Friday, July 17, 2015

On Tenure

I am prompted to write this by some recent events.  A longer piece in this morning's Inside Higher Ed, Who Crossed the Line?, follows another shorter one from yesterday afternoon's Chronicle Update, U. of Wisconsin Professor's Tweets Draw Criticism From Her Own Colleagues.  This followed a couple of days earlier where on a listserv that I participate in a member from one of the regional campuses in the Wisconsin system posted about a much more benign piece he had written on faculty and student views of tenure.  The title of that piece purports to offer insights about tenure for those of us not in Wisconsin.  I didn't think the essay lived up to that billing, but it did make me aware that some insight is needed.  Given my prior economics research and what I've garnered since as an administrator, I thought I might be able to shed some light on the underlying issues.

Before I do let me pose a different question, unrelated to tenure specifically, concerning how we "debate" issues in this age of social media.  How many incidents of faculty posting controversial Tweets that result in seemingly many people getting into a huff do we need before we conclude that this is a much more heat than light approach and that the generation of the heat is pernicious in itself, creating hurt that blocks the possibility of light emerging?

I will personalize this.  I want eyeballs for what I have to say.  If I get more hits on a particular post I've written for this blog, then those hits serve as confirmation to me that what I said found its mark.  In itself, this preference may be benign, but it can lead to a kind of addictive desire for attention.  Further, it can bias a preference for making nuanced argument in favor of producing blunt sensationalism, because the former doesn't attract nearly as many eyeballs.

Understanding this, what if faculty who wanted to make their opinions public wrote those opinions out in long form (such as in a blog post like this one) and then simply Tweeted with a link to their post while saying that they've written a lengthy essay on the matter?  This would not block anyone's rights of free speech and it might raise the threshold on the substance of social argument, something that to me is desirable.  Might we be able to move to something like that even if it is likely that fewer people will be drawn into the discussion because of the absence of sensationalism?

* * * * *

There are two different questions that I will concern myself with, though note they are related.

(1)  What is the best way to provide incentives for employees over the life-cycle of the employment relationship?  This question itself can be posed for other than college faculty, so one wants to know what is it about being a faculty member that pushes the answer in a particular direction.

(2) In addition to their other job responsibilities, are faculty also bosses at the universities where they work?  Or are they merely part of the hired help?

Let me take on the overlap between (1) and (2) first.  This can be found by asking a related question.  How much self-direction does the faculty member have in defining the work the faculty member will do?  In turn one can ask, how much work-related risk should the faculty member be willing to take on?  What might be done when it is socially desirable for the faculty member to take such work-related risks to encourage the faculty member to do just that?  Thus, the traditional argument for tenure is that the faculty member can pursue his or her own research agenda fully, even if the payoff from that research might not be realized till well into the future.  Tenure assures the faculty member can keep at it, during long periods when the research is a tough slog.  This is the argument I heard about tenure when I first came to Illinois back in 1980.

Fewer people have advanced the same argument about teaching, but it is clear that teaching can itself be an object for investigation, whether the instructor engages formally in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning or not.  An experimental approach to instruction is better, in my view.  (This is experimentation in the spirit of Donald Schon's Reflective Practitioner, not controlled experiments as a scientist would perform in a laboratory.)  There is learning by doing with such teaching experiments and when trying something new one is not apt to be good at it right off the bat.  Thus, with an experimental approach an instructor risks that course evaluations could decline near term.  Tenure insulates the instructor from this sort of risk.  Adjunct instructors, in contrast, can become quite static in their approaches, because they can't afford to take the teaching risks that would make their instruction more dynamic.

Now let me turn to the life-cycle incentive issues and abstract from who defines the work done on the job.  Walter Alston, the famous former manager of the Dodgers and a Hall of Famer, is well known for having always managed under a one-year contract.  Ultimately, he managed the Dodgers for 23 years.  There is no doubt that it is possible to govern a long term employment relationship with a series of short term contracts.  The issue is not whether it is possible, but rather whether that is a good way to go about doing things.  Might lifetime employment guarantees, offered to employees who have clearly established their worth, be better?

On this one, let's make it clear up front that typically the employee will prefer the lifetime guarantee, since that way the employee will be able to shed some income and job risk that can otherwise weigh heavy, while management operating in the short run will have a preference for being allowed to sever the employee if and when that is deemed necessary, either because of a general decline in economic conditions or because the particular employee is deemed to be unproductive.

You can't get very far on answering (1) merely by noting these preferences.   Better would be to look at a management perspective but insist on it being a long run perspective.  The focus then should be on benefits of deferred compensation, where early on the employee is paid less than would be needed to match the market but later the employee is paid more.  In other words, job guarantees matter when there is a seniority component to compensation.  This helps to raise employee productivity and loyalty to organization, for example by reducing costly turnover and getting the employee to walk the extra mile on behalf of the organization, provided the organization's commitment to the path of compensation is credible.  But under deferred compensation senior workers might be perceived by management as not worth what they are getting paid.  This is the short term incentive mentioned in the previous paragraph.  Giving the employee a guarantee up front, one that can't be breached, is a way to overcome that short term incentive.  It can be that the life-cycle incentive effects outweigh the benefits from having short term discretion to let employees go.  Then job guarantees will be a good thing.

For government jobs, the desire by a new administration to provide political patronage offers an alternative reason to want to replace senior employees, quite apart from their productivity. This brief history of the emergence of Civil Service at the Federal level to thwart the patronage system makes for an interesting read.  The operative legislation was The Pendleton Act.  Subsequently, many states established parallel statutes to govern the work of career employees of state government.

My campus has civil service positions and I suspect most public universities throughout the country likewise have civil service jobs.  These jobs do feature guarantees of employment once the employee has successfully gotten through a probationary period. But this guarantee is unlike faculty tenure in that (a) civil service jobs are much more defined by the job classification and (b) in regard to question (2) the civil service employees are definitely not the bosses. Further, (c) pay for civil service jobs is based on the notion of a work week (currently 37.5 hours here) where if the employee works beyond that requirement overtime pay is mandated.  In contrast, faculty are paid without overtime as part of the equation.  However, standard contracts are for nine months.  Summer teaching garners additional pay (the norm for that in my department is one ninth of salary).  Similarly, if the the faculty member has a research grant, the grant can pay for summer salary.  When I was an administrator, I was on a twelve month contract.

There is a different sort of position that is neither faculty nor civil service.  It is called academic professional.  It offers much less in the way of job guarantee, even for those with quite a bit of seniority.  It does allow for much more of the job definition to be defined jointly by the employee and the particular unit where the employee works.  And it is a salaried job (typically twelve months for APs who are not instructors) that has the employee work to what the job requires, without pay varying by the amount of time put in at that work.

It used to be that the main distinction between APs and those with civil service jobs is that the former had a college degrees while the latter did not. Increasingly, I think focusing on that particular job qualification can be misleading in contrasting the two sorts of positions, though no doubt there is some historical basis for determining which job gets which designation.   When I was Assistant CIO for Educational Technology and had both the smart classrooms and the online learning units in my charge, the technicians who installed and repaired the smart classrooms were civil service, while the folks who ran the servers and wrote code to interface with campus authentication were APs.  I would not have designed it that way, but given that was the structure I inherited I made no attempt to try to change it.

The real sticky issue, however, is not between classroom technicians and (what our campus refers to as) research programmers.  Rather, it is between adjunct instructors (who are APs) and faculty (who are on the tenure track or already tenured).

* * * * *

I've spent my entire career at a research university, so have a pretty good feel for this sticky issue here, but much less of an understanding for how the issue plays out at places where teaching has greater prominence and research plays a lesser role.  It is important to note that the situation in Wisconsin covers the entire system, with its many campuses, not just the flagship campus in Madison and the other research campus in Milwaukee.  I will content myself in what follows to talk about how this sticky issue plays out here while noting it is quite reasonable to ask what is the consequence at other places and what am I missing in the discussion that is important there.

Let me return to (2) and the issue of whether the employee is also the boss.  In considering why this matters I believe it a useful metaphor to consider the difference between being a home owner versus being a renter and thinking of this from the perspective of a community as a whole, where the individual occupants are either all renters or all home owners.  Consider the simple matter of whether the lawn gets mowed regularly and is otherwise well kept up or if the lawn starts to look like it isn't being cared for.  Does renting or ownership matter for which outcome one should expect?   Having answered that lets also also ask whether it matters for the average time occupants are likely to stay in their homes?

In this metaphor renting is apt to be the more transient relationship.  Pride in community is associated with ownership.  Good upkeep of one's lawn is a pride in community thing.  That requires more permanence.

Taking that metaphor and applying it to campus, there are many activities faculty engage in that are either pure public goods or are private goods yet fall outside the bounds of what counts for promotion or salary review.  Among these are participating vigorously in recruiting; mentoring junior colleagues; service work on departmental, college, and campus committees; and simply stepping up on an as needed basis such as substitute teaching when a colleague needs to be out of town for a family emergency.  Note that I've not yet mentioned "faculty governance," which I will get to momentarily.  There is much more to being the boss on campus than faculty governance.  The list of responsibilities is quite long.  Willing embrace of these responsibilities requires a sense of permanence.  Tenure is needed for that.

Let me also note that one can readily find examples of APs who are excellent citizens in this way and likewise of faculty who are jerks and shirk on this sort of social responsibility.  So the correlation is certainly not perfect.  At best, the contractual form encourages a tendency in behavior.  So the argument is that tenure encourages good citizenship while being on a limited term contract makes it more likely the person will be aloof and self-centered.

Much can be said about faculty governance.  Here I will content myself with the obvious and what many others have observed.  Universities are in some sense very conservative institutions and often proceed by tradition.  In this regard faculty governance is typically a conserving force, while in contrast university boards that are frequently comprised of leaders from the business community seemingly quite often advocate for radical change.  In this way of thinking, faculty governance plays the same sort of role that the Senate plays in the Federal Government.  It is easy to understand why a particular board or a particular governor would like to weaken faculty governance.  They can then more readily have their own way, even if that ultimately proves to be remarkably short sighted of them.  The need for the more conservative approach requires a longer view for it is to be rationalized.  In turn, this requires a good deal of continuity among the senior faculty.  Tenure is necessary for that too.

* * * * *

What is the right mix between adjuncts, assistant professors on the tenured track, and tenured faculty?  A related question is what determines whether an assistant professor merits being granted tenure?  Is it only the assistant professor's measured performance that counts?  Or it whether there is free line money in the unit's budget to pay the tenured associate professor's salary that matters as well?

Since I started at Illinois back in 1980, undergraduate enrollments have increased somewhere between 20 and 25% (about double the rate of population growth in the state), in state tuition has grown in an hyper inflationary manner for essentially the entire period, and the fraction of in state students - which once was in excess of 92% - has dropped substantially over the last 10 to 15 years.  During the entire time period the number of tenure track and tenured faculty has ebbed and flowed, but in the main has remained flat.  Teaching loads for these faculty have in the main also stayed flat. 

The number of adjuncts has grown dramatically.  Clearly some adjustment was necessary to teach all these additional students.  Was this a good way to manage the increase in enrollments?  Or does it imply a death by a thousand cuts assault on tenure, not as dramatic as what has been happening in Wisconsin recently, but no less pernicious?

I don't know the answer to these questions, but I do see one consequence of this move that should be regarded as extremely negative.  In the Boyer Commission report it is observed that undergraduates operate outside the bounds of the research activity on campus and as a consequence are treated as second class citizens.  Adjuncts are also treated as second class citizens, for much the same reason.  Considerably more has been written about the plight of adjuncts than about the need to bring undergraduates into the mainstream on campus and have them embrace the quest for new knowledge in their own education.  Having undergraduate students take the preponderance of their courses from adjuncts undermines this goal of bringing undergraduates into the mainstream on campus. 

If the mixture of instructors were to change in favor of more on the tenure track or already tenured, some of the numbers I've mentioned above would need to be reckoned with.  (My own preferred solution for this is to make courses more intensive and thereby raise the credit hours those courses award.  Teaching loads, measured by number of courses wouldn't rise, but instructor time spent teaching would go up as a consequence of the greater intensity of instruction.) 

In the meantime it seems to me that many tenured faculty are blithely indifferent to the plight of typical undergraduate students, while at the same time the institution is becoming more and more dependent on the tuition revenue these students generate.  That can't go on forever.  Something has got to give.

Let me make one further point.  It is very hard to track activities on campus that self sustain or even generate surplus revenue from activities that require a subsidy because they don't bring in sufficient revenue to cover the cost.  (The internal transfer pricing that we use to govern the flow of how revenues are distributed is arcane, not reflective of good underlying economic principles, and still harkens back to an earlier time when state tax dollars contributed a larger share of the overall costs.)  As a result, it is pretty easy to develop a perception that teaching subsidizes research, whether that is at all accurate or not.  We saw this quite a lot in Texas when Rick Perry was Governor and he tried to pass reforms about faculty productivity based on how many students the faculty member taught.

The assault on tenure that seems to be happening in Wisconsin is in part a result of perceiving many tenured faculty as freeloaders, or if not that than as hard workers who are engaged in quixotic quests - matters that nobody cares about outside the university.   In that way the assault on tenure seems like what happened earlier in Texas.  The other part seems to be  contempt for faculty governance and wanting the ability to sidestep that entirely.  In that it is more like what happened earlier in Virginia.

But some responsibility for what appears to be radical steps taken by state government should be borne by the faculty themselves.  The arithmetic I mentioned above may have some bits that are unique to Illinois (particularly the rise in the number of international students), but most of it applies elsewhere as well.  How can that arithmetic be addressed without either changing the norms that one associates with being a tenured faculty member or by getting rid of tenure entirely?  The faculty themselves should answer that question.  Until then we'll just be talking past one another, which is what I'm afraid we're doing now.

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