There’s a question-and-answer in The Scientist online [free registration required] entitled “Is Tenure Worth Saving?” The interviewee, Dan Clawson (a tenured sociologist at the University of Massachusetts) goes through some of the history that’s all-too-familiar to people who want jobs in academia: to cut money*, universities have been quietly shifting their work, more and more, to non-tenure-track positions.
But what about reasons besides money? Does the institution of tenure lead to the accumulation of deadwood**?
TS [The Scientist]: Other than the monetary benefits to the university, what are the arguments for decreasing the number of tenure-track positions?
DC [Dan Clawson]: The other arguments are a whole set of things about providing management with greater flexibility. If you hire somebody with tenure to teach Russian at a time when Russian seems to be the most important language for people to learn, and then Russia is no longer a world power, you still have somebody with tenure in the Russian department. If you have that person instead as an adjunct or part-time instructor or a full-time non-tenure-track instructor on a two-year contract, when Russian becomes a less important language, you can replace them with somebody who teaches Arabic or Chinese. Tenure inhibits the strategic reallocation of resources from the point of view of an administrator, and it creates inflexibilities in the university.***
Well, maybe. Tenure makes change difficult, in many ways. But I’m not sure that the courses taught would change all that quickly, even if it were possible to fire all those professors who teach Russian. There’s a piece missing – it takes time to develop the expertise needed to teach and do research in a subject, expertise that grows through four years of college and four to eight years (or more) of grad school. And that doesn’t include the time necessary to build a program that can supply the undergrads to the graduate programs, or the time necessary to build a graduate program to train the professors who can build new undergraduate and graduate programs.
And what happens if demand for skills changes on time scales shorter than a decade? During the past couple of years, the demand for geologists in the mining industry exploded, to the point that my students were working part-time as consulting geologists looking for gold or uranium, even without their bachelors degrees.**** Even if every department could have, say, fired their hydrologist***** and hired an expert in ore deposits, would they have been able to find someone with the necessary expertise combined with teaching skills? (Especially when such people were also finally in demand in industry?) There aren’t many undergrads trained in mining-related geology any more******, because departments replaced their experts in ore deposits with other specialists while the mining industry was in a downturn.
So would it be useful to get rid of tenured professors?
There are a lot of problems with the tenure system. And all those under-employed post-docs would probably be better off if academia had faster turnover. But I’m not sure that the underemployed PhDs would have exactly the expertise necessary for the new positions. (New PhDs are always being trained for the Last Big Thing, aren’t they?)
* The example in the article involves a professor making $100,000 per year to teach a maximum of four classes. I don’t know whether those are reasonable numbers for all of academia or not, but they’re not reasonable for my corner of it. I can’t find the source of my info, but I’ve heard around $60,000 as an average for tenured geoscience faculty. (I’m not sure if that number included both public and private schools, or both research universities and primarily undergrad institutions. It could be only public undergrad institutions.) Also, the maximum number of classes per year is higher than four. Try eight if the classes don’t have labs, and six if they do. So costs of less than $10,000 per class are more typical in my world, rather than $25,000 per class.
** The term “deadwood” brings to mind images of forest fires, which leads to disturbing images of burning faculty at the stake, which leads to images of Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
*** Clauson doesn’t seem to be really arguing for the elimination of tenure. But read his piece for yourself – it requires free registration to access – and see what you think.
**** And then the prices fell, and the demand for geologists fell with it.
***** “Hydrologist” might be a bad example – the job market in hydrology is much steadier than in other areas that hire geoscientists. (Also, I like hydrologists and want them to have good jobs.) But in the 80’s and 90’s, a lot of departments replaced their expert in ore deposits with someone who studied water, or environmental geochemistry, or climate.
****** My department is an exception. We train students who can work in both mining and environmental industries.