Tenure in an Ugly Position

In my MRU the role of department or department committee in promotion is highly variable within the school of medicine. For example, in my department there was not even a promotions committee 10 years ago, and promotions and tenure was entirely on the whim of the chair. While there is such a committee now, and I am part of it, it is still mostly the cronies of the chair. And, even when the spineess worms manage to stand up to the chair, he has over-ruled our decisions (both type 1 and type 2 errors). Needless to say, there are other more reasonable departments.  One of the most significant school level improvements is a mandated review in the Office of the Dean for all faculty every three years. That office has overruled dept chairs in a number of instances.

But the hard decisions are made at the School of Medicine level. That is, most chairs are willing to take a chance and push people (they care about) along. The SOM committees (one for each rank) do not publish figures on success rates, but within my department it was about 50-60% on first try. It’s important to add, that unlike many A&S departments, there is no “up or out” provision. There are elderly assistant professors (usually called physicians).
The whole process is anxiety provoking, soul numbing, and a horrific waste of time. It rewards dreadful behavior (glamour journal seeking and fad research).  It has the potential to destroy the wonder and joy that accompanies doing research.
But from my end of the time scale, it has another impact, which could be labeled the “Killz teh Oldies” effect. Yup, there are lots of greybeards and blue hairs taking up grants and labs and space that could be better used by the Appollonic Youth of Today. But I’ve watched tenure turn many of my peers, who were the young bitching about the elderly 20 years ago, into mental zombies. No one worries about these guys slurping at the NIH trough, as they wouldn’t have a chance in hell. [This, by the way, is why its hard to take the calls for no grants for the over-65 set seriously. All too soon, some of those making the calls will join  those being called upon. There is nothing like a little time to give your perspective].
Nope, a 5 year review period, with appropriate protection and oversight might have kept some of these people active, publishing and thinking. They were good years ago. They were funded and publishing and training. They haven’t become idiots. They’ve just, it seems, forgotten what hard work is like. Maybe they’re tired. Maybe they’re bored, and maybe there is no accountability. This is not a detailed perspectus on what to do. Its just one more observation on what is wrong with senority, promotions and the population problem in research.

2 thoughts on “Tenure in an Ugly Position

  1. Our internal tenure committee was also filled with old guys–not a woman or minority among them. There was so much back biting and competition between them, that no one was approved for anything. A little Gender Bias Review has seemed to turn that around a bit. So now there are two women on the committee. Albiet associate professors–because here women are not promoted to full professor–maybe because those breasts are so disturbing– and one of them is from a different department because we only have one woman not married to a senior professor. That would be me. Its just disgusting. Isn’t that against the rules, shouldn’t that be fixed?

    So although that is better, even with a 5 year tenure review we still have the heavy salaried nonworking people. But I have to say with the financial crunch many of these are retiring at least starting this year. Then again we may all be looking for a job. We used to be a heavy grant-laden department. None of us have an R01–looks grim.

  2. Even as someone thrilled to just be starting out on the tenure track later this year, I would definitely be on board with the kind of renewable contracts you suggest (though I might say 6-7 instead of 5 years).

    I never see a story about the brave tenured prof standing up for someone or something powerless and being protected from a vindictive administration (and see Zen’s similar take: http://neurodojo.blogspot.com/2011/03/what-have-you-done-lately-that-needed.html).

    Instead, I see the tenured schmoozy with admin and faculty unions that serve only tenured interests. I see tenure used to protect bullies, bigots, frauds, people who refuse to teach or do their jobs. The CHE forums are the most depressing thing in the world to read (e.g. a serial plagiarist whose state salary could emply 2.5. assistant profs http://chronicle.com/forums/index.php/topic,131793.60.html).

    I’m not saying there is no function to tenure, and I understand that the takeover of university administrations by non-academic management-speak clowns is a plague that requires a strong, protected faculty to fight against it. But my impression (again, from the CHE forums and real life), is that tenured faculty as a population (and their unions and senates) are venal, entitled suckers, easily bought and controlled by a few dipshits with MBAs.

    The good functions of tenure could be well-enough served by other kinds of contractual protections. As the system stands, it creates incentives and a lack of accountability that brings out the absolute worst in people.

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