Time’s Up for Tenure

December 15th, 2010

You’ve probably gathered from the other posts on employment that I think the idea of academic tenure in chemistry is stupid.  Before I launch into another sermonic editorial that is the hallmark of ChemBark, let me save you the trouble of reading the rest of the 2000-word post so you can just skip ahead to the comments, invent a clever screenname, and use it to call me an idiot. 

To cut to the chase, the concept of tenure doesn’t pass the smell test:

1.  Why should schools grant professors lifetime job security just because they performed well over the first 20% of their careers?

2.  If the academic freedom ostensibly offered by tenure is really so important for professors to do their jobs, then how can we expect assistant professors to perform well without tenure?

(And just because I enjoy answering rhetorical questions:  1. They shouldn’t.  2. Academic freedom isn’t really that important in chemistry, and tenure doesn’t really protect it.)

While the issue is more complex, tenure certainly seems fishy on first inspection.


The Benefits of Tenure

To judge tenure on the merits, it’s important to know its strengths.  The fundamental motivation for the system is the protection of academic freedom for professors.  The idea is that with near complete job security, professors will be free to express controversial ideas and conduct research on unpopular subjects without fear of career-crippling retribution.  The system also promotes honesty in that professors need not be afraid to report unpopular results and conclusions.

Tenure systems also offer several ancillary benefits.  The job security provided by tenure is a form of compensation that allows universities to get away with offering lower salaries than other employers.  The job security may also promote collegiality within departments, because professors with secure jobs won’t feel like they’re in competition with their colleagues.

There are plenty of things to like about the idea of tenure.  I’m not arguing that these aren’t substantive benefits, just that they don’t outweigh the costs of the system.


The Costs of Tenure

The main problem with tenure is in the way it restricts how a university can restructure its academic workforce.  Firing tenured professors is nearly impossible—even when they do something as heinous as committing extensive scientific misconduct.  Unfortunately, this one straightforward problem has a number of profound implications:

Schools can’t terminate underperforming professors.  I don’t think we need to conduct a thorough quantitative analysis of publications and grant awards to agree that practically every department in the country has one or more underperforming tenured professors.  These people often had distinguished careers as assistant profs, then either lost it or took their feet off the gas.  In many cases, these same professors are also dreadful teachers, meaning that they contribute next to nothing to the department.  The obvious solution to correcting the problem—getting rid of the employee—is impossible thanks to tenure.  For the problem to be fixed, you have to improve the individual, but…

The award of tenure ends a major incentive for professors to perform.  After the big step up to tenure is achieved, all subsequent incentives pale in comparison.  Yes, there are endowed professorships and such, but there is also the fact that you can’t be fired for slacking, so slacking isn’t really such a big deal.  As for negative incentives—the stick instead of the carrot—deans have the ability to take lab space away from underperforming professors, but by that point, do they really care?  And what can be done to poor teachers?  Nothing.

Tenure gives schools less flexibility to deal with budget crises.  I don’t have any nice charts like Chemjobber or Leigh, but I’ve got to believe that professorial salaries increase with increasing length of employment.  There’s a good chance that dead-weight tenured professors are also raking in fat salaries.  Unfortunately, when budgets have to be trimmed in times of economic hardship, these obvious cuts are not possible.  As a result, schools have to resort to moves like raising tuition, slashing operational expenses, laying off staff, hiring fewer tenure-track professors, or cancelling assistant professor searches altogether.

Tenure fosters stagnation.  We hear so much that the key to sustaining growth in developed economies is innovation.  If that is the case—and I think it is—why maintain a tenure-based system that protects people who fail to innovate? 

Tenure prevents departments from removing professors who grow to become contemptible for reasons that have nothing to do with exercising academic freedom.  These loathsome people include awful teachers, poor advisors, purveyors of misconduct, and plain ol’ worthless jerks.


Revisiting the Benefits

Returning to the concept of academic freedom, I recognize that there are employment sectors for which the nature of the work demands job security for employees to function effectively.  I want judges to make decisions based on what is right and fair, not based on what is politically popular.  In academia, there are a number of politically-charged areas in which tenure may be a necessity (e.g., the study of Jewish-Muslim history and policy).

But let’s focus on chemistry.  What subjects in chemistry demand the sort of protection that tenure offers?  If academic freedom to express unpopular ideas is so important to chemistry, please tell me who’s using this freedom to stand up for unpopular ideas they believe in.  What are these sensitive, politically-charged subjects?  Climate change?  The importance of nanoputians?  Who is considered a controversial chemist?  Nothing that earth-shaking comes to mind, but maybe I’m missing something.

In general, the results typically reported in chemistry journals don’t attract the ire of the public and raise political rancor, so tenure seems unnecessary.  But what about “behind closed doors”?  Without tenure, might an otherwise candid professor be afraid to express a potentially unpopular opinion in a faculty meeting?  For example, expressing the opinion that natural product synthesis is “dead” because the opinion could make him a target of the department’s synthetic chemists?  I suppose this is possible—and would love some input from professors if these discussions take place in faculty meetings—but it doesn’t seem to be that big of a deal.  If it is truly a problem, you could help solve it by holding secret votes at faculty meetings.

While chemists, like all human beings, can descend into petty bickering and payback, in most cases, we are much more reasonable than the general population and respond to logic and data.  If the possibility of the formation of rogue alliances of professors to save their dying areas of research is the keystone of the argument for why we should keep tenure, I’m not terribly impressed.  And if tenure really bestowed professors with the ability to express ideas that are unpopular to their colleagues, then referee reports and grant evaluations wouldn’t have to be distributed anonymously.

The concept of academic freedom is also embodied in the idea that professors are free to pursue controversial or unpopular lines of research.  I question whether tenure offers this protection to chemists, at all.  In reality, funding is what restricts freedom in this area.  The desire to work on a problem is one thing, but if you actually want to get anything done, you’re going to have to convince someone to fund the work.  Tenure’s not going to protect you there.


The Way Forward without Tenure

So, in my opinion, the benefits of tenure in the world of academic chemistry do not justify the costs.  The tenure-track system should be phased out for the benefit of the field.  How should we go about doing this?

First, let’s note that any attempt to change the system is going to create a big stink.  Faculties are going to hate this change and they’ll fight it.  Even if you make it clear that you only want to end tenure for chemistry professors, the other departments will see the writing on the wall and attempt to prevent even the slightest incursion.

And any change would take decades to filter through the system.  Tenured professors (and those assistant professors on a tenure track) would need to be grandfathered in for legal reasons.  For new hires, instead of completely eliminating durable job security, I like the idea of offering reasonably long-termed contracts (e.g., of ten years).  Every ten years, the candidate would be re-evaluated for renewal.  Such a term would provide an element of job security without the long-term risk to the school (the person you hire today stands a greater chance of being different forty years down the road than ten years down the road.)

Without tenure, will schools have trouble recruiting assistant professors?  I don’t think so.  Every academic position that gets listed in C&EN attracts hundreds of applications from plenty of talented young scientists who are energetic and itching to test their ideas.  I can’t imagine that replacing the opportunity of getting tenure with ten-year contract renewals is going to change much.  And if it does, you can offer different compensation that is associated with less risk to the university.  For instance, larger salaries.  Hell, you could pay for these increases (and then some) by not renewing the contracts of underperforming professors who’ve amassed ridiculous annual salaries.

Will schools all have to end tenure in a concerted process in order for the transition to work?  I don’t think so.  Obviously, a school that unilaterally ends tenure might be worried about losing prospective assistant professors to schools that still grant tenure, but there are other incentives that can be used to sweeten job offers.  And while early-enders may take an initial hit on ability to recruit, they will also be the first to benefit from the flexibility a new system would offer.  That could prove a competitive advantage against late-adopters down the road.  I don’t think schools should be worried that all of academia will have to march in lockstep to get this done. 

Without tenure, will a school have a more difficult time attracting and retaining top faculty?  Maybe, but granting someone tenure doesn’t mean they’re going to stick with you anyway.  A quick glance at the top 25 living chemists by H-index shows plenty of movement:  Whitesides (#1, MIT to Harvard), Corey (#3, Illinois to Harvard), Schreiber (#14, Yale to Harvard to Broad), Frechet (#16, Ottawa to Cornell to Cal), Gray (#21, Columbia to Caltech), Evans (#22, UCLA to Caltech to Harvard), Lippard (#22, Columbia to MIT), and Zare (#22, MIT to Colorado to Columbia to Stanford).  And do I think these guys would be scared of not getting renewed contracts if tenure didn’t exist?  No. 

So, will the end of tenure come anytime soon?  No way.  The system of higher education in the US perceives itself as, by far and away, the greatest in the world.  So long as that is the case, I don’t see it making significant changes.  The end of tenure will probably require an absolute meltdown in terms of funding or the manifest superiority of a foreign system that is substantively different in how it operates. 

Finally, if any chemists are in need of tenure, maybe it’s bloggers.  Blogs seem to be the most visible vehicles for raising uncomfortable—but necessary—discussions on topics such as scientific misconduct, shoddy experimental work, and deficiencies of the status quo.  On second thought, that’s a bad idea.  There are plenty of bloggers who have become lazy and no longer post that often.  I’m glad we can stop paying for their services at any time.


Next up on Chemjobs Week is Matt at ScienceGeist.  (And, for the record, he is not a lazy blogger).

74 Responses to “Time’s Up for Tenure”

  1. Joel Says:

    Geez, you wrote that pretty dang fast!

    I have nothing witty to add, other than to say I really like the ring of 10 year tenure. But yet I comment anyway. Yup.

  2. Chemjobber Says:

    Paul, do you have a structure in mind for the assistant/associate/full professor ladder? It might work something like this:

    New assistant profs are handed a 5-7 (?) year contract, with a decision for extension at year 6. After that, ten year contracts seem about right, with full professorship granted after the 2nd extension (year 17?).

  3. Disgruntled old cynic Says:

    In the UK, we don’t have tenure any more. However, we do have a system in which responsive mode funding has been so skewed that a few individuals are ludicrously well-funded, and everyone else fights for the ever-diminishing scraps. And many of these individuals are wannabe alpha males who skew things so their own lickspittles get promotion, and anyone who wants to go their own way and establish their research independence is bullied and sidelined. Whether tenure is a bulwark against this sort of thing, I don’t know.

  4. Matt Says:

    Woohooo! I’m not a lazy blogger!! Maybe you can write me a letter when I come up for tenure in 6 years. On second thought, given the nature of this article, maybe that’s not such a great idea …

    Given your premise, here is how I would structure it. I would do eight year review periods with a chance for nominal performance-based raises every three years. (I know those numbers don’t factor very well. That’s just what I think is right). At every performance-based review after the first 8 years, you would be judged on your merits for being promoted to full professor. Needless to say, if you’re not getting performance-based raises, you’re likely not going to get to keep your job after an 8 year review period. After 4 8-year periods, professors (roughly 65 yrs old) would be reviewed every 3 years to evaluate their benefit to the university.

    Now my initial comments on Paul’s proposal. 1) Unfortunately, with everyone freaking out about the economy and an inordinate supply of postdocs, tenure is something that Uni’s wouldn’t have to offer to drum up interest. 2) If this is to work on any level (undergrad, mid-level, major) salaries would have to be increased. (I know people have done the breakdown of the cost of the tenure process before, but I forget where I’ve seen them.) Would this be cost effective in the end? If not, would the added benefit in research or education be worth it? 3) This really wouldn’t fly unless it was a university-wide thing. Seeing how adjuncts and non-tenure track lecturers are treated as a whole (even though most tenured prof’s couldn’t hold these folk’s jocks when it comes to educating), it wouldn’t take very long for chemists to be on the outside looking in on the university as a whole. This is not a good thing for the uni or for the chemists.

  5. bad wolf Says:

    You hit many of the problems but skipped the creation of a growing pool of adjuncts that are used to cover the shortfall of tenured faculty. Instead of a two-tier system of lifetime employment vs. one-semester teaching contracts, a five- or ten-year contract system sounds pretty good.

  6. Flavio Ortigao Says:

    You are not stupid, but you disprove your own argument, what is a bit silly.
    1. Tenure guarantee the Academic Freedom for Professors, as you say. You (nobody) do not argue against it.
    2. Why should assistants work so hard? To prove before everybody they are qualified to hold Tenure.

    So tenure is good. You have no point.

  7. Rob Jackson Says:

    As someone has already commented, we don’t have tenure in the UK any more. It came to an end with any new contracts awarded after 1988, which coincidentally was the year I was appointed. One interesting point is that there was very little response to its withdrawal, so the process may not be as painful as you anticipate! It’s quite surprising that it still operates anywhere, as it’s really not necessary any more.

  8. Chemjobber Says:

    “So tenure is good. You have no point.”

    Well, in that case, okay everybody, time to go home! Flavio says Paul has no point!

    (grumbles, shuffling feet)

  9. Paul Says:

    @CJ: I think the nomenclature of assistant/associate/full/named/emeritus could fall along with tenure, though I suppose universities would keep it as a form of compensation that costs nothing. I’d be pretty open to anything for this one.

    @DOC: That sounds less than lovely.

    @Matt: I hope the reviews for the old-timers are less stringent if they’re every three years. That’s intense!

    @bad wolf: Thanks a good point…I forgot to include the adjunct problem. It’s definitely more evidence that the current system has serious deficiencies.

  10. Paul Says:


    No…my point is that tenure doesn’t really protect academic freedom for chemists and that this freedom is not especially important anyway.

    Maybe everyone should read the long version.

  11. Matt Says:

    Speaking as someone who has watched many a person go through the process, I can say that those people we want to keep in Academia only take a half-second to exhale once they get tenure. Then they are full bore again. Either they are so into their research that they feel they can’t afford to not spend time on it. Or, they are such great educators, that their devotion to their students will not allow it. Sometimes, you get professors who do both. My point here is that the professors that universities ultimately want to keep around do not actually “care” about tenure. I’ve asked Harry Gray about it before. He says that it never crossed his mind. As long as he did what he felt was incumbent upon him as an academic scientist, everything would take care of itself. (When you’re Harry Gray you can say these things.) But, I agree with him. Personally, I care about my students education. I think that I have good ideas for how to teach them chemistry. I also know that I care about my research more than my administration does. So, if I keep true to myself and my ideals, tenure should work out fine. And, if it doesn’t, then I’ve done something wrong. All of this will work the same way in Paul’s proposal. The difference between implementing this proposal and not is for associate profs. Assistant professors would all keep working just as hard as before. Only now, associate profs would feel the need to constantly improve themselves. But, like I said before, the good ones are going to do this anyway.

  12. Matt Says:

    in re older professors: The reviews would be less intense. Part of the financial issue with tenure is keeping around all of the older professors who nearly completely drop their research and teaching. (I’ll consult the interwebs after I get my post written for tomorrow and find this study.) This is the biggest cost to the system. That said, there are very good reasons to keep some “experienced” professors around. So, yes, the 3 year reviews would be much less stringent. It would just be a way for the university to figure out if their supporting an older professor with a smaller work-load is beneficial while needing to refresh their system. Each uni would need to make it abundantly clear what their deciding factors at this point would be. And service to the university/prior excellence in a field/continued admiration from students and other faculty would be some of those criteria.
    In short … yes … much easier reviews

  13. Liberal Chemist Says:

    You make some good points that I agree with. I have been granted tenure at two different universities (a large public provincial university and a small liberal arts university) and can see the truth in your comments. That said, I would like to offer some comments from the other side of the lectern. You ask what academic freedom protects in chemistry, sounds like you have never had a revolutionary or counter cultural idea. I would imagine that any chemist working in holistic/naturopathic medicine, creationism, spiritualism or even solution memory would know that fear. Don’t forget that our discipline has it’s own statement of faith and is not kind to heretics, in the words of one chemist that was trying to prove the existence of carbocations “They rent me”. I think your revolutionary ideas will not work if retroactively applied to universities with the tenure system, the costs of change would be too high unless financial emergencies occur. If you look at the union agreements there are clauses that unlock tenure in financial emergencies. You need to focus your attention on *new* universities and just not let them start the tenure system. It would take a while but such universities without tenure would have a natural competitive advantage over the traditional tenure bound universities and would thrive …or it is possible that you are wrong. It would be an interesting experiment. I would also like to point out that the incompetent, misanthropic troll that you stereotype as faculty deadwood is in my experience a rarity. What I have observed is that the deadwood will carry the load in teaching that gives breathing room to the research active faculty. In addition if you are going to have a long heart-to-heart conversation with a professor it will likely be with one of the deadwoods. Finally I would like to note the faculty unions are usually distillations from the deadwood faculty and there will come a time my son when the only people standing with you in a meeting will be your union … and you will be grateful.

  14. Retired Chemist Says:

    My PhD adviser made full professor in his fifth year at a Big Ten university. He requested that he not be given lifetime tenure but reevaluated every five years on his teaching/research performance. The senior academic administration said that would be impossible and that if he did not accept tenure he would need to leave the school. Tenure is entrenched and won’t be easy to get rid of.

  15. Chemjobber Says:

    @Retired: I think that was fairly understandable, in the sense that one oarsman was willing to rock the boat. Instead of facing a revolt, they just told him to sit down.

  16. Curious Wavefunction Says:

    Nice summary Paul, and I actually agree with most of the things you say. I do agree that research on “controversial” topics is often limited not by tenure but by funding. However, I do want to address the issue of academic freedom. You say that chemistry is not as full of controversial topics as, say, Middle Eastern history and this is largely true. But while chemical topics may not be as controversial to the public, as you pointed out yourself, they may be controversial within a particular department or community. A chemist who is researching the origins of life may be looked down upon even if he is doing something interesting with it. Plus, controversial topics in chemistry may loom on the horizon. You mentioned climate change yourself. Chemical topics related to climate change and energy are going to become prominent in the near future. Considering the political and moral implications attached to climate change, I don’t find it implausible at all that chemists working on climate change may find their work scrutinized more closely and questioned, both by the public and by the community. Chemists working on biofuels or solar cells may well become the subject of controversy in the near future as these areas come under sharper focus from the public and media. Academic freedom will help in such cases.

    But what I find more important in this context is that the academic chemist (or physicist or geologist for that matter) is not just a scientist; her rather unique profession also affords her the opportunity to be a public intellectual. While she may not hold controversial opinions on her own topic, she may hold them on others. Consider Linus Pauling. Or consider Noam Chomsky. Would MIT have kept him if there was no tenure system? Maybe not. But no one would doubt that, as controversial as his opinions are, Chomsky has been a uniquely valuable public resource whose outspoken positions were partly made possible by tenure, academic freedom and job security. Now you may protest that it’s unfair to give an academic chemist tenure for holding controversial opinions not about chemistry but about a completely unrelated topic. But then we would have to re-evaluate the very role of the academic public intellectual in our society. Traditionally, academic freedom has meant the freedom to speak out on any public issue and not just your own area of speciality. In fact this is the way it’s worked for hundreds of years and overall it has been valuable for society since it has encouraged debate on a wide variety of issues. If you want to get rid of tenure, you will likely get rid of outspoken opinions in a free society from one of its important segments. I agree that these days the Internet ensures free and diverse opinions from almost anywhere, but there is something to be said for officially institutionalizing such opinion. How would you address this problem?

    On a different note, the Institute for Advanced Study is probably the pinnacle of the tenure system, where permanent members have to essentially do nothing else other than think. Admittedly it gives permanent membership only to very smart people like Einstein, but you might like what the well-known physicist and engineer Richard Hamming had to say about the place:

    “The great scientists often make this error. They fail to continue to plant the little acorns from which the mighty oak trees grow. They try to get the big thing right off. And that isn’t the way things go. So that is another reason why you find that when you get early recognition it seems to sterilize you. In fact I will give you my favorite quotation of many years. The Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, in my opinion, has ruined more good scientists than any institution has created, judged by what they did before they came and judged by what they did after. Not that they weren’t good afterwards, but they were superb before they got there and were only good afterwards”

  17. Matt Says:

    @Liberal Chemist
    Well said! I think what is sorely lacking at universities is the ability to evaluate actual mentorship. I feel that true mentorship is one the most noble and worthwhile acts a professor can perform. But, it’s difficult to measure and certainly is not rewarded. Any ideas on how to correct this?

  18. melissasbench Says:

    What about the idea that tenure insulates chemists from funding whims? Someone can generally maintain a lab of 2-3 grad students/undergrads depending on the dept’s TA lines and undergrad research stipends. Tenure can be a way for someone to maintain research that isn’t “hot” but is still, long-term, important. Especially in the new economic reality, having tenure at least means that your research enterprise may slow, but will (at many hard-money institutions) never come to a complete halt.

  19. Paul Says:

    @CW: Great points. I definitely appreciate the value (and potential value in the future) of “academic freedom”, but these benefits come at an awfully high cost—one that I am not willing to pay. I’d rather see the rank and file continually recharged with vigorous professors full of energy and new ideas.

    I wonder if there could ever be a stable equilibrium of some mix of schools with and without tenure. My guess is no…once it starts to go away, it will eventually be gone.

  20. Jemma Says:

    To be the devil’s advocate, maybe you are looking at this backwards.

    Tenure is an excuse to boot out the underachievers who are unlikely to ever achieve.

    Does any other job have a five year booting review based solely on you achievements?

    These days in any job it seems is hard to fire someone for underachieving (sure they might not get promoted, but fired? not really). They have to do something really heinous and documentable to get fired. Companies fear wrongful dismissal suits.

    But I sure know some people that didn’t get tenure because they didn’t publish enough papers.

  21. Chemjobber Says:

    @melissa: Perhaps I misunderstand, but tenure only provides for the PI, not the science. Tenure + no funding = no important science, too, right?

  22. excimer Says:

    Since science is an inherently elitist system and leads itself to a hierarchical system, but maybe it’s not the tenure system itself that is flawed, but rather, the entire faculty system present at most schools. Would a tenure system make more sense if we followed a more “European” model, where assistant professors’ work is guided under the auspices of (tenured) senior faculty? In this regard, promotion comes gradually and is not guaranteed but is also not subject to one five-year review. Of course, there are drawbacks to this- the degree of independence of research for young faculty would take a serious blow- but it would also allow for young faculty to get their feet wet as opposed to the sink-or-swim system we have. In any case, I think tenure, as CW very nicely demonstrated, is a consequence of elitism. But science is an elitist institution. I don’t think it’ll go away.

    There is one other issue with the tenure system- and that is incentives. The elimination of tenure would remove the most lucrative incentive for spending five years working 28 hours a day and kissing as much senior faculty tail as possible. Now it might seem silly to say that people who want to go into academia are in any way rational, but as far as bottom lines are concerned, tenure is a big one. And if the tenure system is eliminated in some schools, it will never be fully eliminated, because at the end of the day, it’s part of the job package, and schools without tenured positions who want to compete with tenured schools are going to have to compete some other way. Prostitution will likely be involved.

    …which leads me to my last argument: the elimination of tenure in some departments has already begun due to cost-cutting measures, leading to a rise in the number of adjunct faculty, which is (and should be) dirty words to hear. Adjunct faculty are essentially post-graduate slave labor, a key to filling the bottom line promises of admins and bookeepers. The removal of tenured positions would allow admins to swoop in and replace higher-paid faculty with cheaper labor. That is not a prediction- it IS happening, just not yet in academic chemistry. But is that good for science?

  23. Retired Chemist Says:

    @excimer, you are correct about adjunct faculty. My wife is an adjunct at a local university and only puts up with it because she enjoys teaching. She gets no benefits (not needed in her case as we have my health insurance) and gets paid piecemeal per course taught. We live in an area with a lot of highly educated professionals who want to teach and supply outnumbers the university’s demand for adjuncts. It’s also not terribly new as many chem departments have advertised for temporary teaching positions to help out when faculty are on sabbatical.

  24. Hap Says:

    In lots of places (standard nonacademic jobs), well-performing people are laid off because there is always a supply of cheaper labor in the pipeline. Unless you’re in the top echelon of professors, this is likely to happen. Universities (even before the current economic woes) were thinking more and more exclusively of the bottom line, and so it isn’t hard to see that this would happen if they could implement it. (Also that teaching isn’t really valued – it’s a “cost center”, rather than what the purpose of unis is, so it isn’t much respected. Students are fodder in many places until donation time.)

    If universities paid more at the beginning and required less work to get to the first contract, it would make sense, but that probably won’t happen, so professorial candidates will likely have to factor twenty (four ugrad, 6 grad, 2-4 postdoc, and 6 to “tenure”) years of hard work at low pay for ten years of some security and middling pay. I don’t think that that is either going to wash or should. It’s a pretty big price to pay for getting rid of the adjuct system, and I don’t think that it’s worth it.

  25. organic grad student Says:

    Paul, thanks for the great post!

    Although I appreciate a lot of the points that have been made about increasing University flexibility etc, here are a couple of things that concern me about the notion of moving to a non-tenure system:

    1) What is the likelihood of hiring/firing decisions being made as mere business decisions (by higher ups who are looking only at the financial bottom line rather than the science)? The recent cost-reducing move of SUNY institutions to eliminate entire humanities departments comes to mind. Although underachieving professors are granted immunity to firing in the tenure system, so are the high achieving ones. From a cost perspective, having a young workforce is less expensive than having an experienced one.

    2) If the tenure ‘carrot’ isn’t there, will the output of a professor ‘level out’ over the course of their career, or will the expectation be for unending ‘high output’? For better or worse, tenure is often a reward to those who have been working 80-hour weeks for 15 years of their life. Without tenure, will they have to continue working 80-hour weeks? Is that sustainable or healthy? For the individual or the industry?

    3) I really appreciate LiberalChemist’s comment about the deadwood faculty being the ones that you have heart-to-heart conversations with. It seems to me that there is great value in not only the research output of a professor, but also in their life experience and wisdom. That is something that doesn’t necessarily come through if you’re only evaluating performance and salary.

  26. Leigh Krietsch Boerner Says:

    I too like the idea of going up for evaluation every 7 or so years (think 10 is too long). But instead of just evaluating on research output like some have mentioned above, they should be evaluated on everything a professor is theoretically supposed to do. So that’s research and publishing papers yes, but also teaching, guidance of graduate students (but not how many PhDs they turn out–quality over quantity), leadership in faculty roles (ie bonus points if you’re the graduate adviser or something), and maybe innovation? I guess that last one falls under the research category, but it would be great if profs could actually be rewarded for doing the thing that tenure is supposed to allow them to do (but in reality doesn’t, as Paul established above).

    Gosh, that was rambling. Sorry.

  27. melissasbench Says:


    Tenure + no funding = no important science, too, right?

    Depending on the nature of the research and the availability of TA lines in a department, this is not necessarily the case. Think especially physical or analytical chemistry where, if the fancy equipment is already set up, what is mostly needed is a few hands on deck to maintain the equipment and run the experiments. In my department, there are two groups with 2-3 grad students plus occasional undergrads. These tenured profs care deeply about their research but cannot compete (for whatever reason) for large pools of funding. They get by on smaller grants, education grants, and TA lines from the department. Would it be nice if they “payed their way” a little more? Sure. But at least their research doesn’t have to be completely abandoned.

    Think of it this way — we all lament the recent funding drought, and the way it is squeezing even well-established groups. I’d argue that many more smaller groups would have ceased to exist over the past two years if not for hard money, TA lines and tenure.

  28. Chemjobber Says:

    Fair enough, Melissa — it can be a tough but necessary way of doing science, I agree.

  29. K Says:

    Discussion of tenure periodically appears during times when fewer professors are being hired. Another factor that limits the hiring of professors is the cost of set up funds. Many years ago, when I was hired my set up funds were about equal to my starting salary. There were many more departmental instruments and groups had to share instruments. Now we invest huge amounts of money when we hire assistant professors. We are much more careful about who we hire. But in bad economic times, we hire fewer people.

  30. Matt Says:

    @CJ and @Melissa
    Haven’t we been discussing good ways to remove PhDs from the crowded application pool. Seems like this is one harsh way to do it. (disclaimer: not saying that I agree with it)

  31. yonemoto Says:

    At The Scripps Research Institute, they had tenure, i.e. they couldn’t fire you but if you couldn’t bring the grants in you would lose lab space, and you had to write your salary out of your grants – the only institutional money went to professors who had administrative duties. Or such was my understanding while I was there.

  32. yonemoto Says:

    I’m not a big fan of tenure, but I’m pretty sure this experiment would not have happened without tenure.


  33. Chemjobber Says:

    @Matt: Yeah, it certainly is. If the bulkhead door is closing, you feel really awful for the folks on the other side.

    K brings up a great point about start-up funds. It seems like the requested (?) packages are getting massive now; I heard 750k once from a fairly well-respected (and now well-published) then-postdoc/now-assistant prof.

  34. Matt Says:

    @CJ 750K is baseline now if you’re applying to a top school. I just went through the process and it boggles my mind. Really, the most expensive thing on everyone’s list are students and postdocs. Those salaries (and benefits?) add up over time. Young researchers understand how to work a grinder (having just been in one themselves). People push science. Of course in that (at least) 750K are a lot of bells and whistles and personal NMRs and microscopes and hoods etc etc etc etc.

  35. paul - not chembark Says:

    As always Dr. Bark, a fantastic bit of writing.

    This may have been brought up already….

    If you have not do so, I might suggest you read “Higher Education?” by Hacker and Dreyfus (http://highereducationquestionmark.com/). Most of the points you raised were addressed in the book, along with a whole lot more.

  36. William Penrose Says:

    I’m not a fan of tenure, either, but more and more, I’m starting to see instances where it can be valuable, in fact, critical to the advance of scholarship. Take the case of Michael Mann, the climate scientist whose aggressive stand on climate change has angered conservatives and Congressional energy stooges alike. If his job were not protected by tenure, he’d be turning pancakes in a diner somewhere.

    These days, no one can tell whose discipline is going to become a political thermite bomb. Certainly, evolutionary biologists and cosmologists would be living in fear if not protected by tenure.

    As noxious as tenure is, this is not the time to get rid of it.

  37. Bruce Hamilton Says:

    The greatest beneficiaries of tenure removal would be university management. They will be able to follow funding fashions faster and cheaper. Departments that financially under-perform could be more easily “reviewed”. Changes may not just be within disciplines, chemistry may be less favoured than popular social sciences.

  38. bad wolf Says:

    Controversy would probably be averted by other schools picking up professors who agreed with their party line(s).

  39. Anonymous Says:

    I think a initial contract of say three years would be good. Followed by successive 10-year contracts if the arrangement works out. Also, I think a probationary contract of 2-3 years if the professor is not performing as they should be would also be appropriate. That seems like enough time for them to get some grants/show a change in their ways.

  40. Chemjobber Says:

    I would think a ten year contract would be enough time to weather any political controversy, but I dunno. (Not if it fell in year 9, I suppose.)

  41. Matt Says:

    With the case of Michael Mann, doesn’t he solidly have the support of his department and PSU? Aren’t they trying to give a collective FU to the Cucinellis of the world? I don’t believe that a university will stop being a place of academic freedom just because you get rid of tenure. I can’t see that happening.

  42. Hap Says:

    I think though that at least part of their (UVA’s) position is secured because they can’t easily get rid of Mann – get rid of the barrier to getting rid of him and the equation might change. Particularly if the U is state-funded and they threaten the funding. I don’t think it’ll happen often, but it could happen.

    If you’re willing to elect people who choose people like Cucinelli (or elect him yourself, but I don’t think AGs are elected), you’re not going to get much help if they do threaten you, and there are likely to be more threats where that one came from (because the other people ypu’ve chosen may make similar threats and have enouugh backing to persist in them).

  43. Matt Says:

    I still don’t think that they can fire him. The only thing Cucinelli can try is to have UVA return the funding to the state. That’s the only thing on the docket. As AG they have no say over hiring processes at UVA. That would put him squarely in the OBVIOUS Big Brother Role that his politics are so against. I can’t see it happening.

  44. Chemjobber Says:

    Assuming that tenure were to be negotiated away (a HUGE assumption), I assume protection from internal/external political pressure would be something core to be hung on to. That would be the only way of keeping the humanities/social science professors from burning the place down.

  45. Matt Says:

    Where you at? GM should be over by now …

    I don’t think any of this works without the rest of the campus faculty going along. I KNOW that would never happen in a million years. I’ve certainly been wrong before.

    On a side note, I really enjoyed hearing support/understanding about the adjunct ordeal that is currently going on at college campus’s nationwide. I think that everyone loses out (aside from the bottom line) with this situation. It’s a really crap deal for the Adjuncts. Fortunately for @Retired Chemist and many of the adjuncts at my uni, they don’t need to teach. They enjoy doing it on the side and most of them have industry experience. But really, the fact that so many of them are being used (as a cheap replacement for full-time faculty) is a threat to the educational mission of the university. Colleges really need to be careful with this.

  46. Paul Says:

    I’m at San Marino High School doing SHArK outreach until 9 or so.

    I’ll definitely check-in later.

  47. cookingwithsolvents Says:

    Even though I’ve only been TT for a short time, I can certainly say that most of this discussion is occurring with very, very little information about how the university power structure really functions. Those advocating against tenure would do well to read the faculty handbooks at their respective institutions and come up with reasonable ways to govern a university in the absence of tenure.

    There are some parallels between having citizenship in a country and tenure, though TT get votes on many issues, as well. Large #’s of adjuncts also affect the power structure since they don’t get votes and this can be abused by both faculty and administration but these discussions are beyond what I want to address in this comment.

    I certainly am against such “deadwood” scenarios which people use as reasons to be against tenure. These are the exception, not the rule.

    The continuity provided by the tenure process and system contains an inherent value which cannot be easily measured, even though it can have negative consequences in some circumstances. It is a separate discussion however, consider the effect of continuity breaks upon research in the private sector, e.g. the drug industry as sometimes discussed on Derek’s bog (inthepipeline). I wholeheartedly support the enterprise of a researcher having a research PROGRAM with a 20+ year arc within which many research PROJECTS may be formulated, pursued, and completed. The difference between PROGRAM and PROJECT is one that many have trouble understanding at early career stages and I would love to hear PP and DM write a post explicitly addressing this issue which many grad students and postdocs just simply do not “get”.

  48. bad wolf Says:

    Even if a Red-state school could be defunded because of a rogue professor (impossible under tenure system) there would still be plenty of private or Blue-state colleges that would be happy to pick up a ‘controversial’ professor. There would be a market for their services, not a “give us the results we want or flip burgers.” There are creationist PhDs working at state schools and private (religious) schools who would also feel “pressured” at many other institutions.

    Second, in most schools and industry people underestimate how easy it is to replace good (competent) people. There is a big incentive to retain people who you know can do the job and not roll the dice on a younger, lower salary replacement (in most situations).

    Third, i guess i think Paul is very accurate in his original essay, except for the phrase “will the end of tenure come anytime soon? No way.” The adjunct system is either a last-ditch way to prop up the ailing tenure system or the most obvious sign of its advanced decay, because the original incentives to offer lifetime employment are now gone, and schools are simply not hiring new tenure-track faculty. The system may be around but if no one new is brought into it, the adjunct pool grows while the tenure pool shrinks and you have a de facto end to the tenure system.

  49. Chemjobber Says:

    Question because I don’t really know: is adjuncting a concern for chemistry professors? I know that it’s a problem for the humanities/social science types, but I’ve not really seen a lot of ads for adjunct chemistry professors.

  50. Special Guest Lecturer Says:

    Disagree with this line of reasoning on eliminating tenure, though I do believe there should be a mandatory retirement age (or perhaps a mandatory retirement age that can be pushed back 5-10 years at a time depending on performance).

    Academic freedom is more than being able to express a controversial idea. It means freedom from scientific fad. The 10 year contract model would cause huge boom-bust cycles that track fads in chemical research. Departments would have loaded up on diversity-oriented organic chemists 20 years ago, cutting out all sorts of “unfashionable” fields (and much institutional knowledge). They’d be offloading them right now for materials people and electrochemists, who would be dismissed in droves (to go where?) in 2025 for the next big thing. The academy would always be full of the expertise that it needed ten years prior. The depth of research might become more superficial as one would need to move onto the next big pot of gold sooner rather than later. The scientific funding landscape already contributes to this cycle, but a tenured academic can run a large group in flush times and decrease its size when in transition. A 45-year old academic worrying about his renewal at age 50 would sweat after bouncing a single grant that drops the size of his/her research group from 22 to 18.

    I don’t believe the tenure system is that broken. Most academics do not get tenure and shut things down. The system lacks a relief valve for the few that do. It’s no fun being a research inactive mid-career academic. Contrary to Paul’s post, these folks are not getting regular raises (imagine being 55 and being paid the 1985 associate professor salary – not good!). They are treated with disdain by their colleagues and the scientific community. Having a job for life under these circumstances is more of a trap than a refuge. I’d like to think I’d walk away under those circumstances.

  51. Matt Says:

    That’s a really interesting take.
    I understand how tenure should be freeing from scientific fad. But, how do hiring committees currently address this? From my own straw man pole (in which I only ask myself questions) it seems that fads come up a lot in the hiring process. Also, the fields of dominant faculty members tend, in turn, to also dominate the departments that these faculty members are in.

    In the spot that I’m in right now, it has been handled by an adjunct for the past 5 years. The chair convinced the dean to hire my position because finding a qualified adjunct who was willing to teach the advanced inorg lab was too difficult. Also, there are a lot of professionals in our area who really want to do some sort of adjunct work. They really want to try their hand in teaching. There is no shortage. So, when the need comes up, the chair has a pool of people he can go to without having to post an ad. I don’t know that they’re required to advertise seeing as how its not a full time job.

  52. anyway Says:

    Florida Institute of Technology gives contracts to the faculty every five years or so. I do not think they attract any better people than the places offer tenure-track positions.

  53. Chemjobber Says:

    Interesting data point, Matt.

  54. Paul Says:

    With or without tenure, I’d hope schools would be cognizant of the need to maintain diverse faculties with regard to areas of expertise.

    And the adjunct situation is interesting. I’m not sure what to make of it.

  55. How Do We Break This Cycle? | ScienceGeist Says:

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  56. bad wolf Says:

    Chemjobber’s right that it is apparently a bigger issue in humanities/arts. There were an interesting couple of columns this summer by Stanley Fish at the New York Times discussing tenure that i would recommend.

    Talking to one of my undergrad professors i was surprised at how promotion has apparently slowed down. She has served as Department Chair and now is an assistant Dean, but she has still not been promoted to Full Professor. But i don’t know if that’s necessarily another case of unintended consequences of the tenure system.

  57. Matt Says:

    @bad wolf
    The move to administration can be really disastrous for your promotion to full Professor. That promotion specifically is intimately tied to your scholarship. So, if you get out of the game to early, you may be handicapping yourself.

    I also read the Stanley Fish pieces in NYT. Did you also happen to see that they hosted a panel with a couple participants, each giving their opinions on why or why not tenure should stick around?

  58. Brian Griffin Says:

    Tenure pros = academic freedom

    Tenure cons= lack of proper incentives to contribute to science

    A desirable system is one in which academic freedom is assured while proper incentives are in place for the advancement of science. I propose one such system, where in tenure is kept, but pay is restructured.

    What if “base salary” were set at some amount that is sufficient for not being in poverty, and perhaps enough for living a modestly comfortable life. Let’s say $40 k/year to throw real numbers out. If you have tenure, you are guaranteed to make this amount per year.

    There would also be a “performance based salary” in addition to the “base salary.” This could be determined by a combo of grant money pulled in (a proxy measure for how valuable your science is), teaching stats (evals, added-value test scores, whatever), and possibly some other stat (quality of jobs your grad students get?). This provides a monetary incentive to perform well.

    In such a system the benefits of tenure are unchanged, and the incentives for driving science forward are strengthened.


  59. Hap Says:

    I don’t think Cuccinelli can do much here other that sh*t himself. However, people elected the people that put Cuccinelli there, presumably because they agree with his politics and (perhaps) his actions. If that’s the case, they could impinge on UVA in more direct ways, such as funding (“those pointy-headed bastards are sucking up your hard-earned tax dollars to put out this crap.”)

    I thought the W years indicated that the Repubs didn’t mind Big Brother much, so long as they were him (or controlled him). The “if you’re against the war(s), you”re unpatriotic” lines echoed in the media don’t support that assumption, either.

  60. Special Guest Lecturer Says:

    @Brian: I don’t think your proposal is realistic. Picture a mid-career academic with a mortgage and a couple of kids. No way I’d tolerate a swing in income down to $40K during a rough funding period.

    Two aspects of being an academic already accomplish what you suggest. First, I mentioned that non-research active faculty are not getting regular pay increases, and will see their earning power drop significantly over the course of 10 or 20 years. More immediately, most academics are paid a 9 month salary by their universities, so they already have a huge incentive to bring in at least enough grant money to pay the remainder. One can only charge 1 month per NSF grant (and two months total), so covering all three months generally requires at least a baseline level of pursuing funding from diverse sources. The Scripps model of paying your complete salary mentioned above is absolute voodoo, and I would not accept a position under those conditions. Their model only works because of the top shelf talent that they attract and is not broadly generalizable to academia (unless funding rates in the US were to skyrocket).

  61. Stewie Griffin Says:

    Gotta say I love that I seem to have inspired some Family Guy names this week. We’ve got Quagmire over at Chemjobber making comments and now here we’ve got Brian Griffin.
    @Special Guest Lecturer
    If you (not you personally but you know what I mean) started your academic position knowing full well that your real salary is $40,000 (I’ll stick with that since that’s what was proposed for the sake of argument) then perhaps by the time you get to mid-career you wouldn’t have acquired an unreasonable mortgage and more kids than you can afford. I mean why is it that everyone else in today’s economy is expected to tighten their belt and spend more responsibly when they fall on tough times, but this hypothetical mid-career academic is allowed to sit pretty in their guaranteed job?
    Plus notice that Brian Griffin didn’t say that the only way to get bonus pay would be through funding… recall he proposed for a combo of factors of which funding brought in was just one factor (others he proposed were teaching, and how well you place/mentor your grad students). If you’re good at your job then you shouldn’t have trouble being a good teacher, mentoring your grad students well so that they get jobs, and hopefully you’d be lucky enough to get funding now and then. The result is that you’d take home more money than the base $40,000. Now if you can’t do any of those other factors well enough to get some bonus money…. then why should we give you a guaranteed job (that you’re no good at) for life?

  62. Special Guest Lecturer Says:

    Sure, one could argue that an academic in this scenario should not buy a house, have children, or make any other financial commitment beyond a level barely above the NIH postdoctoral minimum. That downside at age 40 would make such a position worthless in my opinion, especially because the upside compensation is limited (you can’t bill 4 months of summer salary no matter how many grants one receives).

    One could claim that this compensation would be based on more than just funding levels and scientific output, but I think this is a naive hope. Grants and publications are quantifiable. Mentoring and teaching ability are not as easily quantified and/or not as valued. We are in a broad field that even uses statistical citation data to rate scientists – tying compensation to highly contextual factors is much more easily said than done.

    I fully support the notion of having a mechanism for losing tenure for the most blatant non-performers. The solutions presented here would give departments a mechanism to marginalize anyone whose sub-field began to slip in importance or who was perceived to be coming off their peak productivity. I believe these policies would be more likely to have a chilling effect on high-risk, high-reward research than to stimulate it.

    In most cases, tenure provides some (but not complete) security to enable longer term research, protection against scientific fads, and departmental politics. It also provides a refuge for a comparatively small number of people to stop performing research. The right change would preserve the former while excising the latter. I think it would be relatively easy to set a very low baseline of funding/publication output required to keep one’s job, followed by mandatory retirement that could be postponed for productive elder researchers.

  63. Chemistry/Science Employment Roundtable – Part 3 | ScienceGeist Says:

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  64. Non-tenure chemist Says:

    So… let me know Paul: You have a tenure position, isn’t it?

  65. Paul Says:

    @Non-tenure chemist: Uh, no. A postdoc position is not even close. I can’t tell if you’re even serious. Are you Wolfie (who now has amassed 161 comments in the moderation queue)?

    @SGL and the Family Guys: I always wonder how big a factor money is to motivating professors. I like academia because it’s the ultimate creative outlet. I just need a big enough paycheck to cover food and shelter, though I assume my thoughts would be different if I had kids.

    And SGL, that’s an interesting point about creating a chilling effect with a new system.

  66. anyway Says:

    There is a university called Florida Institute of Technology which does not have a tenure system. Why is that nobody is commenting on that?

  67. Paul Says:

    @anyway: I’d comment if I was familiar with the school. Right now, I know nothing about it.

    Based on your previous comment, do you think that FIT is a model for what happens when a school doesn’t grant tenure? Did they used to grant tenure? What’s your take?

  68. The Future of Chemistry Jobs – Keep Reading and Commenting | Terra Sigillata Says:

    […] Today marks the conclusion of a series of excellent blog discussions on the current state of the chemistry job market as led by Prof Matt Hartings at ScienceGeist (well, that’s who sent the press release), Chemjobber (opener and closer), Leigh Krietsch Boerner here at Just Another Electron Pusher, and Paul at ChemBark. […]

  69. anyway Says:

    Well, I look at FIT Faculty handbook. I applied there for a faculty position(of course I did not get it, because I asked them if the position was tenure track:-) ). The ad for the position was strange that they did not say it was a tenure-track position. Then, I got familiar with it. I do not know more than that. I think they had the current system from the beginning.
    I believe that Tenure system should be there but not so fast. I think universities should give 5 year contract initially. After that, the person is either fired or given 10 year contract. After this 15 years, the person should be considered for tenure.

  70. David Hardesty, (MD, not chemist) Says:

    Au contraire!… Better alternatives to tenure exist.

    Commenting on Flavio Ortigao’s comment:

    Neither of you are stupid… but in this case I agree with the blogger. Why? Because the rules of the unnecessarily capped incentive structure lead to lost jobs, inefficient use of resources, and occasional random beheadings. This is why I guess the blog was written, and so many others responded. Further, given the altruistic intention of tenure (academic freedom), it seems that it should be granted to all.

    Perhaps a bill of rights or constitutional amendment? Really, it would take a lot to get rid of politics.

  71. Paul Says:

    I don’t agree with some of the reasoning in this piece from Slate, but it’s relevant:


    h/t: Curt Fischer on Twitter

  72. Paul Says:

    I will also note that the provost at my future employer was ousted late last year for trying to change the tenure rules at the university. I don’t know any of the specific details of his plan, but given the uproar, I look forward to the distinct possibility of this post’s being used against me in the very near future. That said, my colleagues can take solace in my complete lack of ambition to enter university administration. :)

  73. Paul Says:

    Also, having revisited this thread, I don’t buy into SGL’s argument that the elimination of tenure will lead to scientific fads’ ravaging our field. The idea that we need to maintain the tenure system as a means of protecting us from ourselves is distasteful; I think that we’re too smart for that. I trust chemists to make good hiring decisions, on average. If a skill set is important, there will be people who are familiar with it and training new students in its practice, even if a method ebbs in popularity.

    Also, I don’t think we need tenure as a nanny to stop departments from doing things like hiring a whole bunch of DOS chemists. Any hires would have been spread over ten years—not all at once—and I’m not so sure that DOS’s honeymoon lasted that long.

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