Tenure and Olde Fartes and Young Turks

I’ve been involved in the tenure process from many sides for a long time. I’ve got lots of thoughts about, some of which are even useful and relevant for others.

I have lately been reconsidering my position that tenure is a horrible, horrible institution. It (I’m struggling for the right word to convey the horror) destroys the spirit of young people, their love of research, and turns them into small owning class children, i.e., over-improved and doing things only to make themselves acceptable for some dimly imagined future. I still think it does that. I fight it with every tool I’ve got, but its not a  battle I’m winning. More on that in a minute.

Tenure also destroys the Elderly. In fact in destroys a significant amount of the people who get tenure. While I am sure no one much gives a damn about my generation, but the tail end of the baby boom came on the heels of the big expansion of universities. People in the leading edge of the baby boom got tenure for showing up and having published their thesis. Some had never finished their degrees. No one had to do a postdoc. No one had to get funding. These schmucks (not all, not all), who hadn’t published in years, had labs in which they dabbled from time to time. They had grad students that took 7-8 years to not finish a PhD. And, they sat in judgement of my cohort telling us we didn’t do enough. It was much the same feeling I get from the Gen-Xers today.

There were two things I used to say. Firstly, that if there was no tenure, and these people had been evaluated yearly then they would have at least been productive. This is probably true. The world would be a better place with no tenure. Secondly, deadwood- pathology would never, no never happen to my generation since we had all watched this, and understood what could go wrong. Oh how, wrong, wrong, wrong I was about this one. I hope to be alive when the generation after the Millenials is busy trashing Gen-X.

Now two things make me reconsider my antipathy towards tenure. I still think tenure is a hugely horrible depression inducing, madness making process that makes objects out of people. But, perhaps there are some good things in it. Given the inevitable age class war, tenure does offer protection to newly tenured people who might otherwise suffer at the hands of the Olde Fartes, some of whom are inevitably deadwood. And as horrible as the process is, it does give junior people a timeline, a space, a structure.

One of the things that is absolutely the worst about my MRU, where tenure does not occur until one is a full prof, is that young people are kleenex. disposable. used and tossed. I hate it. Because there is no up and out at 6 years, people are always being judged. There is little sense that you have a significant space (2 years is not a significant space) of time to develop your career. It takes more than a year to get the gears of research going.

I really need to get out of this place.

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One thought on “Tenure and Olde Fartes and Young Turks

  1. OK, so a radical suggestion. I know this will be shocking. You might want to turn away the eyes of young grad students.

    Treat any academic job, from post-doc onwards, as a …job. As in, a typical European-style employment. Which means the job may be time-limited and tied to a particular project (as your normal post-doc), but normally it’s a position you’re expected to fulfil; with research, teaching, mentoring and so on.

    If your evaluations over time shows you’re well and truly not fulfilling the demands of the position (not whether you’re better or worse than somebody else), you may eventually be deomoted, reassigned and even fired. If your department is short of money then somebody may have to go.

    But basically, on one hand, you will be continuously responsible for your on-the-job performance. You can’t just coast. On the other hand, there is much less of a panicky rat-race to get there. No safe-for-life tenure. But also no free-for-all style fight for the throne either.

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