11 December 2015

A strange attack on tenure from Science

Science’s latest editorial is a strange attack on tenure that seems to have originated from some non-academic think-tank rather than anyone associated with academia. But it’s penned by editor Marcia McNutt.

McNutt opens with a strange argument that tenure is preventing women from succeeding in academia.

(Women) are still underrepresented among tenured faculty as compared to, for example, the number of women in similar positions that do not require tenure... A major reason is that young academics must concentrate on their careers to earn tenure at the same time as they would be starting their families, and this issue affects women disproportionately more. ... Whether women see the tenure hurdle and opt out for family instead, or just never opted in to begin with, the result is that there are too few women for a diverse academic enterprise, and if this process does not evolve, how can the highest institutes of learning promote academic freedom and progress?

So let me get this straight. The institution of tenure is the problem for women, and not, say, unrealistic expectations of tenure decision makers, who, by pretty much every set of summary statistics out there, are over-represented by men?

I am willing to bet not one woman working in academic who would feel that their prospects of continued employment would be enhanced by the removal of tenure.

McNutt then argues that, darn it, professors are just old dogs who can’t learn new tricks.

(N)ot all tenured faculty are motivated to stay abreast of new developments. What might have been a booming job market 20 years ago when a faculty member earned tenure may be entirely moribund now. ... Today, tenured professors can continue to hold their positions 40 to 50 years past the date when they received tenure.

Fortunately, I only had to wait a day before this profile of active, engaged researchers who are past traditional retirement age but still doing good science. McNutt’s argument is discriminatory and ageist.

Revising the tenure system to a more flexible form of employment is not going to be easy. ... Those hurt by the system are powerless.

It’s not clear to me who is hurt by the tenure system. I think McNutt is trying to argue that young academics, particularly women, are hurt, because they are more likely to take non-tenured positions. That is not a problem with tenure. This is a problem with adminstrators trying to cut costs.

McNutt’s suggests basically that universities should just give the finger to their tenure faculty and ideals of shared governance.

But it's time for universities to discuss unilateral action and institute some other mechanism.

The editorial comes just a day before this news of faculty – including tenured faculty – being cut from College of Saint Rose. So... yeah. Tenure provides tissue-thin job protection already.

For example, promotion to associate professor could be rewarded with a longer-term contract (10 years), followed by a series of renewable 10-year contracts (or in rare cases, longer contracts) as a full professor. The contracts would be nonbinding, giving the faculty member flexibility to consider opportunities at other institutions.

Oh! How generous! We have to get rid of tenure to make it easier for people to find new work! Because that’s what people want, to have less stability in their lives!

An appeals process (through a national university association) could adjudicate contract disputes or cases of dismissal on grounds of intellectual disagreements.

I’d be more encouraged is I had ever heard of a case of such a mechanism working. In the United States at least, universities are largely under the regulation of the states, so it’s not clear how any national organization could have any teeth.

For goodness’ sake, tenure is not the problem here. The problem is administrators have been cheap, and have tended to exploit their non-tenured faculty with heavy responsibilities and few benefits because they could. Instead of tearing down tenure and turning everyone into contingent faculty and wondering nomads, why can’t we do the opposite?

Why can we not give women on the tenure clock with reasonable performance expectations, not those determined by workaholics with no other responsibilities?

Why can we not provide adjunct and contingent faculty with some of the job security and resources that tenure people enjoy?

Why can we not have strong post-tenure review that ensures that people continue to be competent at their job?

Tenure is not supposed to be a guarantee of a job for life. It’s supposed to provide security against arbitrary dismissal. That long-term security is valuable for research, and I suspect provides a strong incentive for people to work at universities. It certainly did for me.

Pay at universities is often lower than similar positions in the private sector. Would universities who got rid of tenure be willing to bring their pay in line with what people could get in industry? My guess is, “No.”

When McNutt became editor of Science, lots said, “Hey, it’s great to have a woman in charge of Science!” But this editorial is just the latest in a repeated set of regressive articles getting by Science’s editorial team, which have regularly seemed to involve gender issues, and McNutt’s presence as editor doesn’t seem to be slowing things down. I just don’t get it.

Hat tip to Terry McGlynn and Bashir3000.

Additional: In an unrelated but somehow in the same vein of deeply problematic: AAAS, the publisher of Science, elected Patrick Harran a fellow of the society. Harran was charged with four counts of felony following the death of an undergraduate student in a lab accident. More at the Curious Wavefunction and Chemjobber.

Related posts

Breaking brand: Science magazine’s latest self-inflicted crisis

External links

Whither (wither?) tenure?
Saint Rose faculty informed of cuts Friday


David Condon said...

I feel like you're ignoring tradeoffs, and being less than generous to McNutt's position. For instance, here:

"The problem is administrators have been cheap, and have tended to exploit their non-tenured faculty with heavy responsibilities and few benefits because they could."

Might this instead be because universities receive less funding than they used to? And might tenured jobs be difficult to obtain because they're scarce relative to the number of people who want such jobs rather than because old men are just a bunch of insensitive pricks?

Jonathan Badger said...

I also think you are ignoring the hordes of non-tenure track soft-money research professors (of which I used to be one before moving to the NIH intramural program, also without tenure but with a bit more security than a soft-money position). It's easy to say tenure exists to counter the lower pay in academia as compared to the private sector, but that ignores the reality that there are a growing number of people in academia who are working at the same low pay (or lower) who aren't being offered the potential of tenure.