Quantifying the expense, as well as benefits, of tenure is a dicey business. I’ve been thinking some about Robert Dickeson’s white paper prepared for the Future of Higher Education Commission, which puts a $1 million per faculty member cost on tenure.
A lot of what makes it institutionally expensive isn’t easily quantified. Much of its expense is a matter of lost flexibility to shift subject coverage within a curriculum. If your institutional model isn’t built around attracting students directly to a pre-professional or vocational track, then you can’t really put a price tag on flexibility. The other cost that Dickeson mentions is the inability to effectively discipline or sanction unproductive or incompetent members of the faculty. That, too, is difficult to figure in cost terms in your average liberal arts college or even research university. If your students are attracted by institutional reputation, and the vast majority of your faculty are strong or at least competent teachers, then a few bad apples won’t keep customers away. It would be rare for a university to have to actually pay for someone to substitute for a chronic underperformer. If a professor is teaching a subject that students feel drawn to (or is a requirement), they’ll take it even if a professor has a bad reputation, so there isn’t even a cost for “picking up the slack”, exactly.
Dickeson is an educational consultant, recently retired as the head of the Lumina Foundation. His white paper doesn’t include an account of how he calculated his $1 million price tag. I’m with Michael Berube on this one: that number feels pulled out of nowhere.
Both of these issues speak to real qualitative costs, however. You can’t put a price tag on disappointed students, but if they have enough disappointing experiences, it corrodes the heart and soul of the whole enterprise. (And probably costs you when you come courting them as alumni.) There is a different kind of gravity attached to investing in faculty and their fields of specialization for thirty-five years as opposed to five years.
If you really want to think about the costs of tenure, or the costs of staffing even in an institution with long-term (five to seven year) renewable faculty contracts, some surprising issues arise. Among the most strident critics, I don’t see a lot of attention to the fine-grained problems that actually arise in institutional planning.
For example, tenure is concretely, quantifiably the most expensive in departments that have highly sequential, tightly constructed curricular offerings and relatively high student enrollments per FTE faculty. The reason? The institution pretty much has to staff the department for each person on leave. If you’ve got a departmental major that’s in demand and that has many specific requirements, you can’t take those requirements out of the market for an entire year. In contrast, a department that has a relatively open or forgiving structure for completion of its major is a cheap date. Take a FTE out of the mix for a year, and there’s almost certainly enough excess capacity available to compensate, as long as the students are relatively unrestricted in their alternatives.
In general, I’d say it’s more likely to be the natural sciences and the hard social sciences that have expensive curricular structures. That gets balanced at selective institutions, especially research universities, by the money the sciences bring in. So in a way, if you really wanted to think about costs, what you’d want to think about is not tenure, or even the large-scale complaints Dickeson makes, but just about whether you really want humanities departments to have highly hierarchical or rigidly structured majors while also providing good support for sabbaticals in those departments.
I was thinking about this and similar issues a bit this year because I was involved in some college-wide planning. A related problem that came up for me is, “Why do departments constantly try to get more tenure lines for themselves?” It’s not immediately clear why that should be the priority that it appears to be for many faculty.
It makes more sense if a given department has built a highly sequential major: it’s easier to support such a structure with more people.
I suppose it makes sense if you’re very excited about a particular specialization within your discipline that isn’t represented at your own institution, but I’ve learned over the years that it makes less sense to get excited about a new faculty line because of its specialization and more sense to get excited about a particular individual who might fill that line. A field that you find fascinating won’t be as fascinating if the person representing the field isn’t your cup of tea.
Often, however, what faculty say is that more people in a given department will help relieve heavy workload burdens. Here Dickeson is sort of on to something with his talk of “hidden costs” in academic institutions. But what’s the workload that a tenure-track FTE relieves differentially from an adjunct or contract faculty? It’s not teaching per se: you can buy relief from heavy workloads in a variety of ways, many of them not involving tenure. That’s exactly what large research universities do with their low-paid graduate students, adjuncts and so on. The workloads that are potentially addressed by tenure-track faculty are actually administrative and support work: committees, advising, all the little jobs that eat up the day.
KC Johnson has a long-standing complaint against considerations of “collegiality” in tenure cases. But this is exactly why I tend to think that some consideration of collegiality does matter. Under the present architecture of academia, you can buy teaching labor at a lower cost with non-tenured faculty. I don’t say that you should, but you can. Most of that teaching labor, given the nature of academic careers at the moment, is going to come with impressive research credentials. American research universities are loaded with adjuncts and contract faculty whose publication and research records would have been extraordinary thirty years ago. What you can’t buy, for the moment, is all the invisible work that keeps an institution running. It’s not even clear that you can buy it with tenure: some tenure-track faculty do that kind of work dutifully, some do not.
The uneven distribution of those workloads is not a cost that you can quantify. It’s not going to appear in a white paper for a federal commission. It’s not even going to be discussed when faculty convene to talk about planning. Faculty talk about workloads, but it can be awfully difficult to find out what anyone means when they use the word. Just as it can be unsatisfying when people complain of the costs of tenure: I’m not often convinced that they’ve gone deep into the guts of the problem to think it out.