Amy Bishop update: some observations on tenure

Following the U. of Alabama “tenure denial massacre” by Amy Bishop [see here, herehere , and especially here, here, and here for our earlier coverage], the Chronicle of Higher Education has gathered a series of responses to the question: “Is tenure a matter of life and death?

The answers of course generally reflect New Class sensibilities, but are generally well worth reading. The single most horrifying thing I read was quoted by KC Johnson (who had to suffer through quite a  via dolorosa of his own to get tenure): “[…] as in American Association of University Professors President Cary Nelson’s recent claim that it was acceptable to consider a candidate’s personal or political views in the hiring process[…]”

Let me offer my own two cents on academic tenure. As I see it, it exists primarily for three reasons:

  • Originally, it came about to protect scholars from being dismissed for stating views or findings that were impopular, ‘heretic’, ‘subversive’, or more than one of the above. (For example, ss incredible as this may sound to us today, the act of dissecting a corpse to see human anatomy with one’s own eyes rather than relying  on the ancient writings of Galen, was once considered a subversive act.)
  • In some technical and professional fields (e.g., law, some specialties of medicine, some fields of engineering,…) a practicing professional could earn many times over the salary of a professor. Tenure is perceived as one form of compensation for ceasing to practice in one’s specialty or working reduced hours in it.
  • Finally, in many fields in the hard sciences, tenure is seen as giving scholars the chance to engage in high-risk, highly innovative, research that might pay off big time — or turn out to be a years-long wild goose chase with nothing to show for it. As the latter is obviously the ‘kiss of death’ in the absence of tenure, assistant professors on the tenure track tend to ‘play it safe’ by restricting their research to projects that have a reasonable chance of publishable outcomes.

In the American system, one typically becomes an assistant professor after a Ph.D. and at least one postdoctoral stint. One thus becomes an independent researcher and head of one’s own group (“captain of one’s own ship”) at a pretty young age, but without certainty of employment, and with the ‘Remember Tomorrow’ of a tenure decision ahead. There is no denying that it is a pretty stressful experience, not just for the academic but also for his/her partner: I’ve seen more than one marriage break up over this. But, of course, the payoff of success is a level of job security virtually unmatched in the USA outside government service.

However, many Euro countries have a different academic structure where there is a fairly large “NCO corps” in between the graduate students (and, in the last 20-30 years, postdocs) on the one hand, and the titular professors on the other hand. Anybody eyeing a spot in the “officer corps” needs to do their time in the NCO corps first, but tenure is reached after some years there, after which one finds oneself being groomed/in a ‘holding pattern’ for years  (depending on one’s perspective) until a titular professor retires. Needless to say, this system is much less dynamic than the US one, and the reduced stress is outweighed by the frustration of possibly being stuck in an ‘NCO slot’ for decades, or even until retirement.

Israel has a US-style tenure system: it does have an ‘NCO corps’ of ‘staff scientists’ who however represent an alternate career path rather than an entrance hall to the faculty track. Also, further promotion (from associate professor to full professor) generally takes longer and is subject to closer scrutiny than in the US.

Germany and many Eastern European countries do their ‘faculty filtering’ in a different way than the USA: by demanding an additional credential for faculty in the guise of a Higher Doctorate (known as a Habilitation in Germany). This typically consists of a much heftier thesis than the original Ph.D., and is supposed to be a body of independent research (perhaps with some mentoring) rather than work carried out under the guidance of an advisor. France has a similar post-Ph.D. credential called “Habilitation à diriger des recherches” (accreditation to supervise research), which entitles the holder to act as the Ph.D. advisor to graduate students.

Each system has pluses and minuses. The Euro system is much less ‘sink or swim’ in that one is more gradually groomed for ‘captaincy’, and that job security is reached much more easily. On the other hand, many of Europe’s best and most dynamic researchers seek out academic positions in the USA precisely because of the greater independence and flexibility it affords. Yet on the third hand, dependence on grant money encourages faddishness in research, while somebody who does high-quality research in a ‘no longer fashionable’ subject may have a much easier time of it in France, Germany, Switzerland, or even Israel than in the USA. But on the fourth hand, this same set of circumstances may lead a researcher to remain ‘stuck in a rut’ rather than try to reinvent themselves.

Thomas Sowell’s famous aphorism, “There are no solutions, only trade-offs”, applies here as well.


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