Designing a sex-fair tenure system

Half-time assistant professorships, with each year counting as half a year on the tenure clock.

A reader answers my challenge to design a tenure system that would deal with the problem Brad DeLong points out: that the 60-hour-per-week effort required to get tenure someplace good is more costly for women than for men:

The answer is obvious, it seems to me: Part-time faculty slots. This is the only way to do it. Pay women (or men for that matter) who want to commit to child care half the salary for half the commitment. (Or other pro-ratings: three-quarters, for instance, which would stretch six years of publishing clock to eight.) Stretch out the tenure clock not just for one year but for twice the years that the person involved wants this deal.

Stop asking the question, “how many years since your dissertation” for publishing purposes, and take the tenure clock seriously: i.e. a non-full-year does NOT count as a year. (This would involve a big culture shift, but not as big as the shift away from saying “man” for human.) As it stands, women or men who take an “extra year on the tenure clock” don’t really get an extra year, since it still looks like a wasted year on their c.v. and the informal psychic equivalents thereof.

This is no doubt inefficient. Too bad: we must swallow the costs. (Including the costs of full health care for half the work–though I can see the case for giving only half pension benefits.) For too long, half the human race has been free-riding off the other half when it comes to rearing the next generation. Universities–and analogous institutions like law firms and consulting firms making partnership decisions–should start realizing that their tuition-payers do not come out of cabbage patches and should make it possible for people to be both employed at their institutions and parents.

This is not an abstract issue for me: it also affects those of us men who are approximately equal partners in the parenting game. Two years ago, I acquired a second full time job, but as far as tenure is concerned nobody noticed.

This seems to me like a serious idea. (It turns out it’s already on the books at the University of California, but no one seems to recall it ever being used.)

For the idea to be workable, three things have to be true: (1) Of two candidates coming up for tenure with comparable bodies of work, the one who produced that work in twice as many years half-time will, on average, achieve the same distinction within the discipline as the one who produced it in half as many years full-time; and (2) currently tenured faculty can be brought to believe (1); and (3) assistant professors can figure out a way to live on half of salaries already far from generous, or aren’t married to other assistant professors.

Ignoring #3 for the moment, and assuming that if (1) is true (2) would eventually become true, we need to ask how likely it is that (1) is true, or mostly true.

Departments are vying for prestige, which is the coin that attracts smart graduate students, smart new faculty, and (increasingly) resources from the university administration. A tenure decision is basically a bet on future academic stature. Most of the time, the bet doesn’t pay off; pick your favorite department, and you’ll notice that three-quarters of the faculty over 50 are more or less deadwood in research terms. They mostly publish some, but it’s not very exciting; they earn their keep, if they do, by doing teaching and administration. So a system that asks departments to make worse bets simply isn’t going to work.

Is it true that slowing the clock in that fashiou wouldn’t reduce the eventual disciplinary stature of the participants? Search me. Offhand, I’d bet it might work well in the humanities, where the wisdom that sometimes comes with age means that the best scholars often keep getting better, and much less well in math and the natural sciences, where productivity of important new ideas — if not of published papers — seems to drop rapidly with years since graduate school.

But at least we have a real proposal on the table now.

Update: Or just can the tenure system entirely?

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: