Friday, March 09, 2007

The Wages of Academe

I had promised Professor Zero that I would write more on the constant ratcheting up of tenure requirements as itself a kind of attack on the tenure system. And now with another timely post from Tenured Radical, I want to make good on that promise. TR writes:

I was told by those speaking for the minority negative vote in the department and on the tenure and promotion committee that because my "pace" was off (the standard for "pace" was jacked up for no other reason than what was ambiguously called "high standards," but actually my pace had increased since tenure and I had also chaired a program and a major university committee) that service to the profession at large would not be considered at all as part of the case. Collegial scholarly obligations had become regarded, more or less, as the equivalent of housework, as had administrative work at my own university.
The notion of "high standards" has become a kind of wedge issue within the academy. It can't be countered by championing some notion of "low standards" in opposition. That will never persuade. So a kind of bidding war has set in with everyone vying to have the highest standards. Of course, this war of ever escalating standards is fought out over the lives and careers of an increasingly beleaguered junior faculty. A standard that constantly moves, however, isn't a standard at all. It is something else entirely. It is a lever used to speed up the assembly line in the academy, to increase the amount and intensity of faculty work, and to decrease faculty wages. The fatigue caused by these constantly escalating standards also helps create the conditions where the faculty themselves become willing to relinquish the tenure system. Let me explain.

The issue of "standards" has become the current rubric under which faculty workload gets debated, although covertly. Faculty are notoriously reticent to think about themselves as workers, as folks who do a job for a wage. We prefer to see ourselves as intellectuals and not as laborers. This squeamishness means that very important discussions about wages and workloads take place in other less appropriate venues. The real issue being discussed and camouflaged by the rhetoric of "standards" is how much work for how much pay. That is, exactly how many classes will be taught, how much committee work will be done, and how many publications will be written in exchange for what wage. It is helpful to keep in mind that the most important measure of wages is lifetime earnings. Policies that work to lengthen time to tenure and lengthen time in graduate school are also policies that reduce lifetime earnings. They are policies that reduce faculty wages. Increasing the intensity of faculty work (more books, more articles, more students, more committee work, more administrative duties) also tends to reduce the wage in that more work is now being given in exchange for the same money. This increase in the intensity of faculty workload is accomplished most dramatically and successfully at the level of junior, untenured faculty who are most vulnerable to these demands. Getting rid of tenure will not solve this. It will simply make every faculty member as vulnerable as junior faculty are currently.

On TR's remark that service and committee work has become the equivalent of academic housework, let me just add that this is exactly right. As more women in the academy take on a larger share of this academic service work, the results are just as predictable as they are in any other profession. Every increase in women's participation in a profession has lead to a fall of wages in that profession. Work being done by women becomes viewed as less valuable and less important and the wage attached to it falls. In this case, the wage is simply its weight in promotion and tenure. That there are no returns to service in academia is almost universally recognized. It's very difficult to cajole senior colleagues to serve on committees when service work has become nothing but a net loss to their careers, and it's just plain wrong to further exploit junior faculty by forcing them to serve on committees when the fate of their careers still hang in the balance.

TR also writes:
The proliferation of post-docs (which are full-time contingent labor in drag, most of them) mean that more untenured people are being hired with a book either finished or in press, and several published articles.
This too is exactly right, and it is one of the primary ways in which the escalation of standards for tenure decreases faculty wages. By instituting a system where faculty work more years in lower paid probationary ranks, the lifetime earnings of faculty are curtailed. This works in tandem with the lengthening of graduate school requirements too where future faculty must now also serve longer. The effect is that instead of tenure before age 30 as in past academic generations, tenure after age 45 is now closer to the norm. This means that many years of one's working life have been shifted from the relatively high wage scales of full and associate professor to the much lower wage scales of assistant professor, lecturer, and graduate assistant. It means that faculty are working more and getting paid less. This shouldn't be news to anyone.

I have two specific suggestions to help combat these insidious trends. The first is work to incorporate the following language from the AAUP into the tenure and promotion documents at individual institutions. This shouldn't be such a hard sell, since many faculty and administrators see the AAUP's role as promulgating a set of professional best practices. The AAUP writes:
The total period of full-time service prior to the acquisition of continuous tenure will not exceed 7 years, including all previous full-time service with the rank of instructor or higher in other institutions of higher learning.
This would help stop the creation of a two-tiered career system where in effect one must go through two probationary periods rather than one. I'm one of those academics who have taken 13 years to tenure with numerous adjunct and visiting appointments. My vita is quite impressive these days. Sadly, my accomplishments are likely to be used against my more junior colleagues who are going up for tenure with a mere 6 years of post-Ph.D. teaching and research experience. The committee will talk of creating high standards, though, not of creating low wages.

Coupled with adopting this clear language on the length of probationary service, there also needs to be active resistance to the escalation of tenure standards. I suggest that rather than starting from first principles every time and asking, "How much should we require for tenure?" we ought to approach the question historically and materially and ask, "How much have we required for tenure?" Tenure and promotion committees should be made to look at past tenure files from the last decade and see what have actually been the requirements for tenure. I think this would help committees see themselves in their proper role of applying standards, rather than as creating them. It would also help highlight the appropriate weights of teaching and service and help prevent them from being completely discounted in favor of research.

Whatever we do to confront this problem, it is very important to resist despair. The system of tenure may be grievously ill, but it would be an even more grievous mistake to shoot it just to put it out of our present misery.


  1. LP,

    Well you know I want to shoot it, but let me just say that you have expanded the discussion beautifully -- and what you are saying about speed up and wage depression is EXACTLY right.

    One part of the standards discourse at Zemith is pointing to th dead wood full professors and saying htat even though there is individual suffering, do we want more of "them"? In other words, in the end, the person being held back will benefit because the "process" will have more integrity.



  2. I haven't read the original of the AAUP statement--so I might be understanding--but I can't see this idea (7 yrs of total) helping anything if the expectations (of publishing, service, etc) don't also change. What about those of us who were "full time instructors" during *grad school*?

    I also just read your other post on tenure requirements (I'm a newbie to your blog and really like it!) and want to say that I'm very very very happy that my former institution "stopped the tenure clock" after I gave birth. It wasn't mandatory, but it gave me an extra semester (or year) if I needed it. I agree that it's an institutional problem about the tenure process that creates such needs, but without a complete overhaul of the system (including lessening requirements) at most institutions, stopping the clock is a blessing.

  3. Hi gwinne. Thanks for your comment. The AAUP language actually has an added footnote about stopping tenure clocks for situations such as childbirth. I'm all for it. But the fact that tenure clocks are in need of being stopped so that junior faculty can have lives outside of their jobs is iteself a symptom of the problem. I would rather fix the problem and make the job requirements compatible with our lives rather than adapt our lives to unreasonable job expectations. Plus, why should women's careers be held up and their wages docked just for having kids? The same goes for full-time teaching as a graduate student -- this is an exploitation that should be stopped rather than something we should adapt ourselves to. The idea behind enforcing that AAUP precept would be to ratchet back down the expectations. Right now folks get tenure by spending many more than 6 years doing it. The aim should be create standards that can actually be met within 6 years of probationary work rather than standards that actually take 10 or 12 years.

  4. I agree. We do need a complete overhaul of the system, setting up realistic expectations that can be met in a realistic (like 6 yrs) amount of time. But *until* that happens, anything that can be done (like stopping the tenure clock) to allow us to meet the current expectations is a great thing.

    Again, I don't see working full time as a grad student as exploitation, but a good opportunity in a bad system. Teaching and tutoring, I got out of grad school without any student loans. I also acquired teaching experience that got me my first t-t job. Unless a system were created in which all grad students were given fellowships that covered 100% of their living expenses and tuition, I don't see much of an alternative.

    Again, I don't disagree with you in theory. In practice, though, I've benefitted from everything you take issue with (teaching full time during grad school, stopping the tenure clock, taking longer than 6 yrs to tenure). I think a complete overhaul of the tenure system is a long way away, however much it might be needed.

    Okay, I really need to grad those exams!

  5. Great analysis - The Profession should really take note.

    On dead wood full professors, how useless are they really? And how many of them are there? And what can't they do one of those 'golden handshake' retirement programs, entice them to leave? Or if a use has not been found for them, is that not the institution's problem, poor personnel management?

    Just because there are a few of these 'dead' professors around, *if* in fact they are dead, is no reason to further exploit the youth. That in fact is a sure fire way to exhaust them, so that they turn into 'dead' wood themselves ASAP.

    On how faculty do not like to admit they are laborers: I never figured out why laborers could not be intellectuals. What they are trying to convince us of is that as 'professionals' we should not care about money - despite the fact that professionals are laborers and are not necessarily independently wealthy - so is it in fact that they are trying to get us to imagine we are aristocracy and do not need to be paid, and are doing all of this out of noblesse oblige?

    I would love to undertake a study of the university as institution, the advent of the business model, etc., and then do a cross-cultural survey of the situation today. Cannot do it now. *Light bulb* maybe when I am emerita.

  6. P.S. when standards are unrealistically high, everyone is marginal, which means decisions are made *very* subjectively.

  7. Great post here. As someone going into her first job that's not tenure-track, I'm frankly scared about the proposal to only have 6 years to tenure. Of course, your proposal includes making reasonable requirements. But for those of us with high (though funded) loads as graduate teaching assistants (2/2 as instructor of record, which is what the t-t faculty teach, though lecturers are of course screwed far more), we don't exactly walk out with our research agendas on track and a couple of publications in pocket. (In fact, my grad university recently reduced the number of fundable years for TAs.) It remains to be seen whether my new post will allow me time to straighten out my research track.

    Also, just to add to your argument, it is not only women who are burdened with undervalued service commitments. People of color, male and female, often are sought out for service commitments in the name of "diversity" and end up completely over-extended. That these service commitments are undervalued as women and people of color do them is really just a travesty.

    Thanks for this. I don't want to get rid of tenure. Then there would be no protection for people like Maggie May at as she does battle with faculty there.

  8. The deadwood comments, and a fortuitous quote, have inspired me to write another post on the topic above.

    Good point, though, about the escalating standards transforming every decision into a borderline case. Paradoxically, the higher standards don't help decide things and instead set the stage for debates on the murkier grounds of collegiality and quality.

    Also a good comment about the levels of service work being higher for minorities as well as women. That service gets similarly discounted in promotion and tenure decisions at the same time as it sucks time away from their own research.

    Finally, I see I haven't persuaded everyone that holding the line at 7 years to tenure is a good idea. I'll have to work on making my argument more persuasive, but I'm confident that the current defacto extension of the time to tenure to 10-12 years or more isn't in anyone's best interest.

  9. Don't forget that at some universities, tenure doesn't mean promotion. We get tenure after our fifth year, but promotion is a separate process, not attempted during your tenure year, and not a foregone conclusion. You have to "wait in line" is how I've heard it described. I know of one person active in the union (afraid I can't agree with you about unionization completely - it's destroyed shared governance at my school) who's been an assistant prof for 15 years.

    Yes, deadwood is a major problem (with a 4/4 teaching load and a legacy of being a normal school, of course it is), but in our case, ratcheting up standards is a good thing. Lowering the teaching load, now that's the difficult thing, and not one likely accomplished by our non-publishing, adversarial union.

    And lastly, at my school (oh, how hard that is to say!) apparently promotion doesn't even get you much of a raise, only a raising of the salary cap over time.

    The discussion of the politics at lower-tier schools being more petty rang true for me.

  10. Caracas, lowering the teaching load and increasing wages will be the quickest method of increasing faculty publication and scholary productivity. Good luck fighting the good fight on that front. I'm quite envious of your union shop, despite the grueling meetings and in-fighting that I'm sure still take place. A system of 5 years to tenure is a major accomplishment, though, even if promotion lags behind. Congratulations on that.

  11. Random thoughts much later:

    On why professors aren't happy - because it isn't just a job for them?

    On tenure models - what about no tenure track, just hire to tenure, promote later as in Caracas' university? You'd have to be careful in hiring, of course. But it's an idea.