years ago from the University of Minnesota. In 2000, I returned to my alma mater, Texas Tech University, as a chaired professor who had voluntarily rejected tenure. A dozen years later, I was a finalist to become the next dean of Texas Tech’s Rawls College of Business. Simultaneously, a committee reviewed my work and proposed that my name be sent to the Board of Regents to receive a Horn professorship, the highest faculty award at the school. I was ultimately rejected for both positions, I have strong reason to believe, because of my views on tenure—decisions that led me, reluctantly, to sue the university.


  1. "Tenure is not viewed well by business leaders, taxpayers, and legislators"

    Each of whom knows so much about what we do.
    Welcome to TPU (Tea Party University)!

  2. How is a (potential) dean's position on tenure a free speech issue? Wouldn't a position on something that thoroughly connected to the nature of the jobs at the university be fair game to assess in an interview?

    And how much is free speech protected when hires are being made, even at a public university?

    Also, how much is the "laziness" that is a potential negative outcome of tenure an actual problem as opposed to a problem that is simply easy to imagine?

    And how many nearly rhetorical questions can someone ask in one comment?

  3. I hope this guy's lawsuit backfires, showing clearly what a tenuous situation over 75% of today's faculty are in, both with regard to freedom of speech and with job security, not to mention the sorely neglected fact that STUDENTS ARE NOT CUSTOMERS. I find it curious he evokes the opinion of the WSJ crowd: haven't they gorged themselves enough recently at our expense?

  4. He makes some valid points, though. I've known academics who, once they got tenure or permanent status, used their positions as training for retirement, doing as little as possible and becoming members of the "Come Late Leave Early" club.

    But, at the place I used to teach at, tenure or permanent status offered little protection against abuse or harassment from administrators, or even arbitrary dismissal, so the image of job-for-life didn't have much substance. Those who did enjoy such a benefit received it because of political connections.

    As for offering protection for holding controversial views, a job for life wouldn't do much good anyway if those views result in funding being withdrawn or manuscripts expressing them are rejected, resulting in one's research career becoming dead in the water.

    I've also been baffled how a segment of society feels that it deserves to have a job for life while most of the rest of the world has to depend upon its own resources and talents to make a living. Did I miss something somewhere?

    1. I've also been baffled how a segment of society feels that it deserves to have a job for life while most of the rest of the world has to depend upon its own resources and talents to make a living. Did I miss something somewhere?

      College profs are not the only segment of society that has this sort of security. Many, many civil servants have the equivalent of "tenure". If you work for a state or federal government in any fashion, most of the time if you've been there for a few years you're pretty hard to get rid of.

      Do you seriously think abolishing tenure would be a good thing at this point in time? Because having tenure is the only thing that allows me to do my job properly. Abolish tenure and academia tilts even more towards the business model, with professor "success" being measured in terms of popularity, and students passed and graduated, whether they deserve it or not. Why should academics have to adhere to a business model? Academia is not a business. The university system grew out of the church.

      Besides, tenured people can indeed be driven out. Forced to retire. Fired for cause. Whatever. It just takes work. What keeps those people in their seats is the same thing that keeps incompetent people in the business world in their seats. The reluctance to fire them. As if there isn't useless deadwood in every single occupation!


    2. Yeah, I certainly didn't depend on my resources or talents when I starved my way through seven years of grad school, or wrote a handful of books, or conducted and published original research, or taught as an adjunct all over the goddamned state in order to pay the bills. Yeah, my resources and talents are completely meaningless when I contribute to society through volunteer work and service, and it certainly doesn't take resources and talents to educate ungrateful, lazy, and entitled students to the point where most of them, kicking and screaming, learn to meet he course objectives.

      Golly, I wish I was a businessman, in his nifty suit and tie, so that I could have resources and talents too!

    3. Stella:

      You don't have to tell me about goldbricking government workers. Many years ago, I worked as a contractor at a federal research establishment and I saw it first hand. I remember one December during which the government employees spent most of the day partying while we contractors were rushing about to meet deadlines and get reports written in order to fulfill the requirements of our contracts. I wasn't impressed that my tax money went to paying for those civil service goof-offs.

      Unfortunately, though, I've seen many academics who were equally as shiftless and equally lacking in accountability. Why should they be productive and responsible? They had tenure, after all.

      Do I think abolishing tenure is appropriate? Absolutely, except I can't think of anything that could replace it, though the contracts suggested in the article seem to be a good idea. At the place where I used to teach, permanent status guaranteed me only one thing: I was allowed in the door after summer break was over. Soon after I started, the institution went hog-wild for CQI, TQM, team-building, customer service, and all that rubbish. A system which barely worked became totally unworkable after that, so the "business model", as it's often referred to, was a dismal failure.

      I agree that academia is not a business, but using a religious system as a template by which to operate is equally as inappropriate. The latter, too, has a well-known reputation for inefficiency, rigid bureaucracy, and closed-mindedness and, yes, I know of workers in that system who consider themselves privileged and entitled to be on the gravy train.

    4. Prof. Chiltepin:

      In my reference to people surviving using their own resources and talents, I was thinking of someone like my tradesman father. He had to pay for his own tools and, sometimes, safety equipment. As a journeyman, he had to put into practice what he learned as an apprentice to not only do his job properly, but to use that to make money for his employer. Had he failed, he would have been unemployed.

      When I was in industry, I was often given a certain amount of resources and to make effective use of them. I had to make do with what was on hand or, failing that, provide what I was missing myself or do without. When those resources were gone, that was it, and woe betide me if I didn't something to show for my time and expenditures.

      When I did my work, I risked not just my paycheque but also my professional reputation. People in my profession often do work that could affect public safety and one could easily be sued not just under contractual law but also tort law as well by unrelated third parties.

      I had no legal protection, either. I've been fired and laid off several times. During the 1980s, my work history was, for the most part, one year on, one year off, and I was lucky to qualify for dole. Many people in my profession during that decade were in similar situations.

      I don't know many academics with tenure who can make similar claims.

      I was also thinking about people like my Ph. D. supervisor. He had tenure and behaved as if he was on the gravy train. He didn't care what he investigated, so long as somebody else paid for it. For him, taxpayers were a horn of plenty. Typically, he would get a research grant, fritter away the money, have nothing to show for it except a number of publications which few people would want to read, and then grovel and plead his way to another one. He had no other stake in it and, thereby, risked nothing. As a citizen, whose taxes helped pay for his research, I was appalled at his attitude which, unfortunately, many of his colleagues seemed to share.

      I'm semi-retired now and I live off my investments, the capital for which I worked hard for and managed very carefully through most of my adult life. For my research, I take all the risks as I'm my own source of funding. I have to watch my expenditures carefully and spend my money effectively. I can't afford to buy a piece of equipment which turns out to be a door stop.

      By the way, many of my former employers were companies with less than 100 people and, no, the bosses didn't always wear a "nifty" suit and tie, and resources weren't in plentiful supply. There aren't many available when the company has to use much of its revenue to pay its bills.

    5. The problem with rolling contracts is they very easily become used for business-like reasons. One of my regents has openly stated he favors three-year contracts so the board can terminate older workers due to their "overly high" salaries. Yes, it's age discrimination and illegal, but try to prove it in an at-will state when plenty of younger people would also be getting the ax for poor student evaluations or whatever other arbitrary standard the admins can create to get rid of troublemakers.

      I think a balance has to exist. As someone with tenure, I don't want to have to work with the person who has a part-time job with a full-time salary and benefits, yet that's exactly what happens when the admins are scared to take on faculty not doing their work. My college has been sued so many times and ended up losing or settling because the admins and board in many cases have been too stupid to follow their own procedures. If they would get their own system right, people with tenure could be disciplined or dismissed and it would hold up in court.

    6. I'd be fine with rolling contracts, providing that if they oust someone from their rolling contract, they replace them with a person making exactly the same amount of money and expected to do exactly the same amount of work.

      Want to fire a full tenured prof? You must rehire a full prof with tenure at the same general rate of pay.

      Want to fire a junior faculty member? You can't exterminate the line, or replace them with adjuncts.

      If that were the case, I'd be fine with rolling contracts.

      And yes, you can get rid of tenured faculty members that don't pull their weight. You just have to be willing to do it.

  5. During the 13 years I had tenure, I grew weary of the sarcasm and wisecracks about it from business people with whom I consulted.

    So I resigned tenure 20 years ago from the University of Minnesota.

    He gave up tenure because people made fun of him for achieving something that few academics ever achieve? He gave up tenure because of SARCASM? The sarcasm and wisecracks of BUSINESS PEOPLE?

    Maybe he got rejected from these professorships because he's batshit paranoid about what people think about him--not because of the views he holds.

    1. I don't believe for a second that's why he gave up tenure. He's clearly aligned with the world of business in his thinking, and he know his audience for this piece. That's why the only data he includes are from a poll of WSJ readers.

  6. If this article intro is any indcation of the professor's skills at persuasion, I hope he lets his lawyer do the talking. What he says is actually pretty true - competition is good in business and benefits customers, a few tenured faculty make the rest look bad and I don't doubt that his friends gave him a hard time about it. The problem is,

    1. Academia is not a business, so the normal rules of business might not apply there.
    2. If a system is abused by a small minority of participants, does the system necessarily need to change? No, unless somebody can come up with a better system.
    3. Who the fuck cares what his friends think?

    1. Seriously, the article reads like that punk College Republican who won't stop interrupting class to bitch about the problem of liberal professors taking over higher education. WE WERE TALKING ABOUT FRACTALS, DICK. GET BACK ON TOPIC.

  7. Maybe it would help him if he considered tenure the equivalent of senior businessmen and politicians being awarded with multiple non-executive boardroom positions. There too, they work their ass of for many years, rise to the top of their field, then get rewarded by getting paid even if they choose to do sweet FA.

    Oh, except they get paid considerably more in aggregate.

    Oh, and I lied about working their ass off to get there too - true for the majority, but by no means all.

  8. We have no tenure in the sense of "permanent employment" -- and people routinely get demoted for lack of publication, usually as a none-too-subtle hint to get the hell out of Dodge. The line is then filled by a more productive (or more potential-ed), probably newly minted PhD. There is also no faculty governance; it's all top-down hierarchy style. Promotion/demotion is determined by people outside the department, who often have little to no clue how the field is normally structured in terms of accomplishment and assessment. (Hence why my book set to come out this year probably won't get me promoted.)

    My institution operates on the long-term-contract scheme, and it works pretty much as laid out in all the usual predictions/assessments. Which is to say it's good for "business" (if by "business" we mean the ability to slough off "underperforming" faculty with impunity), but this understandably leaves proffies of all fields in a near-permanent state of unease about their job security.

    Morale is generally low, and complaints are hushed but nearly constant, and this doesn't seem to change much from one field/department to another. We bond over our collective exploitation and utter lack of voice in how things are run. There are perks to working here, of course, but in terms of institutional structure it troubles me greatly to hear people in the homeland arguing that universities there should be run more like the place where I work.