A few days ago, we started debating an opinion piece that ran in the New York Times on higher education reform. The author of that piece, as you may recall, among other things, suggested that the institution of tenure be dissolved. As you can imagine, several readers of this site, many of whom work at the University of Michigan and Eastern Michigan University, had strong opinions on the matter. (If you haven’t, I’d suggest that you check out our conversation.) Among the people contributing to that conversation was an assistant professor at a local university, who had the following to say. I liked it quite a bit, not because it makes the case for or against tenure, but because it explains honestly and concisely the process one goes though to attain tenure, at least in the hard sciences.
Why tenure for me? It’s a tough question, and I understand the arguments against it. First of all, post-tenure does not mean “long vacation”. If anything the pressure increases because with tenure comes the expectation of leadership. Anyway… Assistant professors are trying to build a lab (I make no claims to understand non-science), carve out a niche (but interesting and fundable) research area, train graduate students, mentor postdocs, recruit new graduate students, review other scientists’ papers and grants, write your own papers and grants, serve on multiple committees, invite outside speakers and host them, attend meetings to learn what others are doing while selling the significance of your own work, fix crap in the lab when you’re the only one who can, and…………… teach (as if most of the other stuff isn’t teaching too). So whatever, everyone has a lot to do, I usually work a minimum of 12 hours a day, and I actually really enjoy it. The theme of the above duties, however, is that they are largely personal. My job is to make “my” mark and get it recognized by my senior colleagues at peer institutions so that they will write favorable letters to my tenure committee. Now, I’m definitely not that full of myself that I actually see it like that, if I did this would be torture. Instead I look at my l job like this: interact with an exceptional group of young scientists, with diverse backgrounds and future goals, share with them my enthusiasm for unlocking nature’s mysteries, be critical of their data, skeptical of their conclusions, but supportive of them as thinkers so they will have the guts to come up with their own ideas. I try to provide a safe and fertile intellectual environment, with enough experience that they don’t end up down too many garden paths, but not to shut off all garden paths. They work in the physical lab, and I try to foster a “lab of ideas” with them as coworkers. Sounds pretty cool doesn’t it?
Now here’s the thing. There is not infinite time. I need to prove “myself” by about year 5 or 6, which means we can’t just lounge around in a beanbag chair of thoughtful bliss forever. We need to produce results so that when the “letter writers” get my package they will say I will continue to be successful. What are the inevitable consequences of this? First, we try to publish our results as soon as we can, and often it is too soon. Fortunately the peer review process (much faster in science than non-science) allows some correction, but often reviewers do not catch problems that we catch ourselves. Second, we must tackle manageable problems that will lead to publishable results in a short, < 6 month, timescale (per student, for example). That leads to about 2 publications per year per student, and with 3-4 students (typical for my area) I would have enough papers for an open-and-shut tenure case. Also, that publishing rate only really happens in years 3+, since we have to first build a ridiculously complicated lab from scratch.
Tenure enables this: risk. Doesn’t that surprise you? Most people think tenure is about security. It is: job security that enables intellectual risk. I think “academic freedom” is an old-fashioned term. It might mean something to those who say “controversial” things, but rarely are scientists really worried about that. What we are worried about is, can I start this potentially paradigm-defining research project even though I might not get tangeable results for 3-5 years? Now, the realities are that somehow I am going to have to find funding for my research group from folks like the NSF, NIH, Navy, DOE, etc… But some of those funding agencies are more long-term focused than the 7-year time horizon proposed by the Columbia professor.
The senior tenured faculty have analogous pressures. Rather than build their own “names” they have to advance the position of the department on the national stage. They are expected to spearhead bold initiatives, and to coordinate large proposals for research centers, large equipment, often needing to bring together researchers from varied disciplines that don’t necessarily share the same culture or speak the same language (figuratively, usually). They are chairs of the committees, serve on external panels, edit journals, consult, start spin-offs, organize meetings and travel to other schools often since they are so famous (they hope). Each and every one of these duties deprives them of precious deep thinking time and opportunities to directly interact with their grad students and postdocs. Oh, and they also “teach”.
Another reason that tenure is beneficial to scholarly and pedagogical progress is that I think scientists are a lot like artists–they are never truly satisfied with what they have done, and they always see ways to improve or make more impactful their work. As a guitarist, I have never been an artist. Though technically proficient, I always saw playing guitar as fun, and I lacked the self-criticism that I came to know separated the artists from the players. It’s a cliche, but most scientists realize that as one advances in a career, one merely augments one’s awareness of one’s ignorance. This can be a fightening pursuit, and tenure is one security that we can count on.
I don’t know about you, but I found that extremely interesting.