Friday, July 04, 2008

Green and Red Teachers: A Promising Idea

By Richard Vedder

Dick Bishirjian is a conservative scholar who runs Yorktown University, a school that has battled, now successfully, to get accreditation. Dick is blunt, often untactful, the skunk at the higher education picnic/love fest. Therefore, I like him.

Dick sent me a copy of a story that appeared in the Washington Post, which then led to my discovering a second story. The biggest hellhole in education in the solar system, arguably, is the Washington, D.C., public schools, but they have a chancellor (superintendents want a grander name) Michelle Rhee who is interesting and a bit different --which of course is what the system needs. Most recently, Rhee fired hundreds of teachers and teachers aides because they were not certified, an action that I have mixed feelings about since teacher certification has to be one of the biggest scams that ever was devised, and she did it to comply with federal law. But she has guts.

But really what intrigues me is that reportedly Rhee is preparing to offer the teachers a deal --you can continue on your current pay scale, making, say, $62,000 a year with all your cushy tenure and seniority rights. Alternatively, you can leave that highly secure world and go on a non-tenure track option --but have the opportunity to earn huge bonuses, perhaps making up to $100,000 a year. Presumably the average salary for this second track would be greater by far than the average on the first. Your performance would determine your salary --and even your continued employment.

I proposed this idea in GOING BROKE BY DEGREE for college teachers. You can sign up for the "green" track or the "red" track (you pick your colors).You can either go for job security or for higher income. The reasoning is that tenure imposes costs, most of them implicit and hidden, that are very real. Universities have a terrible time shifting resources to meet changing needs. It is hard to fire teachers of medieval history and hire experts in nanotechnology --even if it makes great sense to do so. Tenure breads arrogance and an unwillingness to obey university policies or even laws. It allows mediocre teachers to continue to do little, seemingly forever. So why not consider tenure a fringe benefit, but put a limit on the amount of fringe benefits available to each faculty member --forcing a choice between, say, a Lexus style insurance policy and no tenure or a low cost insurance policy and the possibility of gaining tenure (and, ultimately, the awarding of it).

Of course, I predict it will not happen in DC. The teachers will say no because giving management some discretion over its labor force reduces the power of the union, and union leaders are often more interested in their own income and power than in the welfare of their workers in many cases. But it could happen in higher education. Indeed, it IS happening --in a different way. We have a two class faculty now at most universities --tenure track people who are well paid and pampered, and a group of adjuncts, graduate assistants, etc., who are paid little and have few benefits. The Vedder-Rhee two color tracking system could actually reduce the disparities between the haves and have nots in higher education and end a crazy situation where those making the most money (senior professors) do less teaching today than the untenured, marginalized itinerant faculty who make often less than 20 percent as much per course taught.


Eveningsun said...

Dr. Vedder writes, "So why not consider tenure a fringe benefit...?"

Well, why not consider broccoli a vegetable?

Tenure is a fringe benefit, and it's already considered a fringe benefit. Who does not agree that tenure is something of value other than direct monetary compensation, that is to say, a fringe benefit?

Surely Dr. Vedder is not proposing that we do something we already do, namely, treat tenure as a fringe benefit. What he's proposing is that we offer something that is already a fringe benefit in a new way, a way he claims will save universities money.

Every time academic job candidates weigh various offers, some tenure-track and others not, said candidates necessarily, if unconsciously, calculate the value of tenure to them personally (along with the value of all the other fringe benefits). Enlarge this valuation process to the scale of all candidates weighing offers and you have--voila!--a market, which determines the exchange value of tenure overall.

Dr. Vedder is (quite trivially) right to point out that tenure costs money. But he hasn't given us any evidence at all that his plan would cost less money than existing plans. Maybe it would, maybe it wouldn't. He's basically proposing that colleges increase the offerings of their benefits supermarkets, and that they include tenure as a tradeable option rather than a standard feature. The problem is that market logic suggests there might be no net savings. Shoppers who choose a package without tenure will presumably do so because they feel they've replaced tenure with something of equal value to them. This can be a win-win situation if there's a true disjunction between the valuations made by employees and by the college.

If Dr. Vedder is right, something like this would happen: Professor Craven values tenure at, say, $20,000 annually and thus accepts Costcutter College's non-TT offer of $21,000 extra salary in lieu of tenure. CC is now out $21,000, but down the road it saves more than that when Craven's department needs to be downsized and Craven can be canned rather than kept on as deadwood. CC wins by saving money, and while Craven is doubtless bummed about losing his job he takes considerable solace in the pile of cash he's earned in extra salary.

Sounds good in theory. But would it work out that way in practice? There was once a time, before American conservatism morphed into market fundamentalism, when conservatives were very leery of making radical changes in traditional institutions. Such changes might look great in theory (kinda like Marxism), but, as conservatives once argued, the very fact that something endures long enough to become "traditional" is evidence of its superiority in practice. Such conservatives also argued that institutions are more complex than they appear, more complex indeed than limited human understanding can fathom, and that tampering with them was likely to lead to possibly disastrous unintended consequences.

Dr. Vedder appears not to be that type of conservative. If he were, he might want to ask why the nation's oldest and most prestigious colleges and universities, managed by very bright people who are not intrinsically averse to sound fiscal management, and who are fully aware of tenure's "hidden" expenses, have labored to cut costs in just about every way imaginable other than eliminating tenure.

Why indeed? Perhaps they worry about the consequences to their schools' reputation. Perhaps they worry that the erosion of tenure will lead to such unintended consequences as these: a less lively culture of academic debate, constant time-and-energy-wasting turmoil and adverse publicity when respected professors get summarily canned, a public perception that money is valued more than intellectual life and the consequent devaluation of of a valuable "brand"....

Who knows? The old-school conservative might say that tradition itself knows more than we do: maybe we can't articulate precisely why Dr. Vedder's innovations will not work, but we'd better respect tradition anyway less we replace something flawed with something worse.

Even a free-marketeer might point out that Dr. Vedder's ideas are not new. Such a market conservative might note that for some time now the notion of marketizing tenure has been on sale in the marketplace of ideas, but people just haven't been buying. Are these people just plain stupid? Or is there maybe some wisdom involved in their persistent, collective reluctance?

As for this post's crocodile tears about the pampering of the tenured professoriate and the exploitation of the adjuncts, see my comments over at Critical Mass. In the meantime, keep your eyes on Dick Bishirjian's brainchild, Yorktown University, as it becomes the Harvard of the South Platte.

capeman said...

eveningsun, you are probably too rational a mind to be hanging around here refuting Richard Vetter, or over there at that that other place you mentioned, Critical Mass.

It appears that there is a minor industry of sour ex-academics who spend their retirements or second careers attacking the higher education system that apparently has disappointed them. You probably know the web sites better than I.

I don't know if it's better to ignore them or to spend time answering them. As you point out very well, it seems unlikely that they are going to get very far, for example, in abolishing tenure. But it's possible they might do some damage as an irritant somewhere along the way.

Yes, it will be interesting to see how Yorktown University does. I really don't wish them ill, if somebody wants what they have to offer, more power to them. But their offerings really don't look all that inexpensive to me, no cheaper than a low-budget state university (even when you include the government subsidy).

Somehow I think the established university system is going to survive.

Eveningsun said...

Yeah, Capeman, you're right--probably a waste of time to hang around here.

FWIW, did you notice the story in this morning's Inside Higher Ed about the Moore College of Art and Design faculty member who got fired for his union activities? MCAD does not have tenure....

What are the chances CCAP is not about affordability at all, but just another thinly disguised anti-union, anti-tax, pro-privatization outfit?

capeman said...

Yes, I did read the story about that union organizer and I wondered if he had tenure.

Is CCAP really about affordability? I have no way of reading Vedder's mind. I'm inclined to think he believes in the affordability angle, but the unionization, tax, public/private stuff is all tied together with it.

I wouldn't object to the questioning of current practices if it wasn't attached to vicious attacks on everyone and everything.
Especially when the evidence, reasoning, and documentation are so shoddy. Especially when it is all so self-serving. For example, the attacks on university scholarship and research coupled with the presumption that their own "research papers" are to be taken seriously. The hypocrisy of some of these right-wing think tank people is pretty laughable.

Eveningsun said...

Capeman, I don't see any reason to believe Vedder is insincere. He's just wrong.

I've thought about what would happen if my campus offered a $20,000 annual raise to each of us 100 or so T/TT faculty members in exchange for tenure, and if every one of us took the money and became fire-at-will employees. The budget would instantly increase by $2 million annually. Would those costs be offset by the ability of the administration to get rid of deadwood and move faculty to units where they're most needed? Hah! The legislature and the governor would be screaming their heads off at such incredibly stupid management. They'd be saying, "Let's get this straight. You knew you had a good thing going because faculty members, weirdos that they are, accept tenure as a sort of psychic pay, and thus you were saving millions in salary, and then, on the advice of some egghead who was probably just a front man for a bunch of right-wingers, you decided to start paying faculty exclusively in cold hard cash?!"

It's not just that Vedder's ideas won't work out as he says they will. Even if they did work out that way, the results would be decidedly un-conservative. What true conservative wants college campuses that teach more technology courses but has dropped Dante? The idea that colleges should only fund studies that can justify themselves economically is not conservatism. There's nothing truly conservative about the belief that markets should determine not just things like prices but also values. That's not conservatism, it's market fundamentalism.

capeman said...

I don't believe that Vedder is insincere, he's just hypocritical in his sincerity. Oh, also just plain wrong, as you say. (The insincerity I was referring to is the denigration by himself and others of academic research, when he expects his own pretty lame stuff to be taken seriously. Oh, and also the fact that he apparently discovered the horrors of tenure after his retirement from his tenured, chaired professorship; perhaps I missed something in the public record, I would be pleased to learn I am wrong in my perception).

You are quite right about the consequences of following his absurd plan. $20,000 is kind of cheap to buy off tenure, but it would sure not seem cheap to a lot of colleges when the bills came due.