Why does tenure exist again?

  • Thread starter Pengwuino
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  • #1
Pengwuino
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Main Question or Discussion Point

So I heard long ago about some BS about professors needing tenure because 5000 years ago someone got mad about some research and someone got fired and blah blah blah.

Enter the real world.

Why does tenure still exist at universities?

And why has the concept been extended to government employees and school teachers? I seriously do not get it. Maybe not the exact concept of "tenure", but even the idea of pretty much having to do something illegal or immoral to get fired or even put under review.
 

Answers and Replies

  • #2
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To appease unions? I can't think of many other rational/functional reasons.
 
  • #3
Alternatives -
elect professors at state universities, like elected DAs and police cheifs.
have each new administration choose new candidates like they do with posts in Washington
 
  • #4
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Same reason companies offer retirement packages. It serves to attract people who would otherwise work elsewhere.
 
  • #5
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So I heard long ago about some BS about professors needing tenure because 5000 years ago someone got mad about some research and someone got fired and blah blah blah.

Enter the real world.
You are trying to ridicule the idea. But you are not making a proposal for a change. You want things to be different : what do you want ?
 
  • #6
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It serves to attract people who would otherwise work elsewhere.
There are enough people who are passionate about research. Your comment suggests to me that you are not a researcher.
 
  • #7
Pengwuino
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You are trying to ridicule the idea. But you are not making a proposal for a change. You want things to be different : what do you want ?
No. I want to know why this concept exists still. Long ago there was a reason from what I hear. Why is it still used? and why has it been extended to people who aren't professors.

And if there is no reason, then my proposal for change should be obvious. Get rid of it. Have it work like every other job in the world works.
 
  • #8
Get rid of it. Have it work like every other job in the world works.
In most civilized countries you can't just be fired because somebody doesn't like your face - there are procedures to fire someone for poor performance or redundancy.

You could have all academics on 3year postdoc contracts - but then nobody would teach, it's not worth it if your next job depends on your publication record. Nobody would work on long term projects, there's no point in being a PI on say the LHC or Hubble if the results are 10 years away and your job ends in 12months.

And that leaves aside politics - it's not a medieaval joke about upsetting the king. Imagine if state universities were run by Washington, would you want to be a evolutionary biologist if a republican won the election or a petrogeologist if the democrats got in?
 
  • #9
Pengwuino
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In most civilized countries you can't just be fired because somebody doesn't like your face - there are procedures to fire someone for poor performance or redundancy.

You could have all academics on 3year postdoc contracts - but then nobody would teach, it's not worth it if your next job depends on your publication record. Nobody would work on long term projects, there's no point in being a PI on say the LHC or Hubble if the results are 10 years away and your job ends in 12months.

And that leaves aside politics - it's not a medieaval joke about upsetting the king. Imagine if state universities were run by Washington, would you want to be a evolutionary biologist if a republican won the election or a petrogeologist if the democrats got in?
Not when you have tenure. I'm sure you can find dozens of people on this very forum with stories of tenured professors who have no business in academia. My university is mainly a teaching university and we have professors who simply don't care anymore and get horrific reviews. They have tenure though and they're bullet proof. And these are people who are just BAD at their job.

And your example of putting academics on post doc contracts illustrates another point. Why must someone be expected to teach and publish unless they're hired to do both? If you want someone to teach, hire them to teach and if they publish that's a bonus. If you want someone to publish, hire them to do research and if they want to teach, that's another bonus. However, if they are no good at their "bonus" gig, then they should be forced to stop.

Finally, so people shouldn't have to worry about a new government coming in and being the cause of your job loss? Tell that to every other industry where that happens. Let's say one government wants to accelerate the space program and get to Mars. Whoopie, huge influx of engineers into firms who would be apart of that project. Next government comes in and say "no, dumb idea", guess who is probably gonna be without a job? Why should anyone get special treatment?

This still doesn't explain how various government employees can get tenure either.
 
  • #10
My university is mainly a teaching university and we have professors who simply don't care anymore and get horrific reviews. They have tenure though and they're bullet proof.
Thats a problem - and it's a problem in every other industry, at least anywhere with workers rights,

Why must someone be expected to teach and publish unless they're hired to do both?
Because then teaching becomes a crap job. There are two streams in your university, researchers and teachers, research is the good job, teaching is like being the janitor. Now good luck attracting students to your ivy league school if they know they are being taught by the same people that are being employed by the local IT training company.

Finally, so people shouldn't have to worry about a new government coming in and being the cause of your job loss? ...Why should anyone get special treatment?
Because it's generally good for the country if you have academic freedom. Where your scientists and engineering profs are hired at the whim of the government of the day you get Lysenko genetics.
It's probably Ok if the boss of Nasa is a government appointee, or even the president of each state university. But what if every physicist is swapped out for ones with the correct views on global warming?
 
  • #11
Pengwuino
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Because then teaching becomes a crap job. There are two streams in your university, researchers and teachers, research is the good job, teaching is like being the janitor. Now good luck attracting students to your ivy league school if they know they are being taught by the same people that are being employed by the local IT training company.
Even though at the undergrad level that's kind of how it is...


=NobodySpecial]Because it's generally good for the country if you have academic freedom. Where your scientists and engineering profs are hired at the whim of the government of the day you get Lysenko genetics.
It's probably Ok if the boss of Nasa is a government appointee, or even the president of each state university. But what if every physicist is swapped out for ones with the correct views on global warming?
Academic freedom or a protected class? I don't like the idea of finding 1 excuse and using it to grant immunity against any and all methods of being removed from your job. For example, you occasionally get an uproar over teachers having students who can't read coming out of junior high or something ridiculous like that. You can't fire a teacher over that. Hell you can't even do anything with their pay (at least here in CA). Why not? Because *insert excuse akin to academic freedom*. For school teachers. Ridiculous. And again, why has this been brought to so many other facets of government work?
 
  • #12
Pythagorean
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You are trying to ridicule the idea. But you are not making a proposal for a change. You want things to be different : what do you want ?
For now, he just seems to want a justification.
 
  • #13
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There are enough people who are passionate about research.
By broadening the pool of selection, you also increase the quality of those selected.
 
  • #14
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Competition is healthy surely?

By giving tenure, all you do is remove the competitive element. Why would anyone worry about their job? Why would anyone work as hard as possible to ensure they don't lose it?

I agree with pengwuino, there's something not right about it. There are enough laws these days to ensure you can't simply be fired for any reason an employer chooses ("not liking your face" etc). Firing a person has to be justified or they can take action against you.
 
  • #15
Competition is healthy surely?
Yes - the problem is you have to set incentives to determine who won.
What is it for academics?
Teaching asesment returns from students? That just motivates you to give everyone an easy A, as already happens.

Research quality assesment - then you just do research in the current fashionable idea.

Publication rate - then you get the minimum publishable unit. I had one 'colleague' who had the highest publication rate in the country, he had an experiment that produced one results/day and instead of writing a catalogue published one paper per measurement.
His research was interesting 100 years earlier but now pretty boring -- but by todays metrics he was the best scientist in the country.

Either way you don't do any research that is going to take more than 12months to publish.

By giving tenure, all you do is remove the competitive element. Why would anyone worry about their job? Why would anyone work as hard as possible to ensure they don't lose it?
Fame, glory and the love of finding things out not enough - then the envy of academic colleagues is normally pretty strong motivation.

There are enough laws these days to ensure you can't simply be fired for any reason an employer chooses ("not liking your face" etc). Firing a person has to be justified or they can take action against you.
Not in a right-to-work state, or in a political apppointment.

Overall it would probably be more expensive for a university.
Firstly all the jobs that are done by faculty aren't going to be done by post-doc type researchers concentrating on the next grant/publication. So all the teaching, supervising, management, future looking stuff is going to have to be done by hired in professionals.
Then the researchers who do score highly on whatever metric you are using are going to be bidding for salary - you will swap the studio system of the 30s-40s for holywood with agents.
 
  • #16
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By giving tenure, all you do is remove the competitive element. Why would anyone worry about their job? Why would anyone work as hard as possible to ensure they don't lose it?
While working with three Phd people in industry, I heard that in non-competitive stable environment you do not tend to take actions just to maintain your job.
 
  • #17
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Universities have tenure because they are based on community.

The fundamental idea of a university is not to produce results, but to provide an environment in which people can study and advance their own knowledge, as well as that of humanity. A university is not a machine.

Having a stable collection of people is of utmost importance for maintaining any sort of community. Once someone is part of a community, you can't just get rid of them without severing all the ties they have made. It's a very destructive process. Moreover, it discourages anyone from even wanting to part of such a community in the first place.

You should realize there is a quite arduous process to attain tenure. According to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Professors_in_the_United_States" [Broken]: "As of 2003, the average age at which scientists received tenure in the United States was 39". It's something one must dedicate ones life to.

Think about it this way: you need to dedicate 10 years of your life in undergraduate+graduate school to even be considered for any tenure-track position. At any point along that journey, you could fail.

How could it possibly be fair or beneficial to have aspiring professors spend years of their life educating themselves and proving themselves as viable members of a community if they can be fired at a whim? On the flip side, how is a viable community to be formed if the standard by which one is a member is so volatile?
 
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  • #18
Vanadium 50
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Why does tenure still exist at universities?
As is often the case, Steven Dutch http://www.uwgb.edu/dutchs/PSEUDOSC/SelfApptdExp.htm" [Broken].

Once professors get tenure, it pretty much takes a thermonuclear weapon to remove them. That protection is there because a significant part of our job is to tick people off. We tell them things they don't want to hear, like the earth is 4.6 billion years old, there is a finite amount of oil in the ground, you can't provide government services without taxes, we really did go to the moon, or they didn't learn enough to pass the course. So when a university grants tenure, it basically makes a lifetime commitment. Universities want to be sure that they're tenuring people with a lifetime commitment to staying on top of their fields. The stereotype of the professor who gets tenure and goes to seed has a basis in truth; universities try to avoid hiring people like that. Unlike most jobs where there's a 90-day or six-month probationary period, university professors have to demonstrate sustained productivity for six years.
There are also a lot of unstated and even incorrect assumptions here:

There are enough laws these days to ensure you can't simply be fired for any reason an employer chooses ("not liking your face" etc).
That's simply not true. It's absolutely untrue in the 39 "at will" states, and the other 11 aren't all that different. If you're not part of a protected class, "not liking your face" is perfectly legal.

There's also this idea that somehow professors who are poor teachers would get fired right away. Do you think they were excellent teachers before they got tenure? As a colleague of mine explained why he accepted the offer of a particular university, "It's a perfect match: I can't teach, and they don't care."

Now, you can argue that maybe teaching should have higher priority than it does at major research universities, but that's a completely different question.

Then there's the idea that there are no longer any rewards or penalties once someone has tenure, and that's so far from reality that it's almost funny. Annual raises, promotions, course assignments, office and lab space, committee assignments, and the list goes on. If a university is unhappy with a tenured professor, they have many ways to make this known.


A more interesting question is "why do symphony orchestra musicians have tenure?"
 
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  • #19
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That's simply not true. It's absolutely untrue in the 39 "at will" states, and the other 11 aren't all that different. If you're not part of a protected class, "not liking your face" is perfectly legal.
Sorry, didn't realise this was regarding the US only. My comment was aimed more at Britain, regarding working laws and why tenure seems outdated (I don't believe it's used here that often). You can't simply fire someone here without it being justified or you can be taken to a tribunal over the dismissal.

So the US doesn't have laws against discriminating when it comes to hiring and firing? Could I really walk up to someone in my business and say "you're fired because you're a man/woman"?
 
  • #20
lisab
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Sorry, didn't realise this was regarding the US only. My comment was aimed more at Britain, regarding working laws and why tenure seems outdated (I don't believe it's used here that often). You can't simply fire someone here without it being justified or you can be taken to a tribunal over the dismissal.

So the US doesn't have laws against discriminating when it comes to hiring and firing? Could I really walk up to someone in my business and say "you're fired because you're a man/woman"?
No, there are protected classes. You can't fire someone for being a particular race, for example. That one is nationwide, but there are others that vary state to state, like sexual orientation.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Protected_class

The classes which are listed as "Federal" are nationwide.
 
  • #21
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No, there are protected classes. You can't fire someone for being a particular race, for example. That one is nationwide, but there are others that vary state to state, like sexual orientation.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Protected_class

The classes which are listed as "Federal" are nationwide.
That's really interesting. More examples of legalised discrimination.
 
  • #22
Vanadium 50
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My comment was aimed more at Britain
Which doesn't have a US-style tenure system.
 
  • #23
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Which doesn't have a US-style tenure system.
Was it specified to be purely US? UK had tenure, still does in certain cases.

If it was solely US specified then I missed it and I apologise for the mistake.
 
  • #24
Pengwuino
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Then there's the idea that there are no longer any rewards or penalties once someone has tenure, and that's so far from reality that it's almost funny. Annual raises, promotions, course assignments, office and lab space, committee assignments, and the list goes on. If a university is unhappy with a tenured professor, they have many ways to make this known.
Unless you're not at a giant research university and said incompetent professor might be chair of the department :biggrin:.

jgm340 said:
Having a stable collection of people is of utmost importance for maintaining any sort of community. Once someone is part of a community, you can't just get rid of them without severing all the ties they have made. It's a very destructive process. Moreover, it discourages anyone from even wanting to part of such a community in the first place.

You should realize there is a quite arduous process to attain tenure. According to this wikipedia article: "As of 2003, the average age at which scientists received tenure in the United States was 39". It's something one must dedicate ones life to.

Think about it this way: you need to dedicate 10 years of your life in undergraduate+graduate school to even be considered for any tenure-track position. At any point along that journey, you could fail.
However, if you're an entity funded by taxpayer money, since when does the entity get to decide who they're accountable to? If you're a private university, then you can do whatever you want. If you're receiving public money and you are being paid to do a public service (aka teach) and you can't do that, why should they keep a job? On top of that, 10 years to get a guaranteed for life job? I think most people who have worked for companies for 10 years and get fired for whatever reason might have issue with that idea.

To hopefully re-align the topic here, major research universities shouldn't even be seen as places where professors teach. They're research universities. However, a far greater number of people teach at non-major research universities where the system is the same.

The REAL problem I have is other government workers receiving tenure. No one has said a word about this and THIS is the real problem.

And damn it Vanadium, I opened that link and was gonna go do something else but read:

In particular, if you don't read this piece all the way through, don't even bother.
and it appears I have to read it all the way through as a challenge.
 
  • #25
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If you're receiving public money and you are being paid to do a public service (aka teach) .
only teach? UG/Grad students should be bit more capable than HS students.
 

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