07 September 2013

A message to tenure review committees

"It will never happen that every professor in either the medical school or the university faculty is a genuinely productive scientist.  There is room for men of another type - the nonproductive, assimilative teacher of wide learning, continuous receptivity, critical sense, and responsive interest.  Not infrequently these men, catholic in their sympathies, scholarly in spirit and method, prove the purveyors and distributors through whom new ideas are harmonized and made current.  They preserve balance and make connections."
Abraham Flexner                                                                   
Medical Education in the United States and Canada            
The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching
New York, 1910                                                                     


  1. I love it! I have never understood why "publishing" is so much more important than being a good teacher. After all, students go to the university to learn, and may be the scholars, professors, scientists, researchers of tomorrow. Their education matters. And so does the ability to synthesize, criticize, etc.

  2. Which came first, the chicken or the egg? Salaries for college professors have never been all that lucrative. But if a professor writes a book or articles for prestigious publications in their field of study, it brings favorable attention to the university or college. And the professor can also assign the book as required reading for their classes and thereby supplement their income considerably from royalties from the book. Several of my professors in college did this and I just assume the practice continues.

  3. I have never understood why "publishing" is so much more important than being a good teacher.

    It's not only about publishing. It's about showing up to work and doing anything at all. The large problem of tenure is that once given, a university has no means anymore to make that faculty member do anything. Unfortunately, many 'unproductive' faculty members are truly unproductive. They do not do anything. They barely show up for work. They cut classes short. They do no committee work. They keep exams easy to keep their student scores high. And, they get paid a hundred grand or so for that.

    Tenure is a great idea. In an ideal world. The price college students pay for unproductive faculty members should be unacceptable.

    1. I have a different viewpoint. And perhaps this reflects experience with different universities.

      In the universities I've dealt with, tenure guarantees you a position, and protection against dismissal without cause, but... it didn't guarantee you a salary. Or a decent office. Or a light workload. If someone didn't get tenure and the university wanted to get rid of them, they could assign them a shitload of work, a baseline salary, and an office in the basement and then wait for them to resign.

    2. May be unintentional, but your post makes it sound like these folks are very pervasive, and they aren't. My own experience has been ten years at two schools and I haven't seen any tenured professor who's completely unproductive and still respected by his peers (which matters a lot to most). I've seen a professor who stopped doing much research, but he's fully invested in the classes he teaches. I've seen someone who should not be allowed to teach intro classes because he really didn't care, but he did a lot with research and mentoring his lab group. And I've seen professors serving as department heads who can't afford to invest time and effort into teaching or research because they have so many administrative responsibilities.
      Full professors and those serving as department heads are the only ones who have any chance of making close to triple digits, and even that depends on what field they're in. At most schools, full professors will have more administrative responsibilities than the assistant or associate professors.
      And like Stan, I've seen professor's salaries get cut across the board in my department during the recession.

    3. That should read "...and they aren't, at least in my experience..."

  4. @ Minnesotastan: I wish I had seen the same. I have seen too many professors that do nothing, not much or the bare minimum. I know of chairs and deans who wanted to get rid of people, but could not because of tenure rules. I know of professors who abused short- and long-term disability rules. I have seen professors being chased to the basement. I know of professors who were busy consulting 30-40 hours a week 'as part of their job'. I have also seen a professor being chased out of the school for bringing only several millions a year - below the standard for that department.

    I've been in academia 22 years now, and - of course aside from the many, many professors who do their job diligently - quite a number of professors who underperformed, comfortably protected by the tenure rules.

    And I can not remember a single case where someone actually used the 'protections' of tenure to his advantage.

    In my view, tenure should be reformed to system in which faculty get to set their own goals annually, and for a longer period, say 5 years - long enough to allow for risky adventures that may turn out nothing. After that period, they would be held accountable to their own goals. Those who rank lowest to meeting their own goals should face consequences or loose their position. A race to the bottom can be prevented by comparing goals to the average of a department, school or field. Rewards should exist for those who do meet their goals, and those who exceed them.

    To close with some numbers. I have been part of a college where 60% of the departments did not bring in a single dollar of funding. This was not at the university of south-west small state at remote village. This was at the founding college of one of the most expensive and elite private colleges in the nation.

    Students, who pay more and more tuition, should not accept that a significant number of their teachers is unproductive

  5. "And I can not remember a single case where someone actually used the 'protections' of tenure to his advantage."

    This is ambiguous. I should have said: I have never seen anybody successfully using the protections of tenure rightfully.


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