Wednesday, November 13, 2013

An Update on Jim Wetherbe. (Now With Crampicle Text, Thanks to Several Readers.)

Late in 2012 we linked to an IHE piece on the curious case of Jim Wetherbe who suspected he was being punished by his institution because of his anti-tenure stand.

Since that time Wetherbe has continued to press his case.

The story continued Tuesday in the Crampicle, and we will provide the text for the next couple of days only here.

Some other links:


  1. He raises some legitimate points about universities being less flexible, though schools can still close a department entirely in order to get rid of faculty, then move the most productive faculty in the closed department to another existing department.

    Jim doesn't address the effect of a lack of tenure on the faculty's ability to participate in university governance. Are you willing to vote against the provost's latest dumb idea when your contract is up for renewal?

    Other evidence he cites isn't very persuasive. Is anybody really surprised that provosts want more control over faculty, especially control that limits their ability (or perceived ability) to oppose the administration's initiatives? I was surprised to learn that 77% of UT Austin faculty don't have any external funding. That number needs some context - is that different from other research schools and does it include adjunct faculty? The recommendation that a school could save money by getting more faculty to work harder and firing the rest is sort of obvious but could be applied to all other areas of the school. Get rid of half the administration VPs and make the rest do their work. See, that was easy. The trick is, how do you get the faculty to be more productive?

    Overall, I'm not enamored by tenure - I see its value but I understand the drawbacks and disincentives it creates. I'm open to arguments against it. This article didn't really persuade me.

    1. I meant to include the problem with getting more faculty to find outside funding. Grant money is a limited resource. More faculty writing proposals won't bring in more money, overall (nationwide). It just increases the competition for funding. The government might respond by providing NSF, NIH, etc with more funding but that's a separate fight that is difficult to win, especially if the rational is that the feds should send faculty money so that state and private schools can pay faculty less.

    2. "More faculty writing proposals won't bring in more money, overall (nationwide). It just increases the competition for funding. " Bingo. That's something that our administration just doesn't get.

    3. And there's even plenty of evidence to prove that from the UK experience, where the REF means we are all REQUIRED in my department to write a certain number of grant applications per year. Meanwhile the research councils etc. have less money to share around and are giving it to fewer places (fewer, larger grants), or have developed new ways to make their selection process easier (e.g. instead of awarding PhD scholarships to academics through open competition, they have now defined something like 38 topics/groups of universities and only those people are allowed to reply)...

    4. Please note the significant difference between a renewable (expiring) contract and a ROLLING contract which provides much better safeguards. In a renewable contract one is at risk each time contract renewal approaches (e.g., every five years). In a rolling contract the length of the contract rolls forward each year. So a five year rolling contract requires a minimum of five years notice prior to contract termination or as an alternative a negotiated buyout.

      In 1989, professor and management guru Peter Drucker pined: “Can tenure even be morally justified? We do need a safeguard against political and administrative tyranny over faculties. … Could we not design a way to protect the individual against these pressures and yet protect the community, the school, the student against sloth and incompetence?”

      Proposed as an alternative to tenure are three year rolling contract for associate professors and five year rolling contracts for full professors.

      If challenging political/governance situations or unfair dismissals are brought on by tyrannical administrators, rolling contracts provide the faculty time to organize and respond—in my experience most administrators last less than five years. Please note with only the protection of a one year rolling contract I accused the provost of violating my first amendment rights by retaliating due to my views on tenure. He was gone within seven months announcing his resignation on a Friday effective the following Monday.

      In the case of a subpar professor that should be dismissed, the worst case scenario is a negotiated multi-year contract buy-out. Is this not a better exit strategy for both sides rather than tormenting a tenured professor into leaving (e.g., terrible teaching schedule, office accommodations, or no pay increases)?

      Rolling contracts as an alternative to tenure is well debated in the comments responding to a recent online Harvard Business Review article entitled: It’s Time for Tenure to Lose Tenure. As the author of that piece, I will candidly concede the debate among over 100 comments is more interesting than the article.

      An ongoing Wall Street Journal Poll documents that three out of four responses indicate a preference for abolishing tenure. Much of that has to do with increasing cost of education. The percent of median family income to cover the cost of college tuition at public universities has increased from 4% to 11% between 1970 and 2012, far exceeding the rate of inflation. Tenure is NOT the only problem but it is part of it. Only 50 to 75 out of 280,000 professors in the U.S. lose tenure annually—or .02%. Can we honestly argue that the other 99.98% are sufficiently productive in teaching and/or research?

      Would it not help our credibility and improve our negotiation to initiate tenure reform rather than waiting until public pressure forces more drastic measures as happened in the United Kingdom where tenure was abolished with the Education Reform Act of 1988?

    5. Hi Jim,

      Thanks for responding with the clarification between rolling and renewable contracts. That's an important distinction that I missed. It would make some difference in the faculty's ability to express concerns about school policies and get rid of dead wood.

      Again, you make a good point about us finding a fix before one is imposed on us. However, many of us feel that we are not working hand in hand with administrators who share the same goals as faculty. They want the power to run the university like a business. Ceding them any power runs the risk of giving up too much, too soon.

    6. Ben,

      Thank you for your thoughtful response.

      A recent Gallup Poll revealed that two thirds of university provosts preferred long term contracts to tenure suggesting there is space for a mutually acceptable solution. The key is to have rolling contracts rather than renewable.

      By the way, an argument made by faculty is that they would be willing to give up tenure when executives quit getting golden parachutes. Another advantage of a rolling contract is that it provides a golden parachute. For example, an immediate termination of a professor with a five year rolling contract would require a five year buyout of a full professor's salary. Wouldn't that be better than harassing someone into leaving if motivations are political or make it less painful to terminate a professor that is no longer performing?

      We all like the advantage of the job security tenure affords. But is it worth the cost of protecting the small minority that make the majority look bad? When the public complains about tenure have you noticed how often it is about a few terrible teachers who can't be fired because of tenure? Matters become worse when tenure protects non-performing professors, which are a contributor to the rising cost of education. When only 50 to 75 of 280,000 tenured professors in the U.S. are losing tenure annually can we argue we are exercising due diligence in keeping our house in order?

      A study of one premier U.S. university found that if it could fire unproductive teaching faculty and motivate half its professors to be as productive as the top 20 percent, it could save nearly $300 million a year.

      And then there is the need to explore cost-effective innovation and change in higher education (e.g., flipped classrooms, MOOCS). Former U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, who before that was President of Princeton pined, "It is easier to move a cemetery than to affect a change in curriculum." If faculty shielded by tenure refuse to participate in innovation, meaningful change is critically impeded.

      When the pendulum swings the other direction it can go far as it did in the U.K. with the abolition of tenure. Is public opinion not going to eventually demand an end to tenure as it exists in the U.S. today?

  2. From near the end of the Chronic article:

    "And last year, Bobby G. Stevenson, co-founder of Ciber Inc., an information-technology company that has had Mr. Wetherbe on its board, rescinded at least $9-million in gifts to Texas Tech to protest how the dean search was conducted."

    Hoookay.... No, I guess you really don't need tenure when you sit on a board that funnels big bucks to the University.

    1. For the record, I resigned tenure at the University of Minnesota over a decade before serving on Ciber's board and was no longer on it at the time of the first amendment incident and subsequent lawsuit. Further, Bobby Stevenson did cancel his gift but it was after the provost blocked the Horn Professor appointment recommended by the Horn Committee and subsequently the Faculty Grievance Committee. It was also after the provost rejected the dean finalist interview as recommended by the search committee. He testified under oath I was unfit to hold either position because of my views on tenure.

      The rescinding of the gift was not used as leverage and had no impact.

  3. Would profs give up tenure if the salary was comparable to industry and there was merit pay? Where I work I kind of see tenure as the trade off for lower salary and a higher teaching load. We used to do a lot of shared governance, now we just call it shared governance but it is top down.

    1. Perhaps I'm being pessimistic but I don't think the administrations want to discuss trade offs. They just want to get rid of tenure. Sure, they could give a bit higher raises to people as an act of good will but the goal is to spend less money on faculty.