Thursday, July 12, 2007

A Follow-Up on the Zogby Poll

By Bryan O’Keefe

In a follow-up to Rich’s earlier post about the Zogby poll – I have my own hypothesis as to why those results came out the way that they did. The results, especially about the public’s feelings on tenure, do not surprise me in the least bit. I think that the masses feel this way because the very idea of tenure is completely foreign to nearly everybody else in the workforce. Almost everyone else has a boss to answer to and goals to reach and if they fail to obey their superiors or reach those goals, they are kindly (and sometimes not so kindly) shown the exit. It’s a tough world out there and people get fired, demoted, and downsized all the time. It’s just the way the world works these days for most people, right or wrong. The idea that after only working somewhere for five or six years and then you have a job for the rest of your life is a complete mirage outside of the Ivory Tower. People are going to be contemptuous of others who have this type of job security, especially if the job involves only working nine months out of the year and the work is perceived as being rather easy. (I actually give professors a lot of credit for what they do, but I don’t think everyone else feels the same way)

I think that the public backlash over tenure is only growing to grow too. As tuition continues to go through the roof, more Average Joe’s are going to become upset that their hard earned money is going to support faculty members that they believe have easier jobs than their own.

The conventional wisdom is that even though people complain about tenure a lot, not much is going to change about it anytime soon. It’s a sweet system and the people on the inside have an incentive to keep it going. That might be true, but I am not entirely convinced.

I say that because just last week I was reading a story in the Wall Street Journal about partners at law firms. In the old days, making partner was akin to getting tenure – once you were a member of the firm, you were basically a member for life. But that’s not the case at all with law firms these days. As the WSJ story pointed out, it’s not uncommon at all now for unproductive partners to be fired, demoted, or bought out. I have heard this same sentiment from some partners at law firms – partners are expected to work longer and harder now than ever before and without the type of job security that partners had years ago.

What changed? Competitive pressures. For better or worse, (and a lot of attorneys say it’s for the worse, but I am not trying to answer that question right now) firms are more like businesses now, not country clubs. They have their own version of US News and World Reports with the annual profit per partner rankings that the American Lawyer magazine releases. Firms can see exactly where they stack up against their peers.

Looking at universities in the same context, maybe some day a college or two will look at their faculty and think that trying to rid themselves of the unproductive professors and hiring fresh blood could help improve their USNWR rankings. The tenure train might be slowly derailed and university professors are not going to find any sympathy from the rest of the working world if that does in fact happen.


TC said...

A most interesting comparative analysis. Our working world has certainly changed since the days, not so very long ago, when we retired from the same company where we began our first job.

sciencedoc said...

To whatever extent law partnerships are not what they used to be at big firms -- I doubt very many people are getting fired, my cousin in that position does not say so (and he's on the compensation committee) -- look at what these partners are making. Equity partners at a big firm upwards of a million a year. Even non-equity partners a half million. Are the colleges and universities prepared to offer that kind of remuneration?

Aside from the killing of academic freedom, there is the issue of what exactly would the universities offer in place of tenure? In sciencedoc's field, you spend 5 years or so on a Ph.D., at barely above the official poverty level, then 2-4 years as a postdoc usually making in the 30's. Then if you're really lucky, you get a tenure-track job at a major university or a good college. Which means you get to work your butt off for something like $60K/yr. While your compatriots who didn't get as far as you go off and make far more for less work and actually with better job security.

If you survive the tenure process, you're probably pushing 40 or maybe older. At that point most people are going to want to know if they have a career ahead of them. If not, bail and make some real money while there's still time.

Yes, by all means, get rid of tenure but be prepared to offer the salaries, partnerships, equity, stock options etc etc of the non-tenured world.

As it is, the university jobs are getting to be hard to fill, in science at least. The faculty searches I know locally are 0 for 7 in successfully filling positions. 7 positions, 0 hires. It's hard to get interviewed but once you get an interview, it's hard to get hired. Maybe we're too picky.

A local guy, full professor, not one of the most successful, recently left to be an executive at a private company. No more scrounging for grant money, a salary more than double his academic salary. As much vacation as he "needs". He claims he'll retire with over $5 million if things go according to plan. He must think the people he left behind are suckers.

Center for College Affordability and Productivity said...

Sciencedoc --

I ususally don't respond, but I think you make some interesting points that merit a response.

Sure, I think we should offer something like equity, stock options, better pay to the good teachers. That's what law firms and other places that have partnerships do. The people who are doing the best work are rewarded. But my larger point is that there are very few fields anymore like academia. Send me your email address and I'd be happy to send you the story in the WSJ about attorneys.

And it's not just attorneys. Neither of my parents make anything approaching a half million dollars a year but both of them have jobs where they are under pressure to perform well. And at my dad's job, he did not reach the zenith of his career (a rough equivalent of tenure) until he was 51. And he still doesn't have tenure in the academic sense.

There is nothing strange at all in the "real world" about reaching age 40 or 45 and still not having absolute job security.

sciencedoc said...

Thanks, but I've already read the WSJ article, I don't need to receive it.

Tenure is by no means the "zenith" of an academic career. After tenure (which usually goes with associate professor status), there's promotion to full professor, and there's also the possibility of a move to a better university or college. I've gone through all three myself. There's also the possibility of a chaired professorship and of course various honors and awards.

I don't have any idea about your parents. I don't know what they have to do with things. Are they attorneys? Do you doubt what I wrote about equity partners? I got the figures off the web. I don't know what they have to do with things. My point about the million dollar equity partnerships is that a great many academics are quite capable of getting such positions if they want to go after them. Tenure is a way of keeping them in academia at far, far lower pay.

As I mentioned I have a cousin who is a partner at a big law firm and also cousins who are physicians and investment banker types. We've talked about this and agree that the situations are not so much different, except for the pay.

As I think I said, give me the opportunity to make a half million or a million a year as an academic and retire whenever I want, and I might have been interested.

By the way, tenure is not "absolute job security". It's unusual to lose your job altogether when you have tenure, but totally incompetence is rare among tenured academics, at least at the decent universities.

It's not at all unusual though to have effectively declining pay (because of inflation) if you're an underperforming tenured professor. I suspect it's quite a lot like being an underperforming partner in a law firm. It's not a very happy position to be in and I've seen a fair number of people leave voluntarily when they get there.

Of course, this entirely leaves out the academic freedom protections which were the original rationale for tenure. I've seen this work up close, myself. It especially protects relatively conservative faculty like myself. Do you think we would dare speak out, on the occasions when we do, if we didn't have tenure?