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Post Does Academic Tenure "De-Incentivize" Job Performance?
Created by John Eipper on 05/14/19 10:06 AM

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Does Academic Tenure "De-Incentivize" Job Performance? (Henry Levin, USA, 05/14/19 10:06 am)

One thing missing from the faculty tenure discussion is how difficult it is to get or not to get. The most desirable universities for faculty usually make tenure very challenging to receive. They evaluate teaching performance, scholarship, community service, and student mentoring and rely on both internal evaluations and detailed analysis of scholarship by external scholars. This means that at the point of tenure decision, usually in the seventh year, their employing university has a considerable accumulation of data on their trajectory and ambition.

However, many universities in the US take the tenure decision lightly because their pay and other benefits and student quality do not represent attractive opportunities. Others have a civil service tradition requiring only that employment for a number of years, sometimes just three, automatically results in tenure. Many universities in certain countries provide tenure automatically with appointment or a minimal employment requirement, sometimes by law.

My main point is that a good predictor of future performance is present and past performance. For this reason, universities that set high standards for tenure and accumulate good evaluative data are likely to have faculty who continue their high performance. So, tenure can be a measure of effort and productivity, more than an excuse for tenured faculty to relax their efforts. Frankly, most that I know are workaholics who perform effectively because that is their nature whether or not they are tenured.

JE comments:  Hank, my reading of the "pulse" of the US Academy is that tenure is a dying institution.  Adrian College, for example, is hiring most of its new professors on term contracts.  Is this a national trend?

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  • Tenure, Job Peformance, and the Commercialization of the University (Sasha Pack, USA 05/15/19 4:02 AM)
    My impressions of the "tenure effect" have been similar to JE's as well as to those borne out in Henry Levin's comments: where the tenure evaluation process is taken seriously, faculty remain active, engaged, and effective in advancing the mission of the university.

    Of course, we enjoy such great latitude and independence in choosing how we want to advance that mission, so why shouldn't we? Most of the time we are more constrained by our own limits than by any limits imposed by our employers. But the university's mission is not the same thing as its bottom line. In terms of the latter, how productive are well-paid tenured professors teaching small upper-level and graduate courses as compared with adjuncts or term clinicals teaching required courses to hundreds of students at a time? As many public universities move toward the tuition-driven "butts-in-seats" financial model (as it is universally known), there answer may be: not very.

    If tenure is dying a slow death, it is not so much because it is obsolete or counterproductive as it is because the university's business model is increasingly misaligned with its mission. The commercialization of many non-profit and public universities is unpopular with seemingly everyone but yet pervasive. It may be a necessary response under the duress of many pressures facing universities, I don't know. One side effect is the consumer mentality of many students. They come to view their tuition as payment for services rendered--the delivery of knowledge, cultivation of skills, and conferral of a degree. The "customer is always right" principle cannot work in education, and I have sensed its gradual creep.

    Maybe Henry or another specialist of education can calm my nerves by telling me that what I've said is perception and not reality, or that it has always been thus and we've muddled through. I'd be glad to be wrong about this.

    JE comments:  Greetings, Sasha!  We Academics have been decrying the commercialization of Higher Ed for a generation--but as Sasha Pack asks, has it always been like this?  Are we really lamenting that a university's money tends to be spent on things (and people) other than what we'd prefer?

    I'd still like to see some hard statistics on the costs of academic tenure.  Of course it is inefficient for the "butts-in-seats" model, but what about other factors, such as student retention, grants, alumni giving, and institutional recognition/prestige? 

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    • The Rise of Non-Tenure-Track Faculty Appointments (Henry Levin, USA 05/21/19 6:44 AM)
      I have checked with colleagues, and they tell me that with the increase in the use of adjuncts and part-timers, it seems likely that tenured faculty have decreased.

      However, this is different than the elimination of tenure at institutions. It seems to mean that a smaller proportion of faculty at individual institutions are hired on "tenure-track" appointments. There seem to be no direct answers to changes in tenured appointments in terms of actual numbers. But the consensus among my colleagues is that there are fewer tenured positions.

      See below:


      JE comments:  The authors, Daniel Maxey and Adrianna Kezar, conclude that non-tenure-track faculty appointments "are inefficient and misaligned with stakeholders’ common commitments to student learning and the health of the academic profession."  Amen.  But are the academic Powers that Be listening?

      On the decline of tenure, Roy Domenico also weighs in (next).

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      • Distance Learning and Other Trends in Higher Ed (Tor Guimaraes, USA 05/23/19 4:23 AM)
        At the big research universities, the power balance between faculty and administrators seems to slightly favor the faculty. At so-called teaching universities or colleges, administrators seem to have gained significant political ground. There are some factors I hypothesize may be behind such trend.

        As the middle class gets squeezed financially, so are the financial support for education in general and higher ed specifically in most US states. Administrators are hungry for "other" sources of funds besides government budgets and tuition/fees. In Tennessee, administrators have received blessings from the governor to have our University President to set up a separate board he has to listen to. This board is loaded with the President's business acquaintances, has one student representative, and one faculty representative.

        One national trend seems to be de-emphasizing quality of teaching/learning in favor of distance learning which pays better, lower requirements for access to courses, more remedial courses, more automation in teaching besides distance teaching, etc. Faculty at some universities have resisted such trends for reducing quality of education for the sake of increasing access and income. The following video illustrates.


        One trend that I think very positive is the learning assessment based on students passing regional or nation certification tests for various professional groups in Engineering, Accounting, Nursing, etc.

        JE comments:  "Distance learning" is the probably the single largest shift in education models in the last half-century.  Administrators love it--no overhead besides computers!  Unlimited potential enrollment!  We faculty question the quality of e-learning, and especially lament the loss of the human factor.  How many students will cite an on-line instructor as a major inspiration in their lives?

        Yet what is WAIS other than "distance learning"?  I've learned a great deal over the years from this morning's contributors--Tim Ashby, Tor Guimaraes, and Gary Moore (next).  One thing these three gentlemen have in common:  I've never met any of them in person.

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  • Term Contracts, Tenure-Track, and "Faculty Specialists" (Roy Domenico, USA 05/21/19 9:07 AM)
    Regarding tenure--I've got a dog in this fight so I should say something:

    The University of Scranton (my employer) still relies primarily on tenured faculty, although the administration has made some attempts to curtail it with positions we call "faculty specialists." These positions are sprinkled through the sciences and professional schools. We've never had one in the History Department.

    John E's comments on "term contracts" I find disturbing. Who would accept a "term contract" over a tenure-track position? I certainly never would. In the long run, this cannot help academia. It sounds like the decision of non-academic administrators that will lead to the suicide of universities.

    JE comments:  It's safe to say that nobody would pick "term" over tenure-track, with the possible exception of a late-career academic not interested in the publish-or-perish rat race.  On the other hand, everyone would prefer "term" over the lowest rung on the faculty ladder--the adjunct.

    "Faculty specialists"--who comes up with these euphemisms?

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