Fogey-Filled Faculties are a Barrier to Diversity

The main problem with older faculty who hang on too long is that they impede the diversification of the faculty

In today’s economy, is there any worse policy than guaranteeing an employee the same job for 40-plus years, even if he or she meets few of the organization’s needs and costs a lot in the bargain?

Those are the words of Mark Bauerlein, who thinks that tenure locks universities into having too many codgers around who teach subjects that few people care about anymore. For example, where will a university language department find the resources to respond to the rise of China if all its salary dollars are locked up in 75-year old professors who — between frequent naps — teach the few students today who wish to major in French?

This is not an issue we generally face in medical schools, where tenure is rarely granted and means little when it is. Massive salary cuts, even down to a salary of zero, are possible for unproductive tenured faculty in academic medicine (As we say in the business “All that is really tenured is your title”). A concentration of tenured older faculty may however be a significant influence on the fate of a school of arts and sciences, education or the like. But I am worry about that for a reason different than the one Bauerlein cites.

Bauerlein doesn’t convince me that undergraduates are worse off having a course taught to them by, say, a 70-year old professor who could retire but teaches for the love of it, versus, say a stressed out 30-year old assistant professor with two young kids who knows that his upcoming tenure decision will be made based mainly on everything but the quality of his instruction. However, the students and their university may be worse off on the diversity front when the faculty is dominated by Methusalehs.

The critical demographic fact about professors who are now in their 60s, 70s and 80s is that in virtually every field, they are overwhelmingly white men. Meanwhile, the current generation of graduate and medical students who will soon be entering the academic job market has a much higher percentage of women and people of color. If you want to diversify your faculty, the time to go fishing is right now while the lake is stocked.

But you can’t bring in these exciting, diverse young people if most of your resources are tied up in old white guys with high salaries. The decision to get rid of the retirement age, whatever its virtues in other respects, was a decision to help older white male professors at the expense of younger women and minority would-be professors.

It may be unfashionable to say this, but the situation is also unfair to young white male would-be professors, whose generation is often expected to bear the entire burden of reducing the over-representation of white men in the academy. That’s a cost that should fall on the old boys who have enjoyed decades of privilege rather than some 27 year old who got his degree in a much more gender and racially balanced world.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

34 thoughts on “Fogey-Filled Faculties are a Barrier to Diversity”

  1. As an “old white guy” (though inactive), I don’t appreciate the stereotyping of us as “fogeys”. Some of us are. But the professors who still want to teach at 70 are likely to be in the livelier, Solon’s half of the distribution. You can’t solve the difficult real conflict here that easily.

    1. Surely this is true of many older professors, but I’d say my experience is that it isn’t true more often than one might expect. The field I ended up in for my graduate work is one that I took a couple classes in as an undergraduate, but didn’t realize I liked until long after I graduated, and the primary reason was that both intro-level classes were taught by older professors (both of whom retired within a few years after I graduated) who were phoning it in and hadn’t kept up with the latest research in the field and with innovations in instructional methods. I also had some older professors in my home department as an undergrad who were very much phoning it in.

      1. In the sciences, at least, no one can keep up the latest research in their field, as broadly defined. It’s all anyone can do to keep up in their particular niche. Some older professors mail it in, others keep trying to get the teaching thing right. One of the things I’ve figured out in the last ten years is that there is no single current teaching mode that is right for every student. I don’t know what to do about it in a classroom of 60 undergraduates. In a classroom of 10 graduate students, it’s much easier to get them what they need. I’m not sure it’s possible in a large class, but I’ll keep trying. If you decide to “flip” your classroom, you can’t flip it for half the class and lecture to the other half. The students (both of them) who were better-served by the old format are now in a less-optimal environment. If you choose to use a computer-assisted course, the students (many of them) who are better-served by a textbook are harmed.

        The bigger problem to diversification is one that slapped me in the face in our last hiring cycle. We hire people who look like us. We had a candidate in our pool with a lot of potential, but whose background was a little different from the rest of our group. We had a second candidate who is essentially a clone of the rest of our group in terms of background and specific expertise. We hired the clone.

        In a small department, diversity of sex, ethnicity and so forth is good. I believe a diversity of backgrounds and expertise is more important if you want to maintain a graduate program.

    2. I’m up for tenure this year, at the reasonably young age of 40. An older colleague visiting from a very esteemed institution remarked that I therefore wasn’t yet “part of the problem.”

      In our small faculty, we have a number of tenured older professors who stay lively and engaged with new developments in the discipline. But others either mail it in or simply retread outmoded ideas in a field that’s very volatile. (The great German sociologist Ulrich Beck calls these “zombie concepts”–ideas that live on well past their usefulness.)

      These same faculty teaching “zombie concepts” can be incredibly combative when their ideas are challenged. And, as anyone in academia knows, this combativeness can come out in anonymous tenure/promotion reviews–in petty faculty politics that disproportionately affect younger faculty seeking tenure. It sometimes feels as if the most lauded role of older tenured faculty is to act as a star-chamber for allowing younger professors into the club.

      Dennis’s suggestion further down, of reviewing faculty every 7 years instead of tenure, seems interesting. But the cruel result might be that faculty in their late 50s, let’s say, would suddenly be denied tenure and with it the ability to continue their research. A very specialized knowledge would essentially be useless on the open market.

      1. I would only favor the long-term contract idea under a couple of conditions. First, it’s a fall-back position in a circumstance where the powers were determined to do away with tenure as we know it. Second, it has to be faculty-driven. Finally, there have to be strong protections built into the system. The default decision should be renewal of the long-term contract. An adverse decision cannot be to terminate the contract: specific deficiencies must be identified and corrective actions outlined and meaningful, measurable outcomes that show that the deficiencies have been addressed must be there. If those are met, then the long-term contract gets renewed.

        This sort of system seems to work well for museums.

  2. “the current generation of graduate and medical students who will soon be entering the academic job market”

    Where is this “academic job market” of which you speak? In science or any other field? Inquiring minds really want to know. Non-tenure track doesn’t count.

    Want people to retire, fix the pension system. Defined contribution plans, which is what I have been stuck with since leaving a research coordinator position in a large state university, will NEVER lead to a comfortable retirement, no matter what the current TIAA/VALIC balance.

    1. “Job market” is perhaps a misnomer. It’s more like an elite club with (as someone remarked below) a seven-year interview process. We have had upwards of fifty candidates for any single position that has opened in our department.

  3. his upcoming tenure decision will be made based mainly on everything but the quality of his instruction

    This, if true, is perhaps the most damning thing one could say about tenure.

    1. It is definitely true. And if s/he is a scientist, the color of his or her grant money will be the most important factor. Unless it comes with maximal indirect costs, it will not count. Won’t matter if it has been sufficient to pay graduate students, technicians, supplies, instrumentation…those things are secondary.

    2. It might be more accurate to say that your teaching can’t help you get tenure but if you are terrible it could hurt you. At least I have some anecdotal evidence for that at institutions I’m familiar with.

      1. Agreed. My anecdotal experience, too. If you totally suck as a teacher and are hostile to students it might hurt. But in the sciences robust funding will trump that >99% of the time.

  4. Five years back I approached my alma mater in North Texas to explore ways I could bring my twenty-five plus years of experience in information technology. I’m still fairly young, fifty, and thought there would be interest. There wasn’t, from a staff whose median age is mid-sixties and over a third of whom are over seventy. I spent three days on the campus, following most of them around and working to understand their current challenges. The gentlemen in their sixties and seventies, pulling salaries north of $160/yr, pretty much just socialized with each other and had no interaction with students undergrad or graduate.

    It was a bewildering and bemusing experience. I’m not the kind of person who thinks commercial business practices are a natural fit for academe but in the case of tenure I question its value in the hard sciences.

  5. Diversity? You seem to be defining it as based on gender and ethnicity. And yet, if you’re worried about the student experience, isn’t [i]viewpoint[/i] diversity the main factor in impacting the student experience? If a young black liberal woman has exactly the same politics as an old white liberal man, how does it benefit students to learn from her rather than him?

    1. No two people have “exactly the same politics” and “politics” is a subset of the issues that are important when considering diversity in education.

    2. There are plenty of examples of viewpoint diversity that don’t involve politics. Why don’t you cite some of them instead of the old canard about conservatives-are-picked-on-in-the-academy?

      Besides which, I don’t believe a young black liberal woman and an old white liberal male really have exactly the same politics. (You need to use angle brackets as html tags here.)

    3. And yet, if you’re worried about the student experience, isn’t [i]viewpoint[/i] diversity the main factor in impacting the student experience

      This is an empirical question, and the answer is no. There is a pile of research on what makes people of color and women do well or poorly in academic environments and diversity of gender and race per se turns out to make a huge difference (I also think it is good for the white male students).

      1. I can’t speak to other disciplines, Keith, but I can speak to my own. In Biology, if you don’t buy into the synthetic theory of evolution, or the central dogma of molecular biology you’re a crank. (Yes, I know that RNA viruses and reverse transcriptase demonstrate that the central dogma isn’t entirely true.) But in Statistics, if you question the Frequentist paradigm of statistical inference, you aren’t (necessarily) a crank: you’re probably a Bayesian.

        In large scale studies, there is effectively no difference between the inferences made by Bayesians and Frequentists (unless the Bayesian has a prior that says, “I’ve already made up my mind, don’t confuse me with facts (a/k/a data).” The methods they use to get there are rather different, and the finer points of interpretation are definitely different. Graduate students today are not well-served by programs that fixate on one paradigm only. Unlike evolution, there really is a controversy and students need to know that. More than that, students who are going to claim expertise in Statistics need to know how and when to use each tool.

  6. The existence of tenure is no barrier for an administration that really wants to get rid of faculty members. All they have to do is close programs. And that’s been going on for years all over the place, most notably in foreign languages. Sudden money cuts at state universities (Nevada-Reno, for example) accelerated it, but it’s been going on for quite a while. Check out the AAUP site for some specifics.

    They could also offer buyouts, but that’s probably more expensive in direct costs.

    Age, btw, is no automatic signifier of irrelevance. One of our most effective and most beloved-of-students faculty members here retired from full-time work in her 80s but is still teaching part-time, and any number of nursing students say they can’t get through the program without her.

    You know, as a diversity thing, students do have to be open to learning from people who don’t look like themselves and who are their grandparents’ age. Encountering the latter as instructors is probably a new experience for most of our students.

    1. @Altoid: Check out Mark Bauerlein’s piece, he addresses the options you mention for shedding senior faculty. I tend to agree with him that closing whole programs is very hard.

  7. As a young PhD candidate, I’ve got mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, having professors retire would definitely help people like me find jobs. On the other hand, if there are no tenured jobs anymore… poorly-compensated adjunct teaching where you work for a contract isn’t exactly the kind of dream job I’ve been slaving for the last several years to get. My general impression is that professorial salaries are, ultimately, a fairly minor part of the equation. Most of the money goes to administration salaries, which have skyrocketed.

    1. Tenure and the current system put no pressure on universities to pay living wages. And of course there is an oversupply of people vying for these positions.

      I agree on the admin salaries, not just skyrocketing but overhiring as well.

    2. It’s unfortunate, but administrations on most campuses are busily trying to prune away the tenured ranks. At my wife’s campus, the opening proposal in the new master contract negotiations between AAUP and the administration was to increase the probationary period to ten (yes, 10, as in a decade) years. Their administration would like to take what is already effectively the world’s longest job interview/internship and extend it by another three years.

      If they really want to do that, I would prefer to see them do away with tenure altogether. In its stead, I’d like to see a series of long-term (7 years, say) contracts with review in year 5. An unfavorable review would result in specific goals outlined, and a shorter contract (say, 3 years) for the next review. A favorable review would result in issuing another long-term contract. Of course, these contracts would not be revocable by the University except for cause.

      1. “was to increase the probationary period to ten (yes, 10, as in a decade) years. Their administration would like to take what is already effectively the world’s longest job interview/internship and extend it by another three years.”

        The world’s longest job interview??? C’mon, give us a break here. If you get to do nothing productive for those seven (or ten years), and you get no pay for doing nothing, then it’s a job interview. If you work, and you get paid … you’ve got a job.

        In the real world, universities are not unique, or even unusual, in having a lengthy “selection process.” Here’s a recent article from the American Bar Association on the subject:

        Accounting, engineering, business consulting, even computer systems consulting … isn’t that the way the big successful professional services firms tend to work?

  8. My memory (perhaps fallible, I’m edging towards being a member of the group described) is that the universities actually got an exemption from the 1986 act until the mid-90’s. OTOH there isn’t anything, as far as I know, to
    actually prevent particular universities from saying that tenure lapses at age X — I don’t know what their faculties
    would actually say to this.

    1. In the case of my school, they would still be stuck with the old fogeys. We have no faculty union and so there is no master contract. They would have to negotiate with each of us individually. Imposing a lapse at a fixed age would likely be viewed by the courts as the taking of a property right.

      Of course, in the case of newly tenured faculty, they could insert a lapse at age X and tell them to take it or leave it.

      1. No, they can’t. Telling folks to retire or leave at a certain age is unlawful discrimination on the basis of age. Older people are a protected class under most anti-discrimination laws.

        Putting illegal discrimination would not be wise–or have the desired result.

        1. Don’t be naive. Older people are a protected class, but if you sign someone at age 40 to a 25 year non-revocable contract I doubt you’ve violated any laws.

          1. IMHO, it is not wise (or convincing) to try and just get away with calling anyone who disagrees with you naive.

            If you think the law and judges are so easily fooled–perhaps you lack experience in these matters.

  9. Given the recent trend to just add more adjuncts, it seems like only a matter of time until the old fogeys earning the big bucks die and are not replaced. So maybe this is self-correcting.

    I wanted an academic career and had one for 10 years. But the consumer based model of education does not work. And I got tired of sucking up to my students so they would give me decent evaluations. So after getting tenured, I left the ed biz for the small company private sector. I’m not sorry.

  10. Orwell, he said: “Some ideas are so stupid that only intellectuals believe them.”

    Wouldn’t it be simpler just to march all those guys out into a courtyard and shoot them?

    1. Who are “these guys”? Faculty or administration? I can think of a few of each on my campus whose early demise might improve the environment.

  11. It’s a little like the home mortgage deduction: might be OK in principle (although not in an administrator-heavy or politicized environment), but how would you manage the transition? What would be the alternative: fixed contracts with some chance of renewal, fixed contracts (perhaps longer term) with no chance of renewal? Serving at the pleasure of the dean or the board of trustees? Just a return to the old system with a fixed-ish retirement age?

    The real culprit, I think, is an academia that is based on either endless expansion or ruthless weeding-out of candidates after an enormous investment, coupled with the winner-take-all economy where not having a high-end job means poverty and insecurity. If there were decent jobs that a former grad student or junior faculty member could get, this wouldn’t be such a big deal.

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