Monday, September 10, 2007

On tenure again...

Dean Dad talks about junking tenure maybe replaced by a series of long-term contracts. His perspective is from being an administrator at a community college. It might make sense there, I don't know enough to comment. With regards to research universities though for those in the natural sciences it is absurd.

Why? Science faculty already have to stay competitive in order to keep getting grants. The grants pay for the research, internet access, going to conferences, having students and oh yes part of their salaries. In other words they are already competing and staying productive. Of course in exchange for giving up tenure, universities would have to give up something-money. After 5-7 years of being a grad student and then spending another 3-4 years as a post-doc and then 7 years at an institution as a junior faculty member, scientists want a little security. Lowering the security means universities would have to pay significantly higher salaries. Given the nature of contracts and the competition involved there would be bound to be more movement than there is now leading to more expenses. Would the university really gain that much more? Science faculty already have to stay productive. The difference in overhead dollars brought in would be minimal and that is what the university wants hence that is the primary determinant in getting tenure. Most likely universities would be unwilling to pay for giving up tenure. Without the increase in pay, it would be silly for faculty to give up on tenure. It is a no go. It would get faculty to be better teachers. Under certain scenarios it would actually favor faculty focussing more on research than being good teachers/mentors.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I agree.
After 7+3+6 years of jumping though hoops (PhD+postdoc+pre-tenure) - for some even longer than that, it is unreasonable to expect people to keep living with a sword hanging over their heads. For a lot of people post-tenure time is perfect to invest their energy into projects they always wanted to do but never quite could because they were too risky or long-term to pull off. Funding woes already discourage anything that won't produce stellar results in a year or two or three. But losing grant is not the end of the world - losing your career is.

Maybe community college and other teaching-only professions (high school teachers) should be evaluated periodically. But top research schools should keep tenure system as is. Unlike in Europe, "dead wood" is not much of a problem in US. The vicious circle of "no funding - can't get students/postdocs - can't publish - can't get funding" keeps even famous people always on their toes. Unlike in Europe, senior people don't get automatic grants just for being famous - the system is a little more democratic than that. Making people worry about constant reviews will lead to situations where PIs spend even less time doing research or advising students, and a lot more time writing reports, grants and being involved in career reviews - of themselves and others.

I like a setup where if you don't have any grants, or have very few grants compared to others in your department - and therefore cannot afford to have students - the department compensates by making you pick up some teaching load or more actively involved in committees. This is done at the expense of most successful fund-raisers who can in exchange teach less and contribute more to research. Even though this strategy can be viewed unfavorably due to teinforcement of "teaching is punishment" and "those who can't do (research) teach" sentiments, I think it's a fair distribution of teaching/research loads.

A lot of backlash against tenure comes from people who never did research or pursued advanced degrees. They think that faculty are only teach, and therefore tenured faculty have a nice life of taking summers off and teaching maybe 2 days a week for a few hours, and spend the rest of their time drinking wine and traveling as they wish. If these people realized that most research-university faculty work 60-80 hour weeks for a small fraction of what they could easily make in industry or finance jobs, I am sure they would quickly change their opinion on tenure.