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Fuzzy Dice

Mark C. Taylor, writing in a New York Times forum on tenure:

Tenure is financially unsustainable and intellectually indefensible. The fundamental problem is liquidity – both financial and intellectual.

If you take the current average salary of an associate professor and assume this tenured faculty member remains an associate professor for five years and then becomes a full professor for 30 years, the total cost of salary and benefits alone is $12,198,578 at a private institution and $9,992,888 at a public institution. To fund these expenses would require a current endowment of $3,959,743 and $3,524,426 respectively and $28,721,197 and $23,583,423 at the end of the person’s career. Tenure decisions render illiquid a significant percentage of endowments at the precise moment more flexibility is required.

Capital is not only financial but is also intellectual and here too liquidity is an issue. In today’s fast changing world, it is impossible to know whether a person’s research is going to be relevant in five years let alone 35 years.

I do not know what to say about this.  I have one minor editorial quibble:  although it’s true that research on stuff nobody cares about, like Duns Scotus, will not be relevant in five or thirty-five years, the proper locution is “in today’s fast changing world today.”

But never mind the words—let’s look at those numbers.  As director of Penn State’s Institute of Advanced Research in Totally Made Up Arithmetic, I am tempted to respond to Professor Taylor’s claim that faculty at public universities average just over $285,500 in salary and benefits by awarding him a Distinguished Visiting Professorship and a research account in the amount of four-twenty ten-eight scintillion dollars.  But for now I think I will simply board a plane to Las Vegas, where I hope to put Professor Taylor’s system to use at the gaming tables of that fair city.  By my calculations, the Taylor Theorem suggests that your average craps-shooting college professor has a 95 percent chance of tripling his stake every twenty minutes, so if you’re in the house, stop on by! 

Posted by on 07/21 at 07:23 AM
  1. Taylor is way off.  As an assistant professor of English at an Ohio state school, I barely make 185K.  I even had to serve domestic caviar at my last party.

    Posted by Lance  on  07/21  at  09:21 AM
  2. I was recently tenured and the salary I agreed to following the promotion would have borne out Mark Taylor’s numbers.  But then the NHL governing board stuck their fat noses in and nullified the contract. Look, I have enormous respect for Taylor as a teacher and scholar. I’ve read about fourteen of his fifty seven books. But the argument he presents regarding tenure neglects completely what tenure is designed to protect (i.e., freedom of speech, academic freedom, the university itself). In part, what it protects is the refusal to equate thought with cost benefit analysis. This takes gumption (and tenure)these days.

    Posted by  on  07/21  at  10:34 AM
  3. Perhaps Taylor’s calculations are grounded in the same reasoning as this statement:

    “in almost 40 years of teaching, I have not known a single person who has been more willing to speak out after tenure than before. In fact, nothing represses the free expression of ideas more than the long and usually fruitless quest for tenure.”

    Posted by  on  07/21  at  12:13 PM
  4. As director of Penn State’s Institute of Advanced Research in Totally Made Up Arithmetic

    Wow, you really do have fingers in a lot of pies right now.

    In fact, nothing represses the free expression of ideas more than the long and usually fruitless quest for tenure.

    Having observed, from a distance, tenure committees in action, I see a kernel of truth in this.  As usual, of course, any cure based on cost-benefit analysis / greater control over hiring and firing by MBAs or legislators / miracles of the unfettered market would make the problem even worse.  Too few faculty are inclined to rock the boat even upon obtaining tenure, so we should make them even more beholden to Tom Corbett’s allies instead?

    Posted by  on  07/21  at  01:39 PM
  5. "In fact, nothing represses the free expression of ideas more than the long and usually fruitless quest for tenure.”

    Well, I’ve said this before, but really, what’s wrong with repeating oneself?

    Tenure is not about the protection of the “free expression of ideas.” That’s what the first amendment is about.  The 1st A says that the government can’t imprison or harass you just because you’re an offensive kook.  It doesn’t say you get to have a lifetime employment contract for being an offensive kook.

    Tenure is not about individual freedom. It’s about the fostering of discovery and dissemination of knowledge among a community of scholars and into the society at large.  Tenure’s purpose is provide assurance to scholars that they have protection from retaliation in the event that the knowledge they produce is offensive to the powerful - either to the high and mighty, or to the lowly mob.

    And before you have the right to this sort of protection, it’s your obligation to demonstrate that you are actually a productive member of the community of scholars.  If you’re not, then there’s not much benefit to society or to scholarship in extending the protection of tenure over you.

    That’s the idea, anyway.  No doubt someone will tell me that this a laughably naive understanding of the way tenure works in practice - that in fact, departments use tenure to detect and eliminate original thinkers and to hold on to the time-servers and apple polishers.  Fine, I will say, what you are telling me is that tenure doesn’t fulfill its social purpose.  If that’s so it should be reformed or abolished.

    But there’s no argument in the world that the first amendment right to free speech obligates universities to extend life-long employment contracts to new hires.  Only people who have genuinely proved themselves as scholars can lay claim to that privilege.

    Posted by  on  07/21  at  02:07 PM
  6. But there’s no argument in the world that the first amendment right to free speech obligates universities to extend life-long employment contracts to new hires.

    Since the quotation upon which you were commenting comes directly from Professor Taylor’s linked comment on tenure, I’m fairly certain that he is not even remotely making that argument, Bloix.  In fact, he wants to abolish tenure because chasing it supposedly represses the free expression of ideas.  Or, rather, he’s using it as rhetorical cover for the usual, “I got mine, so screw you worthless bums; higher education should be run like a business after I’m dead.” Because if I were C.E.O. of a company, and the board of directors were looking for cost savings, I’d certainly wonder why we’re throwing money at a religion division and its high-salary chair.

    Posted by  on  07/21  at  03:13 PM
  7. You’re right, mds, I’m just mounting one of my usual hobby horses in order to tilt at a windmill or two.  If I’d been making an effort to be relevant instead of tiresome I would have said that that Taylor is erecting a straw man with his argument that tenure suppresses “freedom of speech.”

    I don’t know if anyone here has been following the amusing rants on passive voice over at Language Log, but Taylor has a doozy of a genuine example of a use that is designed to disguise agency:

    “The abolition of tenure will create a more flexible faculty that can be held responsible in ways that have been impossible for far too long.”

    “Can be held responsible,” eh?  By whom, perchance?  By the “CEO” of the university?  Well, that’s precisely what tenure is supposed to prevent.

    Posted by  on  07/21  at  04:29 PM
  8. the proper locution is “in today’s fast changing world today.”

    I hate to correct someone so eminent, but I belive the phrase you are looking for is ‘in today’s real world.’

    Posted by 3rd Amendment  on  07/21  at  05:22 PM
  9. I think Michael actually intends to allude to the idea of “this ever-changing world in which we live in.”

    Posted by Dave Maier  on  07/21  at  08:23 PM
  10. “The abolition of tenure will create a more flexible faculty that can be held responsible in ways that have been impossible for far too long.”

    Oh, that’s very good.  “Flexible.” Or maybe malleable.

    Captcha’s two cents: “neither”

    Posted by Dave Maier  on  07/21  at  08:28 PM
  11. It’s a good thing universities have an obvious financial interest in maintaining tenured faculty, otherwise Mark C. Taylor’s fuzzy math might persuade administrators that contingent labor will solve all their budget problems. Oh, ha.

    The most depressing thing about professionalizing in academia is discovering that the Very Smart People who Inspired Me to get into the biz are as likely as not to be tremendous tools. Nothing brings this home like reading disinterested academic discussions about “Tenure and the Problem of Itinerants” by and among the tenured about how good or bad it will be if and when tenure is a thing of the past. The Mark C. Taylor “I got mine, so screw you” line is especially repulsive when you assume that his side has effectively won and that his “screw you” argument is literally “academic.”

    No offense meant to you, Michael. If there is such a thing as a happy solution to the financial vs. ethical problem in education, I’m sure you’re part of it.

    Posted by  on  07/21  at  09:09 PM
  12. They practice tenure, we have aggressive faculty retention methods.

    Posted by  on  07/21  at  10:35 PM
  13. Neddy Merrill at Edge of the American West said a lot of what I was trying to say more intelligibly, not to say more intelligently, than I did.
    http://edgeofthewest.wordpress.com/2010/07/21/nyt-tenure-discussion/#more-14238

    Posted by  on  07/21  at  10:45 PM
  14. In my head, I’ve put a lot of different words into the box in “That [ ] Bloix,” but “tiresome” has never been one of them.

    I’m just mounting one of my usual hobby horses in order to tilt at a windmill or two.

    If you want to maintain your comment thread access, you need to mix your metaphors.  Unlike gold-plated blogs such as Hit and Run, there’s no commenter tenure here.

    But yes, those who suggest that tenure is meant to protect “freedom of expression” primarily seem to be doing so in order to attack it.  After all, in Professor Taylor’s view, he’s apparently never seen a tenure-track hire challenge the status quo, or do anything else worthwhile.  Heck, if he had his way, the lot of ‘em would be fired for not doing what he thinks they should be doing.  Hmmm ...

    Posted by  on  07/22  at  08:34 AM
  15. Oh, but mounting a hobby horse to tilt at windmills is a train wreck of a mixed metaphor!  And yes, Taylor’s argument is that both pre-tenured and post-tenured professors keep their mouths shut and their eyes down and so, since professors don’t really need the freedom of expression, they can be deprived of it without any loss.

    But I think our host here is an example of how that’s not true.  I suspect that in a world without tenure, a man with dependents working in a field with limited employment opportunities would be more circumspect than Michael is. 

    People who are willing to express strong opinions fall into four categories:  1) people whose opinions favor their funders; 2) gad-flies who don’t live ordinary middle-class lives; 3) bloggers who hide behind pseudonyms; and 4) academics.  Without tenure, I don’t think that PZ Myers, Mark Liberman, or Michael would feel able to do what they do.

    Posted by  on  07/22  at  10:15 AM
  16. From a business perspective, information is something to be hoarded, a competitive advantage to be shaped, leveraged, and wielded—not shared freely. Education should probably look elsewhere for its information handling role models. Tenure can remove a barrier to sharing information if the tenured so chooses.

    Posted by  on  07/22  at  11:07 AM
  17. I’m struck by the implication that faculty salary and benefits are something to be paid from an endowment.

    Sure, nice if you can do things that way. It certainly would relieve the poor students from going into hock to get an education. Free schoolin’! Yay!

    Maybe, just maybe, there are other ways to pay for faculty that don’t involve tying up such large amounts of capital.

    Posted by  on  07/22  at  02:34 PM
  18. Snarki, another way to look at what you’re saying is that Taylor assumes that professors don’t produce any revenue.

    Posted by  on  07/22  at  02:45 PM
  19. Wow, you really do have fingers in a lot of pies right now.

    obMDS: Bow wow chicka wow wow.

    Posted by Chris Clarke  on  07/22  at  05:14 PM
  20. Sigh.  I thought at the time, “Should I use this expression?” Then I decided that the odds were sufficiently in my favor.  With such intuition about odds, it’s a really good thing I didn’t go to Vegas.

    But be careful with appropriating my comedy gold, Clarke, or you’ll end up with another installment of “Aquiferrific: Pluvia vs. Conifer” posted at your world-wide weblog.

    Posted by  on  07/22  at  10:31 PM
  21. Well, I’m glad that everyone spotted everything that’s wrong with Taylor’s piece, from the fuzzy math on salaries to his profound confusion about where money comes from (the enchanted endowment tree, of course!).  But in the meantime, this post’s little joke is on me:  last night I was taken on a tour of various gaming tables by evil young bloggers like Marcotte, Faletti, and Lemieux, and wound up winning back at craps almost all the money I lost at roulette.  It seems that the Taylor Theorem really is cash money, and now I have a truly marvellous demonstration of this proposition
    which this Internet is too narrow to contain.

    Posted by Michael  on  07/23  at  02:55 PM
  22. If more people were conversant with Duns Scotus, we probably wouldn’t have nearly as many carping, barking and whining conservative goofballs to deal with. It’s like they have no sense of evolution. wink

    Posted by Bob_C  on  07/23  at  02:57 PM
  23. and now I have a truly marvellous demonstration of this proposition which this Internet is too narrow to contain.

    <Joke 3.0>
    Pierre de Fermat performed the first known rigorous calculation of probability in response to a question from a professional gambler about dice.
    </Joke 3.0>

    (h/t Matthew Baldwin)

    Posted by  on  07/23  at  03:13 PM
  24. How does Dr. Taylor feel about Social Security?

    Posted by  on  07/23  at  07:37 PM
  25. in the meantime, this post’s little joke is on me:  last night I was taken on a tour of various gaming tables by evil young bloggers like Marcotte, Faletti, and Lemieux, and wound up winning back at craps almost all the money I lost at roulette.  It seems that the Taylor Theorem really is cash money

    Posted by jack  on  07/24  at  03:02 AM
  26. My experience in academia is limited to being an admin assistant in science departments at two institutions, one a Prestigious Private University and the other a Beleaguered Public University.  Two points:

    Point the first: I have seen salary data that is seriously at odds with the figures Prof. Taylor cites.  My current boss at PPU, while not exactly eating catfood souffles for dinner, would love to be making what Prof. Taylor thinks he is making.  At BPU, where the faculty consider catfood souffles a delicacy, Prof. Taylor’s estimate of their salaries would brighten their beleaguered existence with sardonic laughter.  (As a BPU admin assist, I considered eating the cat.)

    Point the second: At PPU, faculty (at least in the sciences) are expected to pay their own salary through grants. The endowment is safe. At BPU, the faculty are paid by a combination of state and grant money, should they be lucky enough to get grants in competition with PPU.  The endowment doesn’t exist.

    Posted by Rugosa  on  07/24  at  04:03 PM
  27. And I just thought of point the third: Science faculty are expected to produce novel results; just echoing past science will not get you tenure, no siree Bob.  Even at BPU, not a major research U, the faculty who get tenure are involved in advancing teaching methods, for example, and getting grants to enhance the numbers of non-traditional students involved in research careers through paid research internships.

    word submit: private, as in both private and public universities benefit from tenured faculty who are leaders in their fields.

    Posted by Rugosa  on  07/24  at  04:16 PM
  28. College would be much cheaper without all those darn professors.

    Posted by  on  08/06  at  10:30 AM
  29. great post keep this way.

    Posted by Sexo  on  06/30  at  04:10 PM

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