Hacker News new | past | comments | ask | show | jobs | submit login
The Ever-Shrinking Role of Tenured College Professors (theatlantic.com)
35 points by graeham on April 11, 2013 | hide | past | favorite | 20 comments

Education has been on a lets get as top heavy as we can kick for years. Go to any educational institution, anywhere in the US. Check out the oak paneling in the administrative offices. Check out the explosion of administrative positions. Check out the rise of administrator salaries. That is where the money goes while class sizes increase, teacher salaries nosedive, and essential core subjects get trivialized or cut.

Yes, well, that's what the corporate-capitalist model of enterprise does for you. The people who control the means of production (in a university, that's the administrators who control resources and staffing) are more important than everyone else and will eat as large a portion of the pie as they can grab.

There are really only two ways out: labor struggle or cooperativization. I recommend the latter, on grounds that it's actually the model traditional universities used: the faculty ran the university in check and balance with the trustees, who made ultra-high-level administrative decisions on behalf of the public and the future. There's no reason not to simply undue the neoliberalization of academia and go back to the proven model.

In fact, and I want to EMPHASIZE this, the only reason any shift ever took place away from the proven model was a concerted political attack against academia during the Culture Wars. Whatever you think of my obviously left-wing views in general, you have to admit that until politicians started getting elected on a platform of Stick It To Students, academia ran very well as a public institution funded by taxpayers and capital-asset grants (like land-grant colleges in the USA) and accountable primarily to voters, donors, and academics themselves.

> The people who control the means of production (in a university, that's the administrators who control resources and staffing) are more important than everyone else and will eat as large a portion of the pie as they can grab.

This reminds me of my current place of employment. A minor perk at many offices is a reserved parking space. Before my time (90s, early 00s) the head of the organization had a reserved spot, the rest were for the top engineers with some spots rotating out based on quarterly or annual awards. In the early 00s the other managers began whining and eventually got their own reserved spots. With 100+ reserved spaces at the front of the lot someone realized they'd gone overboard. So they removed the engineers' reserved spots.

This reminds me of my current place of employment.

It's the Marxist description of capitalist employment, so you're supposed to be reminded of your day-job.

Good point. Interestingly, I work for the government[1]. It wasn't until this facility started operating 'like a business' that a lot of the promanagement, antilabor activities took off[2]. I'm always amused by my small government libertarian colleagues that keep moaning about the government cutting spending on us, but also want all food aid and social welfare gone. One day they'll realize that we're on the government dole. Fortunately, I've developed a good poker face.


[1] US since I shouldn't assume anything about my audience.

[2] I'm speaking about this facility, can't speak to government operations in general.

An additional point: contrary to a lot of orthodox left-wing views, it is possible for major enterprises, especially public or nonprofit ones like government agencies and universities, to run like something other than a capitalist business. A good summary of the 30-year ideological project known as neoliberalism is, "The project to make everything run like a capitalist business, whether that works well or not."

I think I'd enjoy having more discussions with you, and maybe when I'm less distracted my input will be more than anecdotal observations. Look forward to seeing you around the discussion board.

The percentage decline in tenure track faculty might be fine. Straight-up instruction (non-tenure faculty) is also important; it provides employment for those who don't make tenure.

Tenure level academia is demanding:

a) Once you've made it, you have a solid reward: a sustainable lifestyle salary, freedom to work on what you wish, and, notoriety.

b) To make it, you have to work insane hours for about a decade or more (PhD, post-doc, 5-years) -- where the first few years (5-8) pay very little, if anything.

c) The odds of making it are against you -- many drop out in their PhD ("ABD"), fail to get post-doctorate work, fail to get a tenure track slot, or, fail to get tenure.

The promise of tenure is the carrot that feeds expectations that can only be met by talent and hard work.

The promise of tenure is the carrot that feeds expectations that can only be met by talent and hard work.

... and luck. Many talented and hard working people don't get tenure.

This is deeply true, and one of the major underlying problems is that the shift toward non-tenure-track teaching positions is much more about cost cutting than it is about providing teaching opportunities to those who just weren't talented or hard-working enough to make tenure. It's a racket.

It's not just tenure, it's benefits. Many institutions are keeping junior staff part-time. Not only is the pay worse; you get no benefits.

This is not a recipe for social stability, e.g. enabling staff to raise families, etc.

When the system goes this far, I'm sorry, but I have no other word for it than "exploitative". (This is without delving into the topic of student debt, etc.)

P.S. And many people spend an inordinate amount of time commuting between multiple part-time instruction gigs.

Tenure is often not a prize that offers the solid reward you mention. In many departments, even tenured professors must receive grant awards equivalent to large percentages (or even exceeding) their salary. So, your freedom to pursue what you wish holds only when what you wish to work on is funded.

I completely agree that the odds are low for most people pursuing PhDs obtaining a tenure track position.

I'm somewhat hopeful that PhD study will become a sane and respectable choice for people who don't have a tenure track career goal in mind. But for this to happen, the nature of PhD study needs to embrace the idea of a "terminal" PhD. And in all honesty, I suspect that a terminal MS with an appropriate thesis tacked on is more than sufficient to satisfy that itch.

I think this is old news. Tenure as a whole likely costs the system more than it brings in intellectual freedom benefits. It's a fallacy to think that more experienced tenured teachers are better educators, when it's research success that got them tenure.

Jeff Selingo (http://www.jeffselingo.com/) writes extensively about how colleges are reacting to changes in demographics and technology. He doesn't think Yale or Harvard will need to change, but the public and private schools a tier below will need to. His book (http://www.amazon.com/College-Un-bound-Education-Students/dp...) is a good read for parents.

I think you are agreeing - It is the research that matters. Newton for example was a spectacularly bad teacher. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Early_life_of_Sir_Isaac_Newton#...)

For tenure and societal benefit, yes. Was so for teaching though undergrad research can be a good experience.

What is the trend for the overall number rather than percentage of tenured college professors? Surely a large part of this is explained by the explosive growth of higher education as a consumer commodity. We should not expect the percentage of professors to increase if the demand for academics is being driven by an increasing number of lower quality colleges.


There are two roles for Tenured College Professors:

  * Making intellectual bets that might not pay off for decades

  * Making Graduate students work hard
Everything else is gravy. The university and country that puts most effort into these two will over the long term get the most out. The important thing here is tenure. The next most important thing is you get to be a professor because all the other professors think you might make a good one.

Just pay up the money, and make the empirical sciences better paid. Its like a magic machine is edication. Put in money get out more.

If you want to see my poster-child for College Professors (#) go http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sddb0Khx0yA.

(#) No, not that Playboy spread. Different poster.

You're missing one of my favorites, "Involving undergraduates in research." Especially for top students, I feel this element is key (I'm biased).

Even for undergrads with no desire to go on to do academic work, it's a good experience to work on a well-defined but hard problem that fundamentally might have either no solution or where the answer is "that doesn't work." It provides undergrads with confidence when they go on to their next job because, frankly, most students will never encounter anything as mentally challenging or technically risky in the rest of their career, entering it with a BA/BS.

Not saying that as a bad thing. Companies (startup or established) have plenty of other risks and challenges (social, business, process, quality, integration, dependencies, schedule, etc.), but the pure technical "is this even possible?" ones are the sort of thing you don't sort out mid-flight with a full or even partial team staffed up --- though you might have some PhDs (Google model) or 15+year veterans of the area (MSFT model) working alone to figure that out before you ramp up a full project.

I think their role is a bit more complex than that. In most universities, there is a teaching and mentoring role to undergraduates, which I think can play a huge role in the direction of those students careers. There is also a domain expertise that gets built around these people - they become walking encyclopedias of their field which has value for society, government, and industry to take their advice. Also, like your TED link, I think there is an 'incubating' role for tenured professors - some profs have an incredible amount of innovation that gets inspired by and spin-off from their labs. Particularly if the prof has entrepreneurial tenancies or at least values commercializing and/or implementing outcomes of their research.

If you want to get university or country success compared to production of tenured professors, its becomes even further complicated. I would argue that the opportunity for collaboration and funding for students and equipment is close in importance to skill of the tenured prof. This is probably what you are saying with paying more to the empirical sciences (along with more tenure spots) - and I agree with you on that.

The reason I posted is as an interesting addition to the common conversation on HN of the role of academics. I think a tenured professor is a quite good job and role. In contrast, nontenured senior academics are IMO not that well compensated (salary or otherwise) for the amount and skill of work they do, at least compared to industry or entrepreneurship.

(Background: I am a PhD student, but looking at entrepreneurship rather than academia long term. I find it concerning the number of my friends and colleagues planning academic careers vs the number of positions that will be open).

Thanks for the TED link, I hadn't seen this one and its a very interesting field. I'll have to restrain on comments to keep this on topic.

Why should you be the only one to keep on topic on an HN thread? :-)

Guidelines | FAQ | Lists | API | Security | Legal | Apply to YC | Contact