Reverse Age Discrimination?

While I’m ranting about Inside Higher Ed articles that pissed me off, here’s another. Rob Weir walked uphill through the snow to his first academic job, and thinks the academy shouldn’t be hiring the spoiled kids we have these days:

[J]ust about one year ago the popular media sounded alarmist notes about how “gray” the academy had become, especially at top research institutions and elite colleges. Predictable anecdotes were bandied about, sprinkled with a few carefully culled statistics — apparently we should be alarmed that 2.1 percent of tenured profs are over 70 — and the call for mandatory retirement policies was righteously asserted. (Odd how the phrase “age discrimination” was so astutely ignored.) Let me play Grinch and put forth a radically different idea: Research universities and elite colleges ought to get grayer, not younger, and for two compelling reasons: quality and cost.

Honestly, I like Inside Higher Ed, and I think they do a much better job of presenting life in academia than the Chronicle of Higher Education (it doesn’t hurt that they make their content freely available on the web, unlike the CHE, which sticks everything behind a paywall). But some days…. The stupid, it burns.

Where to start with this? The “quality” argument is as good a place as any, and at first glance, it might seem reasonable:

Let’s start with what should be (but seldom is) obvious: Over time academics worth their salt accumulate knowledge, have become experts in their fields — and have the vitae to prove it — and know how to teach.

Pretty simple, right? Older faculty are more experienced, and thus better to have around, therefore colleges and universities should want to hire them.

There’s just one problem: If colleges and universities are hiring oldsters, where are we going to get the next generation of experienced faculty from, once the Baby Boomers ground their mortal coils?

Weir has a plan for that, too. Problem is, it’s batshit insane:

Like too many things in higher education, we’ve structured things backwards. Young folks can sharpen their attack knives for the next remark, but if the academy ran according to logic, nearly all new hires would begin their careers at colleges that place more emphasis on teaching than research. Freed from publish-or-perish pressures, they’d be able to craft their teaching skills more quickly and in the company of seasoned mentors. They’d also produce the research necessary to go to the next level in a less-pressured environment.


Taking these in reverse order, how, exactly, does a school with more emphasis on teaching provide a “less-pressured environment” for doing “the research necessary to go to the next level?” If the young faculty are spending all this time honing their teaching skills, then when, exactly, are they going to be doing all this research?

He does graciously allow how “In certain fields — math and physics, for example — one could make the case for letting young scholars work in the private sector before we even expect them to begin teaching,” But this doesn’t make any sense, either– new Ph.D.’s are supposed to spend several years working in the private sector, presumably to do research, and then spend another 5-10 years at a teaching-oriented place, where they won’t be able to do much research, and only then do they move on to MIT, where they’re expected to be research stars?

This is a great example of projection. Weir gives a short bio of himself, where he says that he “chucked a tenured post and took a leap-by-choice back to adjunct work that was more challenging and interesting than what I had been doing. I hold titles such as lecturer and visiting assistant professor by an act of will, so don’t cry for me Argentina.” He seems to be assuming that everyone in academia will be willing to accept a similar level of career instability, presumably for the interest and challenge. At least, that’s the only reason I can see for not thinking that this plan is insane.

Look, I had a relatively quick path through the academic wilderness, and it still took a long time to get where I am. I graduated college in 1993, spent six years in graduate school, then two years as a post-doc before landing a tenure-track job in 2001. That’s eight years post-graduation before having anything approximating a permanent job with a stable income, and I’m one of the lucky ones. My grad school career was on the short side of average for physics, and I only did one post-doc, where lots of people end up doing two or more. I also got hired into a tenure-track job immediately, where lots of people wind up taking a visiting position first. I spent eight years between college and getting a permanent job, but that could easily be ten, twelve, or fifteen years for a candidate who didn’t get the breaks that I did.

But you know what? Eight years was plenty. By the time I got here, I was more than ready to settle down to a permanent job. And “permanent” should probably have scare quotes, because I spent another six years working towards tenure– but at least I knew I wasn’t going to need to relocate completely in two years. I am really not interested in moving again any time soon.

Weir’s system would add at least one more required move to the academic life, even assuming the rest of the pipe dream worked out as he planned. So in a lucky field like physics or math, you’d be looking at 6-8 years of graduate school, followed by something like 5 years in “the private sector” doing research, followed by 5-6 years at a teaching institution, before you could move up to a really permanent job. Assuming everything goes well.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but: Fuck. That.

And then there’s the question of who, exactly, is doing all the teaching at the colleges and universities who are hiring all these distinguished older faculty from the teaching mills? Does he expect that the older hires are going to be willing to continue with a heavy teaching load, even though they’re finally been called up to the big leagues of research-oriented institutions? That’s every bit as fantastic as the idea that working at a teaching-oriented insitution will provide a “low pressure” research environment– people doing research are going to want lower teaching loads to allow time for research, just as they do now. That means all that time spent training research stars to teach goes to waste, and you’ll either end up with a truly ridiculous number of faculty, each teaching only a fw courses, or you’ll have to hire younger people to pick up the slack.

That would be exactly the same as the system we have now, only worse, because the people doing the educational drudge work wouldn’t even have the carrot of tenure at their current institution held out in front of them (however unrealistic that may be at the Ivies). You’ll have a permanent adjunct underclass on the faculty of your top institutions, and presumably some of those people will be new-ish Ph.D.’s, who will be delaying the start of their real careers even more…

This is a steaming pile of horseshit.

This is getting long, but I should spend at least a moment on the “cost” argument. Weir argues that not only does hiring older faculty make educational sense, but it makes financial sense, as well– “an institution could hire two experienced associate profs sequentially, plus have money left over for several adjuncts.”

Of course, like any specious claim, this requires both some terrible modelling assumptions and some rhetorical sleight-of-hand. The terrible assumption is that you can “hire a 55-year-old with tons of experience and publications, and that person agrees to come in at an associate professor’s salary.” An associate professor’s salary, on average, is something like $58,000 in his estimation. This whole scheme depends on somebody who is thirty years past college graduation happily accepting the same salary as a current academic in their 30’s. The mind boggles.

And then, to top it off, he provides a detailed sketch of a calculation to show that this 55-year-old ascetic will cost $800,000 before reaching retirement age (whatever that is). This is compared to a 30-year-old who will take 13 years to reach the same level of investment, under whatever assumptions he’s using. Of course, I’m not sure quite what he’s calling “retirement age,” here, because if his hypothetical 55-year-old idealist worked for those same 13 years without a pay raise, he or she would cost $754,000, and only be 68. If you recall the opening of the piece, we’re not supposed to be alarmed by the idea of 70-year-old faculty, so you could be looking at even longer. He’s either low-balling the cost of the older faculty, or having them retire unrealisitcally early, especially given that they haven’t really started their careers until 55.

Of course, you can’t tell which, as he doesn’t give the numbers he uses to make his comparison.

Feh. As I said, I like Inside Higher Ed. But this article is just stupid beyond belief.


  1. #1 Drugmonkey
    December 4, 2007

    This guy is mind bogglingly off mark. Nice analysis Chad.

  2. #2 Uncle Al
    December 4, 2007

    batshit insane steaming pile of horseshit In the future everybody will agree with Uncle Al.

    The only metric of competence is objective empirical competence. Social advocacy is a confluence of overwhelming ignorance with overweening arrogance. Rather than foster brilliance we allocate for its suppression. This is suicide, now increasingly apparent.

    Diversity has transformed higher education into, as so delicately put in Scottish Gaelic, uachdar muc garadh. One need only reinstate elitist standards to stop it. Let’s get some studies funded!

  3. #3 a cornellian
    December 4, 2007

    And what private industry is funding pure research? IBM isn’t any more, Bell Labs is dead….

    As a young graduate student I would be interested about these private sector research jobs given the odds for staying in academia…

  4. #4 Jonathan Vos Post
    December 4, 2007

    “And what private industry is funding pure research? IBM isn’t any more, Bell Labs is dead….”

    Google, Microsoft, …

  5. #5 Eric
    December 4, 2007

    He finished things off with:

    “Rob Weir is a reasonably well-adjusted freelance educator and writer living in western Massachusetts and making the rounds of local colleges. He plays hard to get, but would probably say “yes” to the right suitor.”

    Also, I’m not one to judge a book by its cover, but is this our guy?

  6. #6 Johan Larson
    December 4, 2007

    If I may ask a bit of a pointed question, Chad, how long were you willing to keep working toward the prize of a tenured professorship? Did you set a deadline for yourself and swear that if you didn’t have it 15 (20?) years after undergrad you’d pack it in?

  7. #7 Chad Orzel
    December 4, 2007

    If I may ask a bit of a pointed question, Chad, how long were you willing to keep working toward the prize of a tenured professorship? Did you set a deadline for yourself and swear that if you didn’t have it 15 (20?) years after undergrad you’d pack it in?

    That’s a good question.

    I never set a personal deadline, or anything like that, but by my last year in grad school, I was definitely ready to stop being poor. I probably would’ve been willing to do a second post-doc had I not gotten an offer when I was on the job market– I was definitely considering trying to extend the post-doc I had by another year before I got this job. I would’ve gone a few more years without a tenure-track offer, but not more than two or three.

    Had I not gotten tenure last year, I probably would’ve looked into getting out of academia. Not just because the process of getting to tenure was so draining, but because I’d already been keeping a lot of personal and family things on hold for several years, and I wasn’t willing to keep doing that. Also, I wouldn’t want to move again.

  8. #8 agnostic
    December 4, 2007

    What he’s proposing makes some sense for fields that have no “hard” basis at all, where everything depends on accumulating a vast store of stuff that requires decades to do. History, for example.

    But for almost all other kinds of research, it’s the young ‘uns who do trailblazing work in their 20s, expand on it in their 30s, and have a swan song in their 40s or 50s. Dean Simonton’s books / articles on creativity show this very well.

    Rob Weir is a perfect example of an emotionally retarded Baby Boomer who would rather flush the world down the toilet rather than grow up and accept what growing up requires — for one thing, recognizing that younger more than older researchers tend to produce more and higher quality work.

    In the sciences, it will be sad to lose the Boomers, but in the arts and humanities, their passing will hopefully signal the extinction of all the bullshit they bought into.

  9. #9 a cornellian
    December 4, 2007

    “”And what private industry is funding pure research? IBM isn’t any more, Bell Labs is dead….”

    Google, Microsoft, …”

    Google and Microsoft are funding experimental physics of any sort?

    I guess I should have been more specific: what private industry is funding experimental work?

  10. #10 clew
    December 5, 2007

    Microsoft has at least one Research employee working on quantum computing; and I think Google has some physics research in materials-aimed-at-solar, but I am too lazy to figure out how to Google for ‘Google’.

  11. #11 Thomas Larsson
    December 5, 2007

    Microsoft employs at least one decent mathematician.

  12. #12 Drugmonkey
    December 6, 2007

    agnostic, why so sad to lose the Boomers from “science”? What’s the difference between this and anything else?

  13. #13 thanks!
    December 7, 2007

    Thank you for taking this “steaming pile of horseshit” on. Best comment in the thread:

    “Am I the only one amused by the never-ending ability of the Baby Boomers to protect their turf? In the ’60s, they said, “Don’t trust anyone over 30,” now they are extolling the wisdom of old age.”

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