Post Academic

The Tenure Debate, Again: You First. No, You First.

Posted in Transfer Your Skills by postacademic on July 30, 2010
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More or Less Bunk took a page from Bill Maher and set a New Rule: “Any professor who thinks tenure should be scrapped must give up theirs first.”

That rule sure would stop the endless circular debates that never result in anybody doing anything about the number and quality of jobs in academia (or the education provided to students, for that matter). There are a few individuals, though, who are either letting go of tenure or just letting go, period. Consider the following examples:

1. The Self-Described “Worst Professor Ever”: This philosophy PhD got a job and left it. On her way out, she torched her PhD while wearing a Bettie Page wig. Best of all, she shared the photos with the online masses. That’s the best job departure since the one seen in the Dave Chappelle stoner opus Half Baked.

2. The Tenured Prof Who Moved for Love: This professor entered the Hamster World when his girlfriend decided she wanted to get a PhD herself. He said, “It wouldn’t be a story if I were a woman, because thousands of women do this every year.” True, that. But you don’t see professors giving up a tenured job for the Hamster World, either.

3. Leaving Academia and Escape From the Ivory Tower. Okay, no Bettie Page references or romantic undercurrents, but solid advice for anyone wondering what else can be done with a PhD.

The words and actions of just a few people show that tenure may not be the end-all, be-all for the intellectually inclined. Again, I am a Hamster, not an academic, and I am pro-tenure because I don’t want market forces to determine who teaches what when. But skepticism toward institutions is always healthy. Skepticism built more than a few academic careers, didn’t it?

A Middle Ground Between Tenured Faculty and Adjuncts?

The New York Times set up a debate called “Rethinking College Tenure.” You’ve probably already read it, and it’s the usual Tenure Debate stuff, in which various types who should know something about the subject make their points, some dude whines that conservatives are oppressed and someone gently hints that tenured professors are lazy, oblivious or both. (Read Arnold’s in-flight adventure to figure out how to respond to that myth.)

If you read through the NYT articles again, you’ll notice a thread in which tenured faculty members are pitted against adjuncts, or a “more flexible” job model. If adjuncts are treated fairly and receive the pay and benefits they deserve, where does that put tenured professors? What’s the real difference between the two? Should there be a difference?

Or, are debates like these a manifestation of a divide-and-conquer strategy, a setup for a Tenure Vs. Adjunct Showdown? One of the writers, Mark C. Taylor, attempts to offer a “middle ground”:

It is a mistake to pose this question in all-or-nothing terms – either you have permanent tenured faculty or itinerant adjuncts. A middle ground will address most of the problems. After a trial period of three to five years, faculty members who merit promotion should be given seven-year renewable contracts. For this system to work effectively, these reviews must be rigorous and responsible.

Since I’m not an academic, a guaranteed job for three to five years followed by seven year periods sounds nice, especially since I’ve been through layoffs. But the Hamster World is a different matter since it is more subject to market forces, and Taylor’s solution doesn’t address how to protect academic freedom so that the market isn’t determining the curriculum. How does Taylor’s idea sound to you? If it sounds like BS, is a middle ground possible?

Taking Time Off Before Grad School: Part One, the Theory

Image Source,Photobucket Uploader Firefox ExtensionTenured Radical champions the notion that undergrads should take some time off before entering a grad program. They’ll gain focus and experience, and maybe they’ll find a career so swell they won’t need grad school:

Regardless of whether you like this or not, or whether it seems fair, it is simply a fact that actual graduate school admissions committees at select schools will regard your application more favorably if you take a significant amount of time off. Two to five years, I would say. Want to do labor history? Be an organizer; spend one of those years as a day laborer or a factory worker. An anthropologist? Leave the country and learn a language. Learn two. Cultural studies? Try an advertising agency or tending bar on the Lower East Side of New York.

This makes perfect sense. Life experience can add dimension to a dissertation, and students will professionalize themselves in ways that will help them on the market. But I almost wish that Tenured Radical just uttered the Pannapacker Doctrine: “Just Don’t Go.”

Saying “just don’t go” sounds extreme, and it is, but at least it admits there’s a problem with the grad school system in general.

Maybe the real message is that people shouldn’t go to grad school until the big problems–namely the lack of jobs and the unwillingness of the program to help current students with back-up plans–are solved. If that’s the case, then people are going to need to take a whole lot more than two to three years off.

So, tomorrow … why didn’t I wait a few years to go to grad school?

Student teachers practice teaching kindergarten at the Toronto Normal School, Canada, 1898. Image from Wikimedia Commons, public domain.

Academia and Mental Health: The New Obsession With Cornell

Posted in Process Stories,The Education Industry by Caroline Roberts on March 21, 2010
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Image Source,Photobucket Uploader Firefox ExtensionColleges are not known for fostering mental stability. It seems as if the world has just discovered this fact following the latest Cornell suicides. These tragedies seem to be in the news because there a part of the cycle and easy to fit into a narrative. “Oh, Cornell. So bleak. So competitive. And the gorges! My gosh, the gorges!” It’s as if students don’t commit suicide anywhere except Cornell.

What’s more important to discuss is that, on a campus, both students and professors can lose it quickly, especially when there’s no clear system regarding how to handle a problem. For example, most students assume you go to the student health center to get some condoms, not to get some counseling.

And what about the grad students and the professors? From grad school to tenure, the process is isolating. The lack of a regular schedule can take a toll. Not getting regular feedback, a la performance reviews, can take a bigger toll because you may have a distorted perception of how others perceive you in a department.

Layoffs of Tenured Faculty Loom

Posted in The Education Industry by Caroline Roberts on March 2, 2010
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State schools are in big financial trouble, and students are irate about rising tuition and fees (Exhibit A: The Berkeley Flaming Dumpster Riot of 2010). To close the gap, more and more schools are considering laying off tenured faculty.

Now, the main reason many people go into academia in the first place is the possibility of tenure. They can speak their minds and do their research without fear of walking into the office one day and finding out they don’t have a job anymore. Academics have to wait a long time to make a living wage, so they get tenure as a reward. Even if they rarely make as much as they would in the civilian world, so to speak, at least they have a job for life, right? And students benefit because there will always be someone who can teach skills that are valuable but can’t be monetized.

Not if you’re at a state school. Inside Higher Ed lists several systems that are either laying off tenured faculty or considering it, including Florida State and the University System of Georgia.

Regardless of what you think of the tenure system, these schools are overlooking alternatives that the hamster office world has faced for a long time, and these options might work.

Buyouts: Some tenured faculty are on the verge of retirement, and they don’t teach much. Offer an early retirement package with decent benefits. They might take the money and run. This is a common move at newspapers and in media outlets, like AOL. If a school is in truly dire straits, then they can offer a buyout threat, which is to ask for volunteers to take the buyout and then do the layoffs if they don’t get volunteers. It’s not pretty, and there will be kicking and screaming, but it’s better than starting with layoffs and making cuts across the board.

Re-evaluate the Admin Track: Administrators are the ones who make the big bucks in academia. Suffolk University president David J. Sargent makes a ridiculous income, and it’s not clear why. Schools will say that they need to pay that much to draw top talent, but the banks have tried that argument, and it’s not holding water anymore. The first people to take the pay cut should be the administrators, not the faculty. If the administrators show that they are wiling to take pay cuts and buyouts, they will have a much easier time convincing faculty members to make sacrifices.

There’s no denying that some schools are at a crossroads. Without changes and (alas) compromises, some legislatures and administrators might shut down whole departments and even whole schools. People don’t have to be laid off, but everyone will have to cooperate to avoid that worst-case scenario.

Layoffs Without ‘Financial Exigency’ [Inside Higher Ed]