August 1, 2001

Tenure, talent, and advertising

It seems to me that there is a severe misunderstanding of tenure implicit to this discussion. Tenure is not about job security, academic freedom, or even, as it used to be, about membership in a guild whose objectives took precedence over those of college administrators. Tenure, these days, is about the economics of college education, much as the football team and alumni club are. For a college to survive it must attract students and money. And for a college to attract students and money, it must, among other things, build and maintain an attractive and stable course catalog. An attractive course catalog is built on faculty members who are able to build and teach attractive courses, preferably in a manner that gets good word of mouth from students. A stable course catalog is dependent on retaining those faculty members who build and teach interesting courses and who get good word of mouth. While colleges aren't able to offer some of the key incentives that industry offers to talent it wishes to retain (stock options, large performance based bonuses, competitive salaries, etc.), they are able to offer faculty members job security, in the form of tenure, that also provides the college with catalog stability. Tenure, then, is a win/win for the college and the faculty member. Whatever value it may have for the faculty member, however, the real issue is preventing situations where a college needs to hire entire departments in short periods of time in order to maintain the catalog and thereby attract customers (students) to spend money at the college for (in general) at least four years.

The importance of catalog maintenance is clearly visible in various tenure trends. When a department is relatively new and its newly established courses matter to maintaining an effective catalog (a situation that should be familiar to many in the field of communication), tenure will be easier to get. When a department is well established and has tenured faculty in place to cover its existing course advertisements, tenure will be harder to get. When college economics are tight or expected to be tight (because of, for instance, inflation or declining enrollment trends), tenure is harder to get. When college economics are easier or expected to loosen (because of, for instance, a generational surge in high school graduates or an improving economy), tenure is easier to get. When there is a surfeit of available talent with a particular set of expertise that matters to the catalog, tenure will be harder to get. When there is a dirth of available talent with a particular set of expertise that matters to the catalog, tenure is easier to get. If a particular professor becomes an "attraction", with students coming to the university because he or she is there, tenure is easier for them to get. If a particular professor has a special expertise and is able to create new courses that matter to the university, tenure will be easier to get.

In this a college is no different than a law firm or other partnership practice. Indeed, the primary differences between a partner in a law firm and a tenured college professor is how directly they are associated with attracting money. Most partners in law firms achieve that goal by attracting dollars to the law firm. They may successfully bill large numbers of hours. They may win lots of cases. Both actions will help in securing a partnership. But in the end the lawyer who actually brings in new clients and thereby expands billings will get a partnership before the lawyer who bills hours to existing clients or who effectively litigates cases brought in by others. This has nothing to do with talent, by the way. A law firm partner may be wildly talented, but s/he might easily just be well connected in their various communities.

There are of course, different kinds of colleges, and while catalog maintenance is a key issue in tenure decisions at any university, other factors come into play as well. Some colleges will be more strongly focused on teaching than research. Catalog maintenance will matter more at these institutions, and teaching effectiveness will play a larger role in tenure decisions. Other colleges will be more strongly focused on research, and catalog maintenance and teaching effectiveness may matter less than publication record in those colleges tenure decisions. This variation is, however, simply another economic redirection to catalog maintenance. Research universities attract students based on both the luster of their faculty and their associated courses. Keeping the faculty that gives the university luster is just another way of maintaining the catalog and attracting students.

As with a law firm, moreover, the relationship of faculty to dollars need not be indirect. Some professors will, in fact, turn out to be very good at attracting direct dollars to the university, whether in the form of grants or donations. It should be no surprise that, whether or not they are perceived as being particularly talented, that these professors will have an easier time getting tenure. Some professors will turn out to be very good at attracting good publicity to the university, publicity that translates ultimately into students and dollars. It should be no surprise that these professors will have an easier time getting tenure. Some professors will turn out to be very good a managing the dollars a college has, or at least of giving the appearance of doing so. It should be no surprise that these professors will have an easier time getting tenure.

For those that assert that talent is the ultimate tenure, I would reply that talent is a far more subjective term than tenure is. It is easy to ignore this subjectivity when we invoke examples like NBA players, but even that example is oversimplified. A successful NBA team will buy some players for up front scoring ability, others for rebounding, others for their ability to hit the 3, others for play making ability, others for their ability to guard and/or steal the ball, and at least one or two for muscle. Not all of these abilities will be regarded as a "talent", but all are necessary to the success of a basketball team. An NBA team with three great power forwards can probably only afford to keep two of them, no matter how good the third one is, because others skills have to be fit into a roster of fixed size. The mix of a players talents will matter as well. A player who can pass effectively, steal 5 balls a game, and score 10 points a game may be more valuable to a team than another player who can consistently score 20 points a game. Ability to work as a member of a team will matter no matter how talented a player is. A player who can consistently score 30 points a game may quickly disappear from a team if his play prevents anyone else on the team from scoring 10 points a game.

Such considerations inevitably matter to tenure decisions as well. Very few schools will grant tenure based solely on one's publication record. Teaching performance will matter to some extent. Faculty service will matter to some extent. Service to one's field will matter to some extent. Inevitably, a school's view of its faculty requirements will matter to some extent. Some of these things are a matter of talent. Some are not. All are, to at least some extent, a matter of hard work and experience. Only one of these considerations, publication record, can be objectively measured, and even that entails considerable subjective judgment. Is a book worth more or less than an article in a top peer reviewed journal. Are three journal articles on different topics worth more, less, or the same as five journal articles on narrow variations of the same topic. Is an article in a third tier journal worth more or less than a paper at a first tier conference. How much is a patent worth? How much is an invited article or paper worth? What criteria will weight some journals, conferences, and other publications more than others, and who gets to decide? One person's "dead wood" may be another person's "teacher of the year".

In the end, I conclude that much of this discussion has been characterized by cheap rhetoric that has not been terribly well thought out. It is easy to complain that tenure encourages "dead wood". It is harder to get agreement on just who may be dead wood. It is harder still to imagine what colleges would be like if they did not have the stable faculties and course catalogs that tenure makes possible. It is easy to claim that the ultimate tenure is talent. It is harder to precisely define what constitutes talent in a college setting. It is still harder to imagine what colleges would be like if hiring was based on a narrowly defined set of talents rather than the mix of need, talent, and effectiveness that tenure decisions are more commonly based on. Problem is, success in the real world isn't measured by easy slogans. Its measured by economic effectiveness, and by that measure, tenure is a wildly successful capitalist tool for ensuring the ongoing success of colleges.


Davis Foulger

As Published in CRTNET NEWS # 6169

Both volumes have been distributed via the CRTNET list. It can be expected that both volumes will be made available as a part of the August, 2001 CRTNET archive. Presented here at the request of several readers of the original distribution.