« Optimal bet-hedging? | Main | Sibling rivalry in plants »

Abolish tenure?

Mark Taylor, a professor of religion, has observed (in the New York Times) that

"graduate programs in American universities produce a product for which there is no market (candidates for teaching positions that do not exist)…[with] sometimes well over $100,000 in student loans."
This is not really true of the sciences, where the main product is the research that is central to graduate education, research that often leads directly to improvements in healthcare, agriculture, engineering, or environmental quality. Nor do science PhD's usually take on much debt. (If you are applying to grad school in science, and they don't promise you fellowship support or paid teaching opportunities sufficient to meet minimal living expenses, it's either because you are poorly qualified or because the program is poorly funded. Either way, you should reconsider.)

But programs in the sciences do collectively graduate more PhD's than they hire, so a PhD is no guarantee of a faculty position. I have discussed this before.

Taylor's proposed solutions? Several ideas whose effects on the stated problem are hard to predict but probably small (restructuring curriculum, abolishing departments, accepting video games and such as substitutes for traditional written dissertations), one that would make the job shortage worse but might have other benefits (eliminating programs and substituting internet courses), and two that might help new PhD's find jobs (preparing students for nonacademic careers and abolishing tenure). Preparing students for nonacademic careers is something that has been discussed for years and Taylor doesn't offer any new ideas on how to do this. But what about abolishing tenure?

There are two reasons why universities offer tenure, of which Taylor mentions only academic freedom: ensuring that professors can explore important ideas that may be controversial, without fear of losing their jobs. The second reason is that, by offering lifetime employment security, universities can attract top scientists at lower salaries.

It is not generally true, as Taylor claims, that "once tenure has been granted, there is no leverage to encourage a professor to continue to develop professionally." Salary increases depend on success in research and teaching as well as service to the university and society. There may be a few older professors, however, who would rather goof off than work for a salary increase. I don't know anyone like that, but Taylor's experience in a religion department may be different.

How could we discourage people from "retiring in place", without undermining academic freedom? How about letting professors' salaries decrease gradually if their academic performance decreases? (This assumes performance can be evaluated fairly, but we already assume this in awarding pay increases.) Especially if pensions are tied to peak salary, this would discourage professors from hanging on long past their prime.

A potential salary decrease would be much less of a threat to academic freedom than the prospect of having to give up research altogether. ("If I explore the ecological risks of transgenic crops, even though the university gets millions from biotech companies, I could risk a pay cut, but this is more important than money. Besides, if I make some really important discoveries, they might feel compelled to give me a raise, especially if biotech money runs out. Or I could get a better job offer from another university, or a book contract.")

Remember, however, that society supports graduate programs in the sciences mainly because we need the results from the research done by graduate students (apprentices guided by professors), not to provide jobs for professors or PhD's to fill those jobs. Any proposed changes in tenure should consider the impact on research that benefits society as a whole, not just the impact on individuals. Do we want to force everyone to work on what state legislators and university administrators think is most important, or should we allow professors willing to risk pay cuts (or risk forgoing salary increases, under the current system) to explore high-risk ideas with potentially high returns?

By the way, as an adjunct professor, I do not have tenure.


the economy is requiring less and less people to actually work for a living in producing actually useful things, even robots can work out physics and discover genes apparently, the fact that some of thiese redundant people happen to end up on the scrapheap with a PhD is just a stochastic event of little or no consequence

Continued research has its own additional rewards (prestige, travel, grants). And that's on top of the excitement of the research itself -- which is the thing that motivates many people to follow this career path to begin with. The required series of high-stress-low-pay post-docs leading up to tenure weed out most of the people who aren't passionate about their research.

It worked in my case ;) I have a PhD in Mathematics -- which I got without going into debt, largely due to teaching assistantships -- and from there I went straight to the (far easier) path of taking a job in software.

Sheesh, Americans are so obsessed with worrying that there might be some freeloader out there. Never mind that (as you point out) this system helps attract the best and the brightest to do public research for less than they would make doing something else. If there's the slightest potential for a "freeloader" to make a professor's salary (such as it is), some American will fret over that horror.

A science PhD is good (but maybe not ideal) preparation for a variety of jobs, so their unemployment rate is <1%. But if more PhD's end up developing software or pharmaceuticals, rather than teaching and doing basic research, do we need major changes in graduate programs? And can we make those changes without slowing the stream of important discoveries coming out of those programs?

I don't think automation reduces the need for scientists (as opposed to technicians, maybe) much at all. When we start seeing breakthrough papers with no humans among the authors, I'll change my mind.

The cost of automation may be an issue, though. If every molecular biologist needs a $1 million per year in grant money, we may not be able to afford that many of them. The question is whether they will accomplish more than ten scientists with $100K per year in grants. I doubt it.

What about the demographic problem? As tenured faculty live longer and healthier lives, there are fewer of them leaving the system. What do you think about mandatory retirement? (Seems like professor emeritus isn't such a bad thing to be.)

Good question. Mandatory retirement might free up a few positions, but even emeritus professors may occupy lab space and compete for grants with younger faculty. I don't know how their research contributions compare with those of younger faculty, relative to resources used, so don't have an opinion on whether society benefits.

Every man with power wants more power, so it's natural that professors won't just give up their positions.

[commercial link deleted]

Post a comment

(If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.)

Type the characters you see in the picture above.