A ranty rant about the supposed evils and costs of tenure…

I’ve been meaning to comment on this post by Female Science Professor.  In her post she refers to a piece that she wrote for the Chronicle of Higher Education in response to numerous articles that have appeared recently in the media, articles, and books, about the evils of tenure, the slacker work style of tenured faculty everywhere, and the cost of tenure in $$.  Some of the fervor last year was generated by the publication of a book entitled Crisis on Campus: A Bold Plan for Reforming Our Colleges and Universities, written by one Mark C. Taylor, chair of the Columbia University Department of Religion.

I too have been disturbed by the seemingly constant barrage in the media lately about the evils of tenure. Although I will say that some departments seem to have a member whose research interests have faded and that don’t participate to their full ability in the teaching mission of the department…. Sometimes called dead wood faculty, … I venture to say that these individuals are a VERY small minority in the ranks of tenured faculty in the biological sciences. It seems like those who think that all tenured faculty are slackers- just aren’t aware of the fact that we didn’t set out on our faculty careers just to get tenure, or primarily to get tenure or for huge paychecks… we set out on our faculty careers by and large because we find a particular subject fascinating, we want to contribute to the generation of new knowledge in subjects of interest to us …. That’s otherwise called research,  and we want to pass our knowledge the current state of our field AND this new knowledge generated by our research to younger generations. Collectively, this whole business is called scholarship, and it is something you get when you have research (the generation of new knowledge), and teaching (the passing on of knowledge) happening together- and THIS is what takes place in R1 Universities.

We have institutions of higher education that simply do teaching without doing research- and these are called community colleges. I’m not denigrating community colleges by any means- I simply want to point out that their mission is primarily a teaching mission- not a scholarship mission- and that is what differentiates them from R1 institutions.

The particular statements that I hear in the media that drive me crazy are the following:

1.     Tenured faculty don’t work as hard as junior faculty.

I beg to differ. Since I achieved tenure last year, my work hours have gone through the ceiling, my service responsibilities for my department, university, and profession have been tripled, and I’ve been asked to participate in teaching extra courses. That’s reality folks. Junior faculty in the sciences are (and should be protected) from heavy teaching and service responsibilities when possible- but the piper gets paid after tenure docs are signed…

2.     Tenured faculty members earn huge salaries.

This is a doosey. I spent 10 years in graduate and professional school. My first job as a postdoctoral researcher paid 27K, and I had (and still have debt) from professional school. Show me another profession where members do as much education as I have done at top tier places, and then start their first ‘real’ position with a salary in the 60-70K range, and I’ll eat my laptop. Law? Nope. Medicine? Nope. And making tenure at less than 100K/ year… one can’t complain, but to me this isn’t a ‘mega’ salary.

3.     Tenure costs universities huge amounts of money in salary.

This one makes me really mad. First of all- I’m not sure where we though faculty should be free. Every employee that is worth having costs money. So if you thought you were going to get someone to do some scholarship for free- well, you’ll probably get what you paid for.

But let’s just review all the $$ benefits to the institution of having tenured faculty in the biological sciences… and for a moment we’ll just base this argument on the fact that more experienced faculty …i.e. tenured… are those that are best at competing for grants…

Tenured faculty pay ½ of their own salaries. Yes, that’s right. Tenure track faculty at many (if not most) major research universities are expected to bring in research dollars to pay large portions of their own salaries. Much of the time this means that these faculty are paying 50% or more of their own salaries using grant money that they successfully competed for from federal grants. In case that is too obscure for some of you (Mark C. Taylor) to figure out… a tenured faculty member in the biological sciences that takes home 100K per year, IS ONLY BEING PAID 50K PER YEAR from the institution itself. Put another way- the institution is getting a tenure track or tenured productive researcher and teacher FOR HALF PRICE. … or about the price that it would cost to employ a lecturer.  This very fact makes takes the meaning out of tenure- since tenured faculty who lose their grants for whatever reason, can generally not afford to stay and do the same amount of work, only to earn half a salary.

Starting to look like a pretty good deal for the institution… right? Read on.

Tenured faculty grants bring in indirect costs that are paid to the institution.  Federal grants (in the biological sciences) are obtained at vastly higher rates by experienced faculty… and the institution benefits by collecting the indirect costs. These ‘indirect costs’ are usually somewhere in the neighborhood of 50% of the direct costs of the grant. In plain English then, if a researcher is bringing in 250K in direct costs to run their lab in a year… the institution is generally receiving in the neighborhood of 125K per year in overhead (aka “indirect costs”)… that they spend to keep the lights on…as they like.  Wow, so -50K in salary… +125K in overhead… it kinda seems like the institution is making $$ on this deal.

But wait- who pays grad student tuition? Yes, that’s right- successful grant getting tenured faculty use federal grant $$ to pay the tuition of their graduate students at their institutions. And, I hear you cry- but those students take courses… and yes, well they do take courses … for something like 2 years out of a 5-6 year doctoral program… the rest of the time the tenured faculty member is paying tuition to the institution so that the grad student can do research in the PIs lab… and the tuition cost is in addition to paying stipend/health/fringe for the student… off… you guessed it, federal grant $$.

I don’t know… I’d love it if I could employ people for 50% salary, collect the substantial overhead on the money they bring in AND get them to pay me tuition for students that they educate in their labs… who I then award a degree too and take credit for having educated!

Great gig if you can get it.


12 thoughts on “A ranty rant about the supposed evils and costs of tenure…

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention A ranty rant about the supposed evils and costs of tenure… « Blue Lab Coats -- Topsy.com

  2. I totally agree with you on all points, and I want to add that tenure keeps professor salaries down, at least in fields where top people could get industry jobs. When I moved from National Lab to the TT, I took a paycut, since I was willing to accept the chance for tenure instead of more money upfront. I made the same bargain at National Lab (less money than industry for the same work for the stronger job protection at National Lab).

  3. Bravo.
    As an undergrad, I would say tenured professors are better at teaching as well. So I don’t really believe that bit about tenured professors shunning their students once they receive job security.

  4. I think there is an underlying agenda here. In the mind of many ultra-conservatives (most will call themselves “moderates” or even “liberals”), the idea of public education, of state-funded public universities that engage in scholarly research and grant the same degree as Ivy League schools is really hard to digest. They wish to see a two-tier system, with few elite (obviously private) universities, in which highly paid tenured scholars would conduct cutting-edge research and operate pretty much like in the current system, and large state universities, with no research and lowly paid part-time instructors.

    Abolishing tenure at state schools is the first step in that direction.The inability to grant tenure would immediately put state universities at a recruiting disadvantage with respect to private schools (which would obviously retain tenure, given the manifest bogusness of all arguments against it). Even though tenure could remain de facto (a simple provision to re-hire based on seniority, which exists in many states, makes tenure almost a moot point), state schools would in time lose their research focus, which would then remain an exclusive perk of private schools.

    In other words, tenure is just a red herring in what is a (purely ideological) war against public education.

  5. I’ve almost deleted this comment a couple of times now, because I don’t want to come off as snarky or critical of tenured professors. So let me say upfront- I don’t disagree with your post. In fact, I think tenure is a good thing, and have no desire to see it abolished.

    But I don’t think your math is complete, and I feel I should point some things out- mostly for any grad students and postdocs who are reading and thinking that industry looks like a sweet deal in comparison to tenure. First of all: who pays your benefits? I don’t know about at a university, but in the private sector, benefits are usually assumed to roughly double the cost of an employee. Since most professors I know have benefits that are far better than what most people in the private sector get, I doubt that your benefits are cheaper. If you have a defined payout pension fund, that in and of itself is worth a lot. Almost no one in the private sector has one of those anymore. We have 401ks that we have to fund ourselves, and consider ourselves lucky if we get a company match.

    Who pays the administrators that support you and your students? Doesn’t that come out of the overhead you pay to the university? When I worked as a consultant, we added 10-15% to our charge rates to cover the administrative overhead. I suspect the overhead at a university is even higher. After all, my consulting firm wasn’t also trying to educate students.

    You are right that my salary is higher in industry. From the numbers I’ve seen, I’d estimate that at the mid-manager level (probably roughly equivalent to a professor who’s just received tenure), industry salaries may be as much as 50% higher. However, the higher salary I get is partially to compensate me for the greater uncertainty. I have to plan and budget to be able to ride out a significant period of unemployment, which can start at any time. I have literally walked into the building one morning and discovered that half of the company was being laid off that day. I saw my most recent lay off (the one I’m riding out now) coming- but only about a month ahead of time. I may or may not get severance pay- when you work for a small biotech, that is at the discretion of the company. I guess I agree with @prodigal academic- but I’m not sure that it is tenure keeping salaries down vs. uncertainty in industry driving salaries up. Six on one, half dozen on the other, really. Either way, my impression is that some tenured faculty don’t really appreciate the significant benefit of job security.

    I’m perfectly happy with the bargain I made. I love what I do, so I just budget to be able to handle a year unemployed and save like crazy to fund my own retirement. I suspect you (and most professors) love what you do and don’t really mind the lower salary and the teaching. But I think we should all be honest about the trade offs that come with our choices. Argue for tenure on its merits, and definitely refute the charges of the people who would abolish it- but make sure you’re really accounting for all of the benefits that accrue to a tenured professor.

  6. Wow, that was an entertaining rantyrant. But you seem almost myopic in your focus on your own situation in this response.

    For one thing, you are aware that the “R1” system is no longer official? Even when it existed, classifying things as “institutions of R1 scholarship like mine” and “community colleges” would have been hugely misleading- you miss everything in between.

    There are 96 research unis with very high research activity; 103 with high research activity; and another 83 that grant at least 20 doctorates/year.
    In contrast, there are 668 Master’s universities, 667 Bachelor’s colleges, and a whopping 1814 Associate’s colleges.
    What I’m getting at here is, in the higher education world, you are part of an exceptionally tiny minority. Not to mention the fact that most professors are *not* as grant-rich as biosciences. As a matter of fact, I can’t name another field that is more grant rich, off the top of my head.

    “So if you thought you were going to get someone to do some scholarship for free- well, you’ll probably get what you paid for.”
    If by “scholarship” you mean “research” sort of. Because your grad students can’t do what you do, with respect to getting grants and publishing.
    If by “scholarship” you refer to the teaching component… have you been paying attention to what adjuncts and graduate assistants actually do? They provide approximately the same quality teaching as tenured faculty for a fraction of the cost. Now we could argue about whether it’s *actually* as good, or whether it’s just adequate for the purposes of gen ed classes and college degrees as a credentialing service. But for the bulk of college teaching, such instructors tend are more than good enough. (and of course, sometimes they are much better. the native-speaker TA I had for Mandarin comes to mind)

    And yeah… you think 50k is what it costs the university to hire an instructor? HA. Keep in mind, you have professorial benefits to go with that seemingly piddling salary. You are much more expensive than adjuncts or TAs- and even if you brought in your entire salary that could still be true, depending on the specific benefits involved.

    At *your* institution, for the research and teaching tasks they want accomplished, are you worth the money? Of course. Are you worth the long-term costs of tenure? Of course. At least, your university has bet you will be and they have a lot of interest in getting it right. Plus, I know you rock. That’s not my point here. Does that mean that the overall economics of tenure make sense on a nationwide scale for the bulk of what is going on in higher education? Don’t be absurd.

    “I have to plan and budget to be able to ride out a significant period of unemployment, which can start at any time. “
    Yes, but you’ve been making a higher salary since you started. Not just since mid-level manager position level. And pre-tenure, academics definitely have to prepare for that. Even post-tenure, departments can be eliminated, raises evaporate with state budget shortfalls, and there is a remarkably large amount of uncertainty.
    You see this same argument mirrored in public sector vs. private sector debates generally. Taxpayers who complain about their excessive income tax paying excessive pensions for schoolteachers, but NOT about the corporate tax their beloved company (that will drop their employees like a bowl of moldy tofu if they can be replaced by people in India) are idiots. But there is no shortage of them.

  7. Cloud-
    Benefits come out of the grant, not from the university. I pay 90% salary + 29.5% benefits on top. The school has also cut the number of administrators to help, so for my $300K indirects + 119.5% salary/benefit support, I have precious little administrative help. Hell, I have to buy my own paper and laser printer cartridges.
    Oh, and our older faculty are largely dead-weight who haven’t been able to compete for grant funding for the last decade.
    That’s my experience anyway.

  8. There are very good arguments for tenure, but your math in this post is very dodgy. Tenured faculty doing biological research cost institutions a fucketonne of money, and the direct salary support and indirect cost revenue don’t actually fully cover these expenses. It is a fallacy that institutions *make* money off of sponsored research.

    It is also a very shaky rhetorical foundation for justifying scholarship of tenured faculty to argue that it doesn’t cost anything, and even directly benefits institutions financially. The fact is that scholarship performed by tenured faculty costs institutions substantial amounts of money, but that scholarship itself has societal and economic value beyond university balance sheets. You do yourself and your scholarship a disservice by justifying it on this limited (and erroneous) fiscal basis. Rather, you should argue that your scholarship is fully worth the net direct fiscal cost it imposes on your institution, your funding agencies, and the taxpayers that support them.

  9. @Physician scientist- I would be shocked to find that 30% completely covers your benefits. Like I said, in most companies the cost is roughly equal to the cost of salary. And that is without any pension. Maybe universities have better deals on health insurance because of size? But one of the companies I worked at had more than 40,000 employees.

    @becca- most industry scientists got paid the same crappy salary in grad school and as postdocs that academic scientists did, because they were at the exact same institutions. Unless they did an industry postdoc. I personally got lucky in my timing and came out with a specialization in a hot field at just the right time, and didn’t end up doing a postdoc. But that is unusual, and my starting salary was reduced because of my lack of postdoc, and was far less than a starting professor’s. My income didn’t pass what DrDrA is quoting as a starting salary for professors until I had been working for about 3 years. It is hard to really gauge, since people don’t usually talk directly about money, but my feel is that the big divergence in remuneration in the academic vs. industrial career path doesn’t hit until you get to the tenured professor vs. mid-level manager level.

    I know that an academic position isn’t necessarily a lifetime employment guarantee. But something like an entire department going away? You’re going to see that one coming for more than a month, and it is a lot more rare than lay offs. I’ve personally been involved in 6 rounds of lay offs- I have been laid off twice, had to lay people off once, and witnessed an additional 3 rounds. I have been in the work force for about 12 years. You also know exactly when your tenure decision will be, right? The way I see it, academics get more security and freedom to choose their research directions, industrial scientists get more money. Neither side should gripe about the deal they made, because it wasn’t exactly a secret what the bargain was.

    But I’ll stop now before I turn this into some sort of “its harder where I work” pissing contest, which is not my intent. I don’t think either of us has a particularly bad deal in the workplace.

  10. It is a fallacy that institutions *make* money off of sponsored research.
    Agree. Last figures for my institution were that the costs of research exceed the amount brought in by extramural sponsorship by 10%. As paylines tighten, state budgets get cut and faculty cling on without retiring, this 10% figure is going up. At some point, research in its current (tenure-containing) form will be unsustainable.

  11. I just want to make an additional point. The taxpayers of states that have public universities pay money for their system of public education, and the educators of this state are accountable to those that pay the bills and the students that ultimately grace their classes. When budgetary times are difficult the cry for the elimination of waste, fraud and abuse causes administrators to start doing things like trying to put $$ values on each and every one of their faculty, by student unit taught-some in the black or in the red. This isn’t something I invented- it is very real, and going on even as we speak in state institutions. This leads the public to the misconception that research based faculty are spending large chunks of their time doing nothing. The public is taken in by this erroneous claim because they generally do not understand how this system works- and such fervor in the media about expensive do nothing faculty exacerbates this public perception.

    It is amazingly demoralizing to faculty who are backed into the corner trying to explain their worth.

    I bet the situation is different at private institutions that have endowments to fall back on-perhaps someone at such an institution could chime in.

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