Tenure in Name Only

I said this just over a year ago:

even as someone who isn’t a fan of tenure, I predict doom for the first state, university, or school district to abolish it.

So, what does this mean?

We learned a bit more yesterday about what that Regents policy will look like. In particular, we learned that the Regents will mandate a post-tenure review process one of whose possible outcomes is termination of a tenured appointment. The Regents’ post-tenure review proposal has been drafted and presented in much the same way as the Legislature’s program modification language in May: a brief nod at a good thing (merit pay, a tenured appointment) followed by lengthy, point-by-point detail on how to fire people.

My prediction of doom was for a university that does away with tenure entirely. It sounds like at Wisconsin there will still be positions that are at least nominally referred to as tenured. It’s just that these tenured people can now be fired.

What does this mean for new faculty recruitment?

If you advertise for a tenure-track faculty position, you will attract a very different applicant pool than if you attempt to hire someone for a non-tenure-track position. Luckily for Madison fans, the University will continue to be able to advertise for and hire “tenure-track” faculty. It’s an open question, however, as to whether potential candidates will actually see through the label and judge those positions as tenured in name only. If candidates do do this, then other universities will win every single battle with the only exceptions being situations in which a candidate’s entire immediate family is anchored to Madison, Wisconsin.

However, I have never heard of a candidate ask for details on a particular university’s definition of tenure and what specific job protections they can expect. Just like real people, professors don’t pore over employment contracts to try and figure out what they are getting into before accepting an offer. They are instead mostly interested in the salary and position. “How easy is it going to be to fire me someday?” isn’t exactly a question that gets asked at a typical interview or even in negotiations after a job offer is made.

What’s happening in Wisconsin isn’t just hidden fine print though. These policies are front-page news (at least the front page of chronicle.com). Even so, I’m not sure how much of a deterrent it is to actually taking a position at the University. The changes at Wisconsin could easily occur at other universities at the future, and it isn’t clear whether anyone currently at the university will suffer from these decisions. Would an interested candidate really turn down a job offer based on such rumblings?

I tend to think not. The damage to the university will be small for the time being. We will need to see actual tenured faculty removed before the University’s ability to attract new faculty is hampered.


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Vikram Bath is the pseudonym of a former business school professor living in the United States with his wife, daughter, and dog. (Dog pictured.) His current interests include amateur philosophy of science, business, and economics. Tweet at him at @vikrambath1. ...more →

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69 thoughts on “Tenure in Name Only

  1. The best post docs and early career researchers will be well aware of the policies there. That will certainly be a factor and puts UW at a disadvantage for the high quality researchers. I don’t see anyway that wouldn’t be true. Does that mean they will be a lesser institution, that is harder to say but it won’t help them and they could lose a few prizes.

    The better question is does this change help the budget or anything else is Wisconsin.

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  2. “Will the price go down?”

    If the price of university goes down, nobody will care that they’re not being taught by tenured professors. (How many underclassmen are taught by non-tenured profs now?)

    The benefits of being taught by a tenured professor strike me as being orthogonal to the desires of students being taught in today’s university system.

    “I was taught by a greybeard with tenure” is not one of the boxes to tick off on a checklist for employment.

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    • No, the prices won’t go down. Tenure has only a limited effect on the price of tuition compared to the ability of universities to charge what the market would bare because of student loans.

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    • Has anybody actually made the argument that getting rid of tenure would lower costs???

      In any case getting the highest level researchers is about making big discoveries, running high level doctoral level programs/labs/ big research grants that do lots of things for Unis like bring in money, good publicity and bring the leading edge science.

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      • Has anybody actually made the argument that getting rid of tenure would lower costs???

        Not that I’ve seen, but if I wanted to sell this program on a high level, I’d knock a couple grand off of tuition for a few years before turning the ratchet back on.

        In any case getting the highest level researchers is about making big discoveries, running high level doctoral level programs/labs/ big research grants that do lots of things for Unis like bring in money, good publicity and bring the leading edge science.

        Yeah, but we’re talking years down the road, here. *YEARS*.

        Until that money starts rolling in, these people are nothing but overhead.

        Will the students still line up around the block to sign loans to go to this university and sign up for classes that they will then cut because of a bad hangover?

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        • I’m not sure what Sconsin’s argument is, but it seems to me that once you start voting tenured profs off the island you’d have to sell students on something more than ideological purity. Tho maybe that’d work too?: “come to Sconsin, where tenured liberals have been purged.”

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          • Who is talking about ideological purity here?

            Just tell students “employers want you to get a degree from a university. We are a university. Show up, get a degree, get hired. Look at these numbers comparing the incomes of people with a degree to the incomes of people without one.”

            Repeat ad nauseum.

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            • Well, that argument could be made without nixing tenure, yeah? YOu’re sales pitch requires a reduction in price. I don’t see that happening just cuz tenured profs are let go.

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                  • Given the current culture, the benefit to institutions is that they can compete for the best profs out there, be it in terms of teaching, research, publications, reputation, etc. That benefit transfers to the student because the institution they received their degree from is ranked based on the staff’s reputation in the field.

                    I’m not saying this is right, but it’s real. If price is the only concern, students will choose to go to the higher ranked institution/department. ANd that means at least the offer of tenure. At least for now.

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                    • What percent of applicants are being turned away by these colleges?

                      If the percent is high double digits (and I’m pretty sure that the percent of applicants being turned away is amazingly high double digits and that’s without the people who get accepted and then don’t make tenure), what’s the measurable harm in becoming a college that only turns away fairly high double digits for applicants (and that’s without the people who get accepted but don’t get kept on for a third year)?

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                      • What percent of applicants are being turned away by these colleges?

                        Well, bunches. High-high percentages, I’d guess.

                        Maybe we oughta pass a law banning tenure? You know, make it a market-wide prohibition so’s no institution can free ride on the rational choices of a few?

                        OK, that’s a joke. But I don’t share with you the view that tenure is THE problem with higher ed, or even A problem with it, on balance.

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                    • Other things being equal, a non-tenured position would have to pay better than a tenured position in order to attract a similarly qualified candidate, so a school without tenure will have to pay more for personnel in order to maintain an equally qualified faculty than a school with tenure. So the only ways it wouldn’t effect the consumer experience would be if equally effective faculty can be hired with a less attractive package of pay and benefits, faculty quality has no effect upon student/consumer outcome, or cost is irrelevant to student/consumer outcome. I am highly skeptical of those three propositions.

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                      • a non-tenured position would have to pay better than a tenured position in order to attract a similarly qualified candidate

                        I’d really like to see the numbers for how many applicants there are for any given tenure track job. If we go from turning away 40 people per advertised tenure track position to turning away 28 people* per advertised tenure track position, I don’t know exactly how much loss there is when it comes to “similarly qualified”.

                        *Numbers pulled out of my butt, but I suspect they’re low rather than high.

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                        • That’s fair. I’m importing an argument from debates about tenure in public primary schools, where I think it carries far more weight. Given the current labor market for academics, I would expect the effect I’m describing to be smaller than one would otherwise effect, perhaps small enough to ignore. I’m still flummoxed as to how removing tenure would reduce labor costs, though.

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                    • That’s speculative, and depends on which consumers of the university experience you are considering.

                      It could result in a somewhat more motivated group of undergraduate teachers, if that’s something that the System sets out to establish incentives to achieve. But that assumes that a younger, less-credentialed, less-expert group of more motivated teachers creates a better experience for undergraduate consumers. It’s not clear that we know that it will compared to the teaching of a longer-retained set of tenured faculty under the old system. We just don’t know that’s true. It’s a theory.

                      It also assumes that we primarily care about undergraduate students, which we might, but there there remains the graduate student experience. If you fail to attract top faculty to the university, the graduate experience you are offering declines uncomplicatedly with that decline. The value and experience of graduate degrees, or in any case certainly doctorates, essentially depend entirely on the quality of the top research faculty at an institution. If you attract and retain lower quality faculty, you are nearly ipso facto providing a worse graduate school experience and product.

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                      • That’s speculative

                        Do you have measurables?

                        If you fail to attract top faculty to the university, the graduate experience you are offering declines uncomplicatedly with that decline.

                        How many universities are there? They can’t *ALL* have “top faculty”.

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                      • Check this out. (Warning: Slate link.)

                        Here’s the teaser: An astonishingly small number of elite universities produce an overwhelming number of America’s professors.

                        I am pretty sure that, at the end of the day, the glut of wannabe professors is large enough to be able to absorb this little shock.

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                      • If you fail to attract top faculty to the university, the graduate experience you are offering declines uncomplicatedly with that decline. The value and experience of graduate degrees, or in any case certainly doctorates, essentially depend entirely on the quality of the top research faculty at an institution.

                        Indeed. In many fields, it’s not which school you got your Ph.D. from, it’s who supervised your work. Which carries all sorts of risks for the graduate students. Anyone who has spent time in a graduate school that offers Ph.D.s has encountered people who went through the disaster of having their highly-regarded supervising professor die/retire/move to another school.

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            • “Just tell students “employers want you to get a degree from a university. We are a university. Show up, get a degree, get hired. Look at these numbers comparing the incomes of people with a degree to the incomes of people without one.” ”

              Shouldn’t universities provide something more than a piece of paper and a mountain of debt?

              Or should we develop a system that cuts out the in-between part and just involves paying $20,000-$50,000 for a piece of paper that says you’re a better person to hire than those who didn’t buy a piece of paper?

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              • We’ve put so many carts before so many horses, I have no idea what correcting the path we’re on even looks like.

                We’re running universities like a business which means that managers run it instead of educators and they’re treating children/young-adults like consumers instead of like students. And employers, for some reason, seem to have abandoned OJT for the consumers who have recently purchased a University Experience(tm) and, suddenly, we’re discovering that tenure for professors aren’t really essential to what’s being bought or sold.

                And that’s without even getting into the whole “this part of the Canon offends me” criticism.

                We don’t even know (let alone agree) on what a university education is *FOR* anymore.

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                  • I’d really like a timeline of whether schools started being run by managers before corporations abandoned OJT or after.

                    I’d also like to know whether this is a connection or a correlation but you can’t have everything.

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                    • My guess is that they were nearly concurrent.

                      Though OTJ still exists but not to the extent of taking a kid right out of high school, putting him in the mail room, and then letting him get farther up the corporate ladder. That has not existed for a while.

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                • We aren’t running anything. The reason why universities are being run like businesses because some of the more corrupt business people noticed that student loans are a great way to get rich during the 1980s. You charge what you can and take a good of chunk of the what you can for yourself in benefits and salary. You can even dole out favors to friends and family as John Saxton of NYU demonstrated.

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    • If anything, I would guess that eliminating tenure will increase the cost of doing business. Either you’ll get worse faculty or they’ll demand more money for the added uncertainty.

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  3. Not that I’m terribly happy about what Walker is doing to my Alma Mater, I think it will matter a lot how such a process is used. If it is a tool for political witch hunts of any stripe, that will matter a lot more than if it is only used sparingly. One would hope that Regents would be cognizant of the effects of abusing such a process.

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    • My big concern is less that this would be used for cultural / political witch hunts & more as a tool to toss academics who are not doing enough sexy research, or enough grant capturing research, or research that is momentarily an object of outrage.

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    • I don’t think the Regents will use to look this policy much at all. They didn’t seek this; this was simply a political initiative of this governor. It does give them more flexibility, but it doesn’t force them to act. So we will probably see them use that flexibility a bit. But we won’t a large wave, either fast- or slow-rolling, initiated within The System (which is what we call the Wisconsin university system, which includes the Madison campus (though now given it more autonomy than it ever had in an ostensible “trade-off” for the $250M budget cuts of earlier this year and now this law).

      For this to get used in a major way (whether for broad, cost-cutting layoffs or targeted, ideological ones) I think would require further political action initiated by the governor (or a subsequent, ideologically like-minded one) or by political allies of his or other political actors of like mind in the state. That could certainly be coming next, though.

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  4. I am in line with Greg and Oscar. This seems like a blatant culture war move because liberal academia has long been a target of the social right. This is going to hurt Wisconsin in the long run as top faculty or potential faculty flee.

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    • Oh, I am sure there will be plenty of adjuncts still waiting to pick up a class or two. And students will still not give a shit who is teaching for the most part.

      It may indeed be a move to purge liberal academics, but as they say, payback is a bitch…

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      • And students will still not give a shit who is teaching for the most part.

        I don’t think this is true. Depending on the institution, upper division courses which aren’t taught by tenured faculty makes students really irritable. At some institutions, even 1000 level courses taught by adjuncts/Grad-students pisses students off. Sure, that’s not true of all kids, but how many?

        Adding: Is your view up there an instance of someone generalizing from their own experience? :)

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        • I would say that it depends on which major you are talking about and at what school. Some schools/degrees tend to attract people for whom it matters, others not so much. And as students move through majors, the desire to move up the hierachy of able professors is desireable, if for no other reason than getting one’s money worth. Along with the fact that you are at that point moving into the realm of classes that professors like to teach, supposedly…

          As for me, at the school I went to the number of adjuncts to tenured was low, but that was 25 years ago at a school famous for teaching. Learn by doing!

          (I will admit to being a faculty brat, and knowing most of the profs, if not their kids. It does breed a fair strain of contempt when you know a particular prof can’t balance a checkbook.)

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    • This isn’t about the culture war at this point.

      I snort to think so.

      It’s about the bottom line. And professors just aren’t profitable. Well, not as profitable as adjucts happen to be.

      And we’ve established that you can teach undergrads with adjuncts and they will show up, refuse to read the syllabus, and cut class just as often as if real tenured professors taught them.

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            • Then there’s no problem. We’ve got a stupid policy that is so very stupid that it will result in pain so severe that it will result in a change in the stupid policy.

              If we’re lucky, the pain will be so so severe that people will be warned away from “they just didn’t do it right”.

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                • It’s not a plan as much as an attempt to get a head start on the race to the bottom.

                  The micromanagement will happen to manifest itself more against those who speak out against the New Order that, out of nowhere!, showed up than it well those who happen to speak out against some libertarian bullshit or some republican bullshit. For some reason.

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                    • I suspect that this is the first school of many to do this.

                      It’s not some organized conspiracy, though. It’s not part of some culture war.

                      The people in charge of the college are looking at their ledgers and have reached a conclusion that some things are costing them more money than they could make if they replaced said things. Threatening people with insubordination has nothing, at all, to do with what’s going on here. It’s a dry, emotionless, calculation.

                      It’s not culture war. Not even close to culture war.

                      I mean, if it was the culture war, the left would be winning.

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              • Then there’s no problem. We’ve got a stupid policy that is so very stupid that it will result in pain so severe that it will result in a change in the stupid policy.

                That’s a weird situation to regard as not containing a problem. Also: how in the world do you think you know that such a change will result? If it doesn’t, then does that imply that the pain, being not so severe that it will result in a change in the stupid policy, therefore isn’t a problem? So that there really can’t be a problem here – either the pain isn’t so severe that it will result in a change in the policy, so it (the policy and the pain it causes) isn’t bad/stupid enough to be a problem, *OR* it is so severe that it will result in a change in the policy, therefore since it will (by stipulation) be changed in due time, therefore it’s not a problem now?

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          • Will it kill Madison’s reputation so quickly that other colleges/universities will say “oh, crap! We’d better not do *THAT*!”?

            Yes. If Madison were to get rid of all of it’s research-producing faculty overnight, their reputation would collapse overnight. At least among academics.

            I think it would take a bit longer for Madison’s public reputation to be affected, but I think it would negatively affect job prospects for students within [guessing here] 5 years.

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      • This might be true for some institutions and some majors but in the STEM fields, showing up and doing the work is necessary because you get the technical skills you need for the job.

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  5. This is like the biggest news to shoot through the supply side of the academic market in decades (maybe). No one’s going to have to pore over anything in order to get a rough idea of what my alma mater (well, my home state legislature) has done here. The most detailed details, yes. But it’s not like anyone offered a position is going to hear about this part way through their offer-acceptance process and be like, “Wait, what? There’s something new and wonky about Wisconsin’s tenure status now? I hadn’t heard anything about this.” Everyone in the market already has a general sense of what this about, and anyone who comes within a pebble’s toss of taking a position at Wisconsin will be fully versed in the details and how they compare to similar institutions) within the day of receiving an offer there, and many before applying.

    The issue is just how big a deal they judge it to be – initially and over time. The initial reaction will be bigger than the long-term one, but/and that initial reaction alone will have real and lasting effects on the university (system). And the long-term effect might not be small. It all depends on how the top talent reacts to this. I imagine it also depends on Wisconsin maintaining the top-level resources it offers to researchers looking to do field-leading work, which I’m not completely optimistic about either. But even if that’s maintained, this will have an effect.

    Wisconsin will continue to be able to attract mid-to-top-level talent, but it will now be harder to do so, and they will miss more often than they did before in that space as well. But I doubt the effect will be as pronounced.

    I am curious about whether this will cost Wisconsin money in the long run, in the event it looks to compete by raising salary offers. It’s not clear to me how much Wisconsin (the state) gains by being better able to fire tenured state university faculty. Is one of Wisconsin’s big fiscal or other-type problems a backlog of worthless mid-late career academics on university faculties? Not that I was aware of. I doubt you’re going to see a wave of fired profs coming out of this. You’re just going to have to pay the young talent more to make up for the lower job security if you want them to come. If we weren’t looking to fire a bunch of professors ex ante (and I don’t think we were), how is this not a clear loss to the state or at least to the System given that tradeoff?

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  6. As an anecdatum, my brother was a tenured professor in a field where he could have greatly increased his salary with a few phone calls. He told me once about some captain of industry (or, more likely, recruiter for a captain of industry) who was trying to hire him, and asked him what it would take. His reply was “The one thing you can’t give me: tenure.”

    I have other academics in my family who have happily gone to what are far from geographically ideal locations for tenure track positions. It pretty much doesn’t matter where a school is. When a tenure track position opens up, there will be a line of applicants. Would this work for faux imitation tenure? I doubt it. This won’t be a problem for Madison, Wisconsin, which is generally considered a desirable location by people who don’t mind snow. But there are huge swaths of the country that don’t have this luxury.

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    • This is the real danger right here. Not people jumping to different schools, but people jumping to different industries (or potential hires who avoid getting into teaching).

      You can already see it happening in k12 education, where in many areas with few job protections, there are massive teacher shortages, especially among high-demand disciplines.

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