Tenure, Costs, Workloads

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.

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7 Responses to Tenure, Costs, Workloads

  1. Alan Baumler says:

    A couple of questions/points

    -You claim that a more forgiving curricular structure gives you (you are a bean counter here) more flexibility about replacing people on leave. I’m not sure that is correct. Adjuncts are always cheap, so someone on leave is always a savings. Also, while Swarthmore is no doubt different, the model at most state schools seems to be to run as close to capacity in all classes as possible, so anyone leaving ever for any reason is a problem, regardless of tenure.

    More importantly, does tenure really make it hard to get rid of bad faculty? Of all the cases I know the reason administrators wanted to boot people had nothing to do with classroom performance and everything to do with lack of research and above all general uppity-ness. I think at a place where teaching was taken seriously (by administrators, it often is by departments) tenure might become a barrier to what needed to be done, but at present in the vast bulk of academia is not that type of place. Yes, tenure protects bad teachers, but there is nobody coming after them. Or are my experiences anomalous?

  2. Timothy Burke says:

    Good thoughts. I think that even when adjuncts are cheap, not hiring them at all is even cheaper. State schools may run close to capacity, but if you’re filling the classroom with 300, what’s another 100 watching from a video monitor outside the main lecture hall? But yeah, I certainly am taking liberal arts colleges and smaller private research universities here as the departure point, and they’re not typical in quite a few respects.

    Yes, I think if you were going to catalogue the reasons why administrators (or faculty) would potentially wish to be quit of some faculty, the catalogue would prominently include, “thorn in the side of the administration”, “controversial research” and “no research at all”. Two out of the three are the justifications for tenure. I don’t think bad teaching is often on the list from the perspective of administrators, and yet, it strikes me as the only thing which might actually affect the institution’s bottom line, unless we’re talking research in the sciences. From the perspective of even a large research university, in the financial sense, who cares whether the humanities faculty are actively researching or not? I suppose if NO one is, you’re not going to attract graduate students (who are cheap teachers) or possibly, eventually, even see problems with undergraduate applications due to reduced reputation. But bad teaching, if it was concentrated enough or frequent enough, could begin to repel students, maybe. Otherwise, I’m not sure why Dickeson thinks tenure is a cost at all in terms of an inability to fire people for incompetence, given that most selective universities have a “brand name” that is semi-invulnerable to incompetence.

  3. Doug says:

    I liked this post as an introduction. Is there more to come?

  4. texter says:

    Important topic. As an soon-to-be-done ABD, and as someone who has invested alot in her education, I’m wondering if you tenure was a factor in your pursuing the Phd and faculty employment in the first place? That is, without the draw of tenure, do you know if you would have pursued and finished the phd? (I’m wondering about the ‘cost’ of tenure (or lack thereof) on the side of attracting and retaining faculty). Perhaps for some the long-term (3 yrs? 6 yrs?) contract is enough.

  5. jim says:

    Contract faculty can and do do some of the administrative and support work. They may be kept off P&T committees, but typically there’s a service component to their contracts.

    When people talk of the cost of tenure, they have in mind a deadwood full professor, teaching (badly) a 2 and 2 schedule, publishing nothing, avoiding scheduling meetings for the committees he chairs and keeping his door resolutely closed during his office hours. An adjunct would not merely be cheaper, she would be preferable. How many such there are is very hard to tell: there are no statistics available. But clearly every time an institution tenures someone, it undertakes some risk of creating, perhaps further down the road, such a person. I assume the $1M is the NPV of the difference between the lifetime cost of a tenured faculty member and the cost of contingent faculty, multiplied by some estimate of that risk. The risk estimate would be the rectal pluck.

    I’m sure that texter is right. Many, perhaps most, PhD students are motivated by the possibility that they too will become tenured full professors. If that possibility were removed, fewer would go to graduate school. Perhaps that, too, should be counted as a cost of tenure.

  6. Timothy Burke says:

    I didn’t think much about tenure, Texter, except that I liked what I’d seen of academic culture as an undergraduate and thought it was the life for me. Seemed a comfortable life with lots of compensations, which it is. I’m one of those people who was disappointed by graduate school and to a lesser extent academia because I didn’t think too hard about the institutional nitty-gritty.

    Jim’s right that adjuncts do some administrative and support work, as well. But isn’t the point about the $1million is that if you can’t say how many “deadwood full professors” of the sort you describe there are, you’ve got no real basis for the risk estimate needed for that calculation?

  7. jim says:

    That’s why I said it was a rectal pluck. But actually I just did the calculation, and Dickeson is assuming that at least three-quarters of tenured faculty are deadwood.

    My calculation: Assume that the modal professor gets tenure at age 37 and works until he’s 72, working then for 35 years. Assume that he’s paid $72K/year and maintains that in real terms across his career. Assume further that an adjunct could teach his course load at $12K/year. Then we have a difference of $60K/year (in real terms) for 35 years. Since we’re dealing in real terms, use the return on treasury inflation-proof bonds as the discount rate (2.6%). Then the NPV is $1.368M.

    Given that Dickeson may have used a larger discount rate or a smaller pay differential, his $1M may, in fact, simply be the difference between hiring a tenured prof and hiring an adjunct.

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