The star professor and what they are for

I’ve spent a good number of years studying the university star system, informally, with the idea that I would be one of these academ-o-stars someday. (I’m not. Quite sad, that. I’ve decided that in my field to be a start you must be in an independent department, perhaps in a liberal arts college, because the other disciplines where planners are usually housed (architects or economists and political scientists) tend to form torch-wielding mobs at the mere thought that a planner might be a star within planning, let alone in the Massively Much More Important Worlds of economists and architecture.  )

It’s actually really quite mysterious to me what makes for an academ-o-star in the first place. I completely understand why Manuel Castells is famous, but Stanley FIsh’s stardom has always fuddled me, and I have to say, so have various others over the years I’m too polite to mention.

Contrary to the Coursera idea that these “stars” are great classroom teachers, universities do not hire anybody because they are a “star” teacher.  The people with highest teaching evaluations and most encomiums and sincerest dedication to teaching get “oh, that’s nice” from their administrators, so long as those activities don’t crowd out publishing.  I’ll be the first to say that good teaching and good research supplement each other, but you can’t be seen as letting teaching eclipse your research, and it really doesn’t matter how much you produce in research: if the students think too highly of you…there will be the lingering suspicion that you could have done more research had you not squandered time on being available to the people who actually pay the university’s bills.

That said, what are star professors?  Star professors are the ones that line up many citations; they are people that other scholars recognize. Professors who are stars have a ‘brand’–a set of contributions for which they are associated, and those contributions are considered important.  Usually, stars bring money–federal money, optimally.  Stars bring the attention of other scholars at other universities to you so that your university might move up the rankings. Those rankings in USA Today matter like crazy to the minds of the administrator.

It helps if your stars like to write op-eds and talk on tv, particularly for us in policy schools.  And yeah, being handsome or pretty is jackpot: see Ferguson, Niall.

Star faculty are used, as I pointed out on Facebook, like the Picasso in the exhibition: they get people through the door to see the rest of the non-famous, but probably worthy,  parts of the exhibit, just like the Tony or Academy Award winner gets more eyes on the play or movie.  The other actors may be benefit from this, but it’s not clear. Try looking at the promotional materials for VT and see if you can find one that doesn’t prominently feature Nikki Giovanni.

Other rules, less rational in a market.

1.  The person you must lure from a university 900 miles away is a star; the person with pretty much the same record already working for you is infinitely unworthy compared to that person 900 miles away.

2.  Teaching is immaterial to how much research one should produce, unless is letting a star out of teaching.  To wit: one will say to one’s dean, “oh, my, I’m disappointed in my raise this year. What’s the deal? Whom should I be looking to as exemplars.” He will say “Star X and Star Y outproduced you in publication by a lot.”  One responds: “But Star X only teaching one class a year with 10 students in it, and Star Y teaches 2 classes a year, and I teach four classes a year with 50 students each in it.”  Dean: Blank stare, then “but they publish more than you.”  The assumption, of course, is that your teaching is easy and must take you no time whatsoever, but that when it comes to negotiating, stars may of course be rewarded with low teaching duties because, well, teaching is so time-consuming.

David Rubinstein’s “cushy” job and how he squandered it

Peter Gordon, one of my wonderful colleagues, sent me a link to Andrew Gellman’s blog where he discuss this Op-Ed, from David Rubenstein: “Thank you, Taxpayers, For My Cushy Life.”

What we are supposed to take away from Rubinstein’s essay is that professors are milking “the system” and “the taxpayers” just like he did. There may be a need for pension reform-I don’t know. I’m not an expert in that policy field, other than the basic desire I have to keep elderly people from having to eat cat food to survive.

But on Rubinstein’s exaggerations about how easy the job is…I have a problem. And so do a bunch of Gellman’s commentators.

1) No wonder economists mock sociologists* if a guy with this level of reasoning can get tenure at UIC. Let’s hope he’s a odd exemplar of the species. UIC is no Harvard, but it’s not a bad university. But his arguments boil down to “these are my experiences and because I experienced them, they must hold valuable lessons for the world at large” and “I’ve never met anybody who left the academy for the private sector, so nobody must ever do it.” Those are nothing more than simple anecdotes.

We can swap anecdotes all day.

Most of my PhD students are from computer science or other programs in the College of Engineering at USC. I’d say one in five stays in the academy–the rest all race to the private sector, and this isn’t leaving-after-years-of-hanging-on-in-adjuncting-misery leaving. This is prior-to-graduation-never-seriously-considered-the-academy- “buh bye, I get a 40 hour work week, a lab of my own, and $70K more a year” leaving the academy for the private sector kind of leaving.

So is his experience the relevant, truthy one, or is mine? Or is there a lesson in there about why your personal anecdotes don’t prove diddlysquat about anything, other than your hubris of generalizing from biased sample of one?

Was his research like this? A quick check on Google Scholar suggests…yes. Anybody know any more about this guy’s contributions?

*Some of the brightest, most gifted, and most well-trained scholars I know are sociologists, and I respect them tremendously, so I suspect Rubinstein is an outlier. Or this personal essay of his was just slop?

2) So Rubinstein receives the privilege of tenure, and he proceeds–like many people who have privilege–to squander it on himself. And then he wants to shift the blame for his own juvenile unwillingness to contribute on a system too dumb/wired/elitist to stop him from taking advantage.

He writes on in smugness designed to raise taxpayer ire. I am sure he’ll have accomplished that, and yet all I can think of is: you poor, old dummy.

Instead of using his time to do more than the bare minimum, Rubinstein glows about how he sloughed along. Nothing–nothing other than himself and his own impoverished world view –prevented him from using that time to learn new educational tools (they are myriad), or developing more, better, and updated classes.He could have spent more time serving students in groups or committees. Nothing stopped him from doing that. He wasn’t strapped for cash or time, as he brags. He wasn’t loaded down with service.

He just didn’t.

Somehow, that’s the system’s fault instead of his own lack of character.

So while I am supposed to be outraged–either as a taxpayer or as a professor because Rubinstein betrayed the tribe–I just feel sad for him. He was given a great privilege-with a much lower standard than I was held to in order to get tenure–the gift of time, the freedom to reflect–and he didn’t use it for anything. Not his students. He didn’t use it to add to the human endeavor through his research. He obviously did nothing with that gift to make himself really proud, other than whatever happiness he gets out of his five minutes of fame here and the feeling that he milked the system.

My older colleagues are, for the most part, working damn hard. But even the ones who are coasting a bit still have books and students they can look back on with pride. It wasn’t a cushy job for them–but it was a great job–as it could have been for Rubinstein if he’d had the guts and character to make it great.

But he chose not to. And for some reason, he thinks that we’re all like him.

If that’s so, why do I have three new, wonderful classes cooking? Classes that I really, really shouldn’t even be considering teaching if, as Rubinstein suggests, we’re all just doing the bare minimum? Why do I have more projects and work than I know what to do with?

Getting $100,000 to not go to college

The media has been in full-scale, full-court press noting Peter Thiel’s fellowship fund that gives $100,000 to 24 students who who have to write a proposal for their idea. If they win, they get to go work in Silicon Valley where Thiel believes, they will learn more than they would if they went to college.

There have been various and sundry responses, as Thiel outspokenly argues that going to college is a waste of time and money.

Oddly enough, I agree in some ways. ZOMG, a college professor said that? ZOMG! Why that’s just proof!

Um, no. I’m saying that if your plan is to go to college so that you can make money, there are other, faster ways of making money. And if some zillionaire is going to give you the capital and the connections to do that, go for it. If you fail, so what? You can always back to college if you want to. Or you can start over.

One of my brilliant colleagues, Darius Lackadawalla, said once “You’re always teaching.” Just so, you’re always learning, too. It’s the fundamental rule of human interaction and communication. You can learn and teach anywhere. I don’t have a monopoly on anything.

It’s weird, but college athletes might actually be a good comparison here. Kobe Bryant and Lebron James did not go to college. Straight from high school to the NBA, they are probably now much, much better off financially than had they foregone that income to go to college. And as an instructor who has plenty of athletes in my class who would rather not be in my class…why not let them go do what they love the most in the world–what they are willing to spend 10 hours a day practicing at? Rather than make them suffer through school they don’t like.

Instead, let the ones that have used to sports to go to college, well, go to college, and let the ones that are using college to get to sports…go do their sport.

Michael Jordan went to college first, and I’d argue it did benefit him financially. Much, much savvier about handling the press because of learning it under the wing of UNC coach Dean Smith (a man I respect greatly as an educator), than Bryant, Jordan’s endorsements probably exceed Bryants’ by an exponent–not inconsequentially because Bryant showed his young adulthood to the world and, like many young adulthoods, it wasn’t at all a pretty one.

And like college athletes, the truth is, most basketball players, even players in the NBA, are not Kobe Bryant or Lebron James or Michael Jordon. They aren’t. Plenty of them benefit from the additional time they get to mature in college. (Whether they should do that in college, or in a farm system that the NBA has to pay for, is another debate).

Just so, most of us are not people who are going to be among the 25 people who get handed $100,000 at the age of 18 or 19 from Thiel, and many of us, like me, would never get that from our parents. I also don’t see banks stepping in to capitalize a kid’s idea, either. But, again, if so, more power to you.

I have moved across socio-economic classes in the US entirely because of education. That, to me, has been a nice subsidiary effect of learning about the world that I occupy, and, most importantly, learning the contours and eddies of my own mind and spirit.

That is what education is for. Like food, it has its pure utilitarian value–how much money it puts in your wallet or takes out–and its pleasure value.

On losing your “nice” in the academy

How do scholars develop? I think I have hit a new stage.

In general, I have tried to be a departmental good guy. I go to the things where we give our time to recruit students. I give my time to program directors. I say yes when self-interest says no. I sincerely have treated this work as part of my job.

Friday, I hit a wall. I lost my nice. I think, perhaps, forever.

I got up three hours earlier than I normally would have for a meeting. When I arrived, sick and bleary-eyed from lack of sleep, I was told my assignment for the meeting was to “meet somebody I didn’t know.”

Something cracked in my brain.

You’re not entitled to my time, people.

I have enough friends. I meet hundreds of people a month, going to conferences and meetings around the world. I realize that not everything is about benefitting me, but…does any of this really benefit anybody?

I behaved abominably at the meeting, offending one of our excellent staff people. I wasn’t sure at the time why, but I do now.

After that meeting, we went into a two-hour faculty meeting where new departmental policies on cell phones and space planning *were read to us*.

If there is anything that having a PhD should say about you, it’s that YOU ALREADY KNOW HOW TO READ.

I realized that I was doing this for people who are not, in fact, using my time well, and, since they know they are not using your time well, they don’t respect you for showing up. It’s a bad cycle. They don’t use your time well because they don’t respect your time because, it seems obvious to them, you’re not using your time well because you showed up. And those people who do use their time well? They never show up. Because these things aren’t a good use of time.

And on it goes.

Prior to last Friday, I used to think that my showing up sent the following message:
I’m very busy, but I made time for your activity because I value what you do. I am here to support you, the collective and the endeavor.

In reality, nobody respects you for showing up. For one, senior people just want junior people to shut up. People just want you to comply. They talk at you. You’re supposed to sit and listen. And clap.

By giving your time to students and colleagues, they read that message as:

I’m not doing anything important. If I were doing something important, I wouldn’t be here.

So of course they treat you like you’re not doing any research–or if you are doing any research, it must be lower in impact than the people who never show up or–if they show up at all–flounce in a half hour late. These are the people who will get constant praise and attention and salary increases for every time they go to the bathroom.

For students and people outside the academy, they tend to blame research for the fact that some faculty don’t bother showing up for them or giving them time and attention.

But the only real tradeoff is in culture and mystique.

And in salary. It’s much better to never show and be considered a hot commodity, in demand, and on the move, than it is to be nice.

One of my colleagues, Richard Green, is fantastic about showing up and doing great work, but he came to USC as a star. For people like me, being nice is, simply, a bad career move. You will lose hours you could have spent on your own work, and you will lose the respect of the people around you and they will instead give their respect to the people who put themselves first.

I am not in a position of understanding what putting yourself first all the time means in terms of your own development. For all I know, it may be beneficial intellectually as well as in the culture of the academy. It will probably yield me more sleep, more hours with my beloved data, more time for reading and reflecting, more time for learning new things, and more leisure time. Works for me.

Reading Bill Cronon’s emails

For those in and around the planning academy, we’ve been having a discussion about the request from the head of the Republican Party of Wisconsin to read all of Cronon’s emails since January 1, the ones that contain words of particular interest to them.

Cronon’s response is here. His response is well-reasoned if a mite too long. But his basic takeaway point is that much of his university email has to do with students, and they are entitled to privacy.

The reason for subjecting state emails to FOIA requests are evident enough. But the restriction on political content goes to back to trying to make sure that elected officials and state workers do not use state emails and electronic media to conduct campaigns–at least outwardly. Things from a .gov email address should be about .gov business, not about campaign business.

Various responses have been posted, but one sent in to the planning listserv is potentially very counterproductive: to send Cronon email with the word “Republican” or ‘republican’ in it so that they have to sort through all those emails.

There are text mining methods that take the tedium out of such work, and the resulting word cloud can be interpreted to mean anything. Which is one of the problems with word clouds, in general. So if you were to do anything like that, it would allow the political content to pop out of the analysis, which is what they want.

As it is, I suspect the naturalistic word cloud from Cronon’s emails, if they are anything like mine, would read “CAN I HAVE EXTRA CREDIT?” and “THE COMMITTEE MEETING WILL BE HELD….”

I propose the following:

By all means, read my email from January 1 onward. But for each subject that arises in those emails, you have to write a summary of that subject–only a sentence or two–interpreting the content and context of that subject, the same way a rigorous qualitative researcher would have to do. You want to wade through 10,000+ emails, go right ahead, but you don’t get to use text mining to pull things out of context and create your cudgel with which to beat me until you’ve done the work to understand what I’m writing emails about.

To Cronon’s larger point, that the request is abusing the Freedom of Information Act, yes. It’s kind of interesting that the requester seems to think that all this information should just be sent to him. What country do you live in, Pumpkin? Because in my world, where I regularly go through archival information from big state institutions, I’m spending my life (or student’s lives) actually going to the institutions that have the information I request.

Here’s how FOIA requests go for the average community member who would like information released about any number government documents:

1. You can have the information, but not electronically, and we don’t sort through documents to suit you. You can get the emails, but they will be printed out with big black Sharpie strikethroughs redacting information that identifies students or personnel.

2. You may not leave the building with the big stack of papers. You must photocopy them at 5 cents a page. We don’t want your FOIA requests sucking up taxpayer resources, now do we? Oh, and the copier will be up three flights of stairs, which you will have to run up and down 14 times because the copier (which hasn’t been replaced since the Carter administration) keeps getting jammed, resetting, or refusing your code/card/instructions.

3. Alternatively, you may bring in a pen scanner to scan line by line. That’s some special awesome fun there.

Nothing can be boxed and sent, as that would take up state worker time and postage. You must come to my office, leave proof of your identity, and then work with the archive of my email with the supervision of the librarian. We should do a background check on you beforehand. Can’t be letting the terrorists win by taking advantage of our open government, can we?

Enjoy your reading, sir.

On happier things, William Cronon’s work matters–a lot. As a historian, his work is nothing less than magisterial. I have two favorites to recommend:

Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West.


Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature


Finally, let’s look at this scary scary guy who needs such watching:


I bet he *rides a bicycle* to work. Commie.

Is it my job to discourage PhD students?

I stirred up some trouble over at Code and Culture because I pushed back on Gabriel’s post on the problems faced by adjuncts. Rossman’s breakdown of the contemporary academy’s treatment of adjunct is pretty standard, which is one reason why I stirred the hornet’s nest: Rossman is not one to fall into standard tropes about anything.

The standard story: poor adjuncts, sufferers from the glut of PhDs, eat the crumbs left by the tenure track faculty, while the tenure track faculty live well, teach only highly desired graduate courses, etc. This story you can find almost weekly in the Chronicle of Higher Education, and the Economist runs a story on it every decade. One nonstandard element of Rossman’s breakdown is the (probably) correct assumption that unionizing won’t accomplish much for adjuncts.

I have a somewhat different perspective. Rossman has spent his graduate and post-graduate time at universities that have a tremendous number of hangers-on: Princeton and UCLA. By contrast, I began at Virginia Tech in a challenging location for recruitment, and while we did have PhD students teach, we did not have an army of adjuncts. Nonetheless, we still taught the standard load. It was a bit more work than what I have at USC–I did more course preps—-but it was hardly a life of slavery. It got me thinking: who really benefits from the excess labor pool and who doesn’t?

I strongly suspect–though I have no proof–that universities and taxpayers/tuition payers are the big beneficiaries of adjuncts. At VT, we simply offered somewhat fewer courses to graduate than other programs do, which made us a bit less competitive. So one thing universities get to do is require more credits to graduate if they have adjuncts. And even though parents, students, and taxpayers are footing the bill for this diversity of choice, they would have to pay more if they got this diversity with tenure-track faculty. In return students do get access to a much bigger pool of classes and majors than otherwise. The university benefits (and employees, like faculty, benefit) from the appearance of satisfying customer/voter demands and capturing more consumer surplus through more supply provided by adjuncts–and I suspect this is particularly true in the campus moneymakers of business and engineering.

So at VT my senior faculty preferred I teach environmental courses rather than transport courses because we had a critical mass of environmental courses already, and we could respectably claim that speciality. But a credible transport concentration was not going to happen with just me and Tom Sanchez, both of us capable of buying out classes when we felt like it. At USC, we have more faculty and a whole bunch of professional transport people who actually want to teach, so we can credibly offer both transport and environment.

Thus I’m not convinced my life is that much different as a faculty member in an adjunct rich place than it was in an adjunct poor one. And it’s not like faculty at major research universities fifty years ago taught five classes a semester prior to adjuncts becoming common. These tenure-track faculty taught their 2/2, they did their research. Same as now.

If anything, the adjunct labor pool probably depresses tenure track wages and makes tenure track positions more scarce. Why hire a relatively more expensive, less governable t-t faculty member if you have two people who are willing to work for low wages with little long-term risk? Tenure creates its own barriers to entry, but surely the willingness of some to work for little compensation does not help.

So if there are too many PhDs, whose fault is it? The tenure-track faculty who exploit graduate student labor? I find that hard to believe because in my experience with students, even very good ones, are time-consuming. Some are simply not going anywhere: they don’t really understand the job, and they don’t listen to you, or conversely, you are incapable of communicating anything in the way they need to hear it; there are many ways a teacher can fail a student and vice versa. My own advisor, an exceptionally gifted scholar in multiple ways, is truly gifted at working with students of differing intellectual and emotional maturities, approaches, and interests. My colleague, David Sloane, is similarly gifted. But not all of us are so gifted, and I most assuredly am not.

As to my needing graduate students to do my work? My workload is less when I am by myself, working alone: few people that I know (and, more importantly, that I can boss around) handle data as well as I do.

Moreover, it’s very hard to distinguish–really–who among graduate students has the stuff to succeed and who won’t. So while perhaps we should cull back, it’s hard at admissions to suss who is going to be a star and who won’t be. It’s also hard to figure it out at the margin. At the extremes, it’s easy: the people who think the academy is a 9 to 5 job with three months off in the summer–good luck to them. Chances are, they will have more time off than they’d like. Sure, you think you know who has the juice to fight their way through a tough labor market and who doesn’t, but you don’t know. My colleagues are wrong about students all the time, and so am I.

Stars like Rossman and his spouse, one of my incredibly productive colleagues, Nicole Esparza, are easy to place bets on. They are on the end of the distribution of young people easy to see as likely successes–the shiny ones who say and write more brilliant things before breakfast than the rest of us do in a week (or in a lifetime). They possess a winning combination: they have great ideas, motivation, and strong writing voices. But among us ordinary types, work and luck make a difference, and it’s harder to see who should stay and who shouldn’t.

Alfred Kahn, tenure, Socrates, and telling the truth as you see it

The Economist has a very good obituary for economist Alfred Kahn, who (for better and worse) revolutionized passenger and freight transport in the United States. Reading through it reminded me of why tenure matters and why the academy matters, despite all the criticisms and self-lampooning from a lot of academics who, as often as not, want to be cool kids with the nonacademics while, of course, partaking in all the benefits of academic life.

An excerpt from the obit:

Breezily, too, he winged his way in government. He was an academic, after all; he had nothing to lose, so he would speak his mind. Asked once by a reporter if he could defend the defence budget, he said “No”. Told off for using the word “depression” in public, he replaced it with “banana”, and announced that the country was heading for its worst banana in 45 years. Told off by the head of United Fruit for using “banana”, he made it “kumquat”. As the oil price continued to soar he called the Arab producers “schnooks”, earning yet another rebuke; but he didn’t care. He could always go back to being dean of Cornell’s College of Arts and Sciences, as he did in 1980, even though “dean is to faculty as a hydrant is to a dog.”

No, the academy is far from perfect. There are plenty of frauds here, too, like that guy who faked his findings connecting autism to inoculations. Eyugh. The pain he’s caused.

But there is something really important about having people around who aren’t afraid to lose their jobs if they tell the truth as they see it, and who have the time to consider issues. Certainly experts aren’t the only source of interesting or important ideas, but there are an awful lot of people around me on a daily basis who do, in fact, have incredible ideas. I’m proud of my colleagues and wonder just about every day what I did to deserve to be employed where I am.

Yes, it takes years to earn the privilege of not losing your job when you tell the truth (i.e., “we are in a recession, or a banana, or a kumquat: call it what you want, but people are suffering.”). Yes, there are those who overstate their findings, or the importance of what they think. There are those who try to make you conform, even in the academy–but don’t try to tell me that people are powerless to resist that. They can. And do.

There are even those protected by tenure who have very little of value to say. It happens.

But for every one of those types, I swear there is another person, like Alfred Kahn, and like many of my wonderful colleagues, who have interesting and meaningful things to say that would be nearly impossible for them to say if they had to worry about losing their jobs.

For example, I recently got into an argument with our Op-Ed gatekeeper at USC because I wrote something that remarks about how Jerry Brown is being gutless about taxes–and gas taxes in particular. Our Op-Ed guy (who is wonderful–well-read, reflective) said that such a proposal is “politically dead on arrival” so it’s irrelevant. I pushed back: it’s not my job to take good ideas off the table just because powerful and entrenched interests don’t like those ideas. My job is the opposite of worrying about what people like. I’m not selling soda.

Socrates told the Athenians not to kill off their good generals. He told them not to make unnecessary trouble with the Spartans. They killed him for saying so, and for failing to pretend afterwards that he wasn’t 100 percent right. But he did his job, and his decision left us with one of the most beautiful passages of literature I have ever read, from Plato’s Phaedo:

I would not have him sorrow at my hard lot, or say at the burial, Thus we lay out Socrates, or Thus we follow him to the grave or bury him; for false words are not only evil in themselves, but they infect the soul with evil.

Thinking about this stuff has become all the more poignant as I have been thinking about Glenn Beck and his characterization of Francis Fox Piven as an “enemy of the Constitution.”

I’m wondering whether any these Constitution thumpers can actually describe what’s in it, let alone what the ekklesia were, what a republic is, who John Witherspoon was–or Polybius, Plutarch, Tacitus or Cicero. Can they describe the considerable differences of opinion expressed by John Jay, Alexander Hamilton (another intellectual hero of mine) and James Madison? Or is the Constitution just something about the right to have guns and not pay taxes because you don’t want to and spout whatever prejudiced garbage you believe—and being able to whine like crybaby about your precious “values” or “identity” or “rights” being threatened when somebody calls you on your ignorance—undoubtedly one of Palin’s least attractive behaviors.

Certainly, they can’t have much faith in the Constitution if they believe that educated people, by discussing ideas, threaten it. I believe strongly in ideas, don’t get me wrong, but I have faith that the Constitution will survive the spiritual and intellectual squalor the American people have constructed around it and themselves—a far bigger threat, if history is to believed, than any scholar–even a great one like Fox Piven.

Tenure and economic envy

It seems like every day since I actually got tenure there’s been somebody on the web screaming about tenure. This may be simply be perception, but I don’t think so: Slate recently started in on it, arguing that tenure is bad for professors, too, making the system too rigid, scaring bright people away and into industry and sucking up endowments.

I think most of the arguments are a crock, made made by people who don’t understand labor markets very well, and who want to curry favor with a public that is resentful–the economic envy argument–about the veneer of a potentially unproductive person having a job for life when they, supposedly to have to fight to keep their jobs. This particularly gleeful piece in GOOD annoyed me mightily, as his argument is that tenure and its focus on research promotes poor quality education.

Yeah, right, because you know, the absence of researching responsibilities has done just wonders for K-12 teaching in the US. There are many many universities across the country that tenure is based on teaching rather than research. So what does that mean for the connection between teaching and tenure?

Mark C. Taylor in particular seems to have no idea what he is talking about:

Mark C. Taylor, chair of the Columbia University department of religion and author of the forthcoming Crisis on Campus: A Bold Plan for Reforming Our Colleges and Universities, calculates that someone who serves as an associate professor with tenure for five years and then becomes a full professor for 30 years costs a private university $12.2 million.* Public universities pay $10 million over the same period. And because most universities pay tenured professors out of their endowments, each professor freezes up tens of millions in otherwise-liquid endowment money for a generation. University debt jumped 54 percent last year, with an average debt of $168 million. If the average university tenured about 15 fewer professors, they’d be in the black.

link: The case for getting rid of tenure. – By Christopher Beam – Slate Magazine

For anybody who actually understands labor markets, this whole paragraph makes your eyeballs cross with its illogic. Tenure isn’t costing the university millions; employing faculty is costing the university. Yes, we all know that employees cost money, we didn’t need a proffie of religion to point that out.

Because tenure eliminates some risk for the laborer, the actual salary renumeration that they command is lower; so yes, the lifetime salary commitment freezes up money, but it probably freezes up *less money over time* than market-rate wages for the same people would. In other words, tenure probably saves the university money at the same time it makes funds less liquid. And you can *seriously* discipline an unproductive faculty member with tenure. If you are unproductive after tenure, your ability to move becomes very limited. Suddenly, you start getting 0.5 percent raises year after year and what seems like a great job you can’t get fired from is a lousy-paying job you can’t really leave.

Tenure benefits both universities and faculty in different ways, but the result would be a wash in the labor market between higher-paying private industry jobs with more risk and comparatively lower paying, higher benefit university jobs.

And everybody knows that you can save money by running out and hiring cheap adjuncts. We’re talking about what it would cost to keep people like Gen Giuliano or Richard Green or Dana Goldman around without tenure.

No matter how much little reporters from GOOD seem to think faculty are like teachers who merely teach 13th grade and squander their time on silly books and articles, tenured faculty at the Columbia level are a highly specialized labor force who do a lot more than show up in the class room. Research *is* worth money to the university; I pay for my salary and more out of the external funding; I strongly suspect that even though Robert Service does not get a lot of external funding, the fact that he’s a super-duper famous historian who writes best-selling books attracts lots of check-writing students to Oxford. The faculty are the premier talent of the university; as a result, those of us who are really premier can charge economic rents–regardless of whether an angry public likes it or not.

Not everybody can do what Robert Service or Elizabeth Currid does–even if, as an exaction, universities make them teach 13th grade as well. For people like Robert Service, tenure is a good deal for the university: it’s why universities are risk averse about handing tenure out; it can be expensive to them if they make a bad choice, but it’s probably an economic benefit if they bet on a star.

The other major myth is that “you’d no run no other business in this way.” Please. Can the rampaging neoliberal ethic of the world take a break, just for a second, and get over itself? Regular businesses operate this way all time and hides it under the rubric of seniority and contracts. Yes, you can fire adjuncts. And yes, you can fail to promote junior faculty. Try firing an incompetent staff member at any public or private university. Just try it. You’ll be told in hushed tones that “it’s impossible because…”

So in other words, my job protection may have an easy-to-pronounce label like tenure, but there are plenty of bone-idle incompetent people in the US labor force who are protected by their buddies, seniority, or institutional position. Can we say: run company into the ground, I-banker still gets $15 million bonus? I think we can. You think that’s not a corrupt labor market but tenure is? And if the business world is so rife with cutting-edge competitiveness, why are the archetypes of Dilbert so familiar–to everybody?

What Taylor really wants–and what Gordon Gee wants–is the power to further bully faculty–because they are both administrators and once you grant tenure, your ability to screw your faculty goes down by a lot. They also want to save a quick buck and make their deficits go away. They’re right, tenuring fewer people would make that happen. By all means, Mr. Taylor, you go ahead and try it. USC would be on Jeffery Sach’s door the next day with an offer of tenure and a raise and a house for him.

The other thing I don’t understand is why anybody in the world thinks that deconstructing a system with job stability is a good idea given what we know has happened to US workers more generally in the last, corporate greed riddled decades. Yes, by all means, let’s make government and university jobs lousy just like corporate jobs–rather than the other way around–to make sure that dividends never suffer ad tax bills in no way cut into in the top fifth’s money for island villas and designer handbags. That’s justice, right there.

I have always contended that tenure protects departments–departments like Mark Taylor’s, in particular. Tenure keeps ambitious provosts and administrators from cutting departments like religion and turning universities just into giant training schools for businesses. It’s keeping civilization alive, albeit in deeply flawed way.

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How to be a citizen of the university–Richard Levin on James Tobin

I photocopied some materials this morning to share with a colleague of mine who is teaching a class on teaching–something USC does for our students that my beloved alma did not do for us. When I mentioned teaching there, I got chewed out. It’s not about teaching, I was told. It’s about research.

Of course it is.

But then, when I went out and got my first teaching job, I was underwater trying to put together courses and syllabi–all things I could have been learning in graduate school.

What nobody tells you is that teaching and researching go together in terms of time management. It’s not enough to exhort young scholars not to “spend too much time on their teaching” because 1) teaching is a very hard job and researching is a very hard, and that means that scholars actually have two very hard jobs to do when classes are in session; 2) there are about million false time economies in teaching (if you take late work, you stretch the hours you spend grading; if you refuse to take late work, you spend hours listening to students rationalize, lie, and complain and/or enforcing your “no late work” rule); and 3) if you don’t manage your teaching well enough, the emotional energy and work it drains from you detracts from your research. The opposite can be true–teaching can support your research, quite easily, in fact–but it often doesn’t because of the willingness that senior faculty have to plug junior faculty into teaching roles that don’t draw on their existing areas of expertise.

Most universities are scrambling to cover courses, and it’s hard to match teachers with subjects exactly. Nonetheless, it is easier for scholars to teach in their areas of expertise than it is to teach outside them. And it helps to teach in your area because you can acquire knowledge of how teach the material instead of having to learn the material yourself as you teach the material.

Yale President Richard Levin eulogized James Tobin, one of my favorite economists, when Tobin passed away. I love this eulogy because it is fond without sentimentality. It is a very truthful appraisal of Tobin as a member of a university community, and to me it epitomizes what happens when a great scholar is allowed to teach the material he’s a master of:

He was so clear, so coherent, so perfect that one understood not only the particular models he explicated and their limitations, but also how one might ask and answer a large family of questions in the same conceptual neighborhood.

Two things: Levin doesn’t spend any time time discussion Tobin’s research contributions. Those will either stand out–or not–and withstand the test of time on their own, or they won’t. Chances are, you win a Nobel, you don’t have to fret too much about your legacy. Instead, Levin talks about the invisible work of a great scholar–the greatness that Tobin exemplified as the master of his field, and how the assurance he had in the mastery of the material made for clarity and presence in the classroom.

If my recent research on this is any indicator, young female faculty and very senior male faculty are *far* more likely to get shoved into the frontlines of teaching undergraduate general education course than young male faculty or senior female faculty. In the case of the universities I sampled, senior male faculty outnumbered senior female faculty 7 to 1; you are more likely if you are senior female faculty to be holding administrative responsibilities than if you are a male, which means these senior women are less available to teach in the froshie frontlines. Male junior faculty are much more likely to be teaching upper division and graduate classes in their fields.

So that thing about being a master of the material is differentially allocated between male and female scholars, and departmental housekeeping is allocated in an oddly gendered way, yet gendered nonetheless.

I’m thinking about calling this paper “Masters and Mommies” because of the way in which young female faculty are teaching 13th grade.

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