February 11, 2010

Getting Rid of Tenured Professors

After the American Century

The political project in Danish education for many years has apparently been to take as much power away from the faculty as possible. (Every change, of course, is made for the good of the university.)

The latest suggestion along these lines has been made by Malou Aamund, a 41-year old politician who has never had a university appointment and never published. It appears that she does not have an advanced degree. With her credentials, she could not be hired as even an assistant professor. Were she still working at IBM, her views would be of little interest. However she is now the education spokesperson for Venstre, the strongest party in the ruling coalition. She recommends that professors only receive their appointments for 10 years, after which they should be re-evaluated, and given at best five-year extensions.

Ms. Aamund proposes an evaluation that would require at least three other professors to stop their research for the equivalent of several weeks or perhaps a month to serve on a committee and read the publications and grant proposals of a senior scholar. Given academic specialization, it is extremely unlikely that any university will have two professors in precisely the same field. Even if they did, the two people would be so close that it would be best to get outsiders on the committee. It is likely that at least one, quite possibly two, of the members of such a committee would have to come from abroad and they would have to be paid well enough to make it attractive for them to do it, and in fact it might be quite difficult to find suitable people to fill such a committee. Such a review would be time-consuming and expensive.

There is second practical problem with this proposal. During the period just before and during an evaluation, the professor in question will not sit passively by, waiting to be approved. Rather, starting a year or two years before the review, he or she would go on the job market. Worse still, the stronger the professor's networks and credentials, the more likely he or she will be offered a new position abroad, where no such reviews take place. Some of the best people will leave, and at the same time the review system will make Denmark less attractive to top foreign scholars.

Denmark by itself cannot make the rules for the international academic world. Already many excellent Danish scholars are attracted to positions overseas where the research funding is better, the PhD students more plentiful, the libraries better, and political interference less common. Making a professor's job less secure will make an academic career less attractive in Denmark and weaken the nation's competitive position. Denmark does not make the rules. (Venstre ought to have learned that at the Climate Summit.) Getting rid of tenure by definition weakens Danish universities and makes them less attractive.

There is yet another problem. Holding a review after ten years and then every five years will create uncertainty in research groups, and quite possibly interfere with their proper functioning. Instead of assuming that the professor and associate professors are fully committed to the team and to the university, the whole group will suspect that colleagues may be looking for work and that they might take major grants to other institutions. Is such uncertainly, mutual suspicion, and disruption a price worth paying for mandatory reviews?

Ms. Aamund presumably means well. No doubt she wants to shake up the university and make sure there is no dead wood in the ranks. But her proposal is impractical, time-consuming, expensive, and very unlikely to achieve its announced goal. Instead of improving quality, it is likely to drive some of the best senior faculty away, create uncertainty among colleagues, and discourage the young from pursuing a university career.

Ms. Aamund and her counterparts in the Conservative Party (who want to make Associate professor jobs provisional as well) seem not to understand that giving faculty tenure saves society money. Why? Because if the university did not give tenure then it would have to compete in an open market to attract the very brightest people. Academics could just as easily have chosen another profession. They are each bright enough to enter several other fields. No one chooses the university because it pays better than law or insurance or just about anything else demanding a comparable education. Take away the possibility of tenure and few people will be willing to struggle through the uncertain early years of an academic career. Take away job security, in other words, and good academics will be hard to recruit or retain. It will become a more difficult market, and only paying better salaries all along the line will then attract and hold people. Having worked in business, Ms. Aamund should understand that.

One final point. Since I am myself a professor, one might assume these arguments are self-interested. But such is not really the case. I am far along on my career path, and if enacted these changes would not have much effect on me. Furthermore, I rather suspect I would pass any fair review, if it came to that. Instead, for me the proposed new system would likely be a bonanza. Universities can only ask professors to evaluate professors and there would be at least three needed to evaluate each candidate for renewal. If the system of reviews were expanded to the associate professors, then the extra work would really begin to pile up and to pay. In short, the review system in practice would almost certainly give more money to almost every one of the professors. That cannot be Ms. Aamund's intent.