professors & tenure: an economic view

Greg Nowell GN842 at CNSVAX.Albany.Edu
Wed Sep 23 15:46:22 PDT 1998

Jim Devine wrote:

BTW, it's often said that profs. sometimes "come out of the closet" as leftists when they get tenure. But I don't know if that's true. Further, I think that the indoctrination of grad. school, struggling to publish & get tenure, etc. affects the _kind_ of leftist one is when one gets the big T. The long and hard effort to get tenure encourages academic and elitist leftism, employing all sorts of obscure jargon or math, dealing with arcane questions, believing strongly in the divisions between and within academic disciplines, etc.


To this I answer, "Yes." But it's also the case that you're just plain tired. An academic typically has an 8-10 year lapse before "real adult life" begins. Many people begin their professional life in their twenties. Academics usually do so in their 30s. They pay off high debt loads on lower salaries than their MBA or lawyer type associates. You watch non-academic friends get houses and have kids while you slave away on obscure topics.

There is a high failure rate, which goes undiscussed. Not that there is no life outside of academe. But I doubt that more than two out of ten 1st year grad students become tenured professors; I'll lay odds that the number of MBAs and attorneys who "get established" (become partners, etc.) is far higher.

In any case, to go beyond the fact that most professors wnat to "get a life" like their peers, one of the reasons professors are not radical is NOT simply that they've had to go through a tough ideological blender. Many of us have had to do that. It is simply what keeps many attorneys and managers and other professionals out of politics: the job is full time, and you get tired. You can mow the lawn at nine in the morning and but only if you grade papers at night. You can define what you are gong to read/research but best ye read/research something.

It has often interested me that the arguments against tenure hold that its abolition would increase productivity and make professors more responsible. In fact, the abolition of tenure would very much change academic life. You would have to prioritize the "economically recognized" productivity axes and sacrifice the rest. It would be rational, for example, to de-emphasize talking to students who wnant to go study abroad and concentrate on the "recognized" research productivity. It would be rational to leave academe: I left the private sector to return to academe at a 40% pay cut, and I think that the abolition of tenure would not only diminish the pool of candidates for jobs, but have a tendency to push salaries up. You get what you pay for. If the job is to be made subject to easy dismissal, like the private sector, then you have to compete with private sector wages.

The other question is whether there is a social interest in the accumulation of intellectual capital. If you are to stimulate individuals to acquire extensive knowledge about obscure topics, whether viruses, foreign countries, or what have you, it has to be with the reasonable expectation that this capital will not have been created in vain. Tenure is the guarantee that it is economically rational to accumulate what may or may not prove to be socially useful capital. You may not need an Iranian specialist until after the country has a revolution, but then you want one in a hurry, and it takes ten years to get there. No one told me, in 1983, when I was studying French use of alcohol fuels in the 1920s that alcohol fuels would be a major component of air quality strategies in Los Angeles in 1989 and later. A molecular biologist with an odd theory such as prions takes at least a decade to make and his utility is discovered only ex-post, when you have people with pudding brains from eating beef. It is admittedly the case that many academic specialties appear to have no possible utility, but I won't name my suspicions for fear of bringing them down on my head. In any case it goes without saying that if you are investing in creating intellectual capital in areas which necessarily you cannot anticipate need until years after the fact, it goes without saying that much intellectual capital developed in the form of a professor, like many patented machines, go forever unused as a "practical" matter. But if you don't provide some protection against the evaluation of intellectual expertise on purely market criteria--which is what tenure does--then you create a broad disincentive for the creation of specialized intellectual capital generally. Smart people would be better off learning law or finance where the intellectual capital is more immediately mobilized and marketed, and the skill set is in fact designed to be applicable across a wide range of situations.

In any case, I think part of the explanation of who and what professors do is that they are, as a class, trained to develop a reasonably unique pool of intellectual capital and their incentive to do so is that they get protected from market forces in return, and compensated with a reduced but nonetheless OK wage in comparison to similarly educated professionals in other fields (e.g., medical doctors). It is NOT so much that there is an emphasis on conformity--this is strong, but I'm not sure it's stronger than in other walks of life--as the fact that individualistic act of developing, marketing (to other academics) and maintaining this intellectual capital is a highly ego-centric, or should I say self-isolating, activity, and that since the total body of potential intellectual capital is infinite, the professor always feels inwardly inadequate to the task, even if the outward image is I-know-more-than-you-do. Regardless of whether the field of specialization is cell biology or Marxist theories of imperialism the fundamental imperative of developing intellectual capital determines the "corporate activity" of the academic. It creates people who have a lot to say but are not necessarily particularly useful. In this sense, leftist activists who turn to academe as a resource for ideas find the same thing that capitalists do: some of the intellectual capitals amassed in the university environment are useful for "practical applications," but the vast majority are not. It is no more surprising that only 1 in 100 leftist academics are "useful" to a "movement" than it is surprsing that only 1 in 100 molecular biologists are "useful" to a given pharmaceutical company with a given emphasis on this or that kind of drug. Many of them will be working on esoterica--e.g. nervous system biochemical reactions in earthworms--and others, even if doing work with "practical implications", may be pointed at someone else's bag of practical applications. And sometimes the one person who comes up with a useful idea has done so only because of the previous time spent reading other people's useless ideas.

In actual fact the real functional purpose of universities may be a kind of institutionalized "venture capital" to mobilize, at relatively low cost, a diversified portfolio of capabilities in stuff society may or may not want. The overall cost is made still cheaper by wedding to the research function the teaching function, which is performed with varying degrees of success depending on the complex interaction of student and teacher capabilities, commitment, and resources. The teaching function is further economized by melding the teaching-for-research fuinction with the teaching-for-general-life-certification function which is what the undergraduate degree usually really is.

It may not be the case, therefore, that in a capitalist society which prizes itself on organizational efficiency that academe is inefficient. It is efficient but not organized on market principles, in a manner different from, but parallel to, the armed forces, which in their own way are wasteful at some things and efficient at others, but in any case not organized on market principles. The durability of the academic structure may be that it is remarkably well adapted and fulfilling the multiple functions which it has been assigned: general training, an environment for adolescents in transition, specific research and professional training, development of highly specialized pools of intellectual capital and expertise as a speculative venture, and to do all this at wage levels that are below private sector equivalents, trading job security for cost.

And once you have all that in front of you, you can see why, that in spite of the high degree of autonomy and intellectual independence accorded professors (a function of pushing them to develop diversified intellectual capital pools), the actual "radicalness" of the university in American society is roughly equivalent to the "radicalness" of General Motors. And I would bet, that if you did a survey of political views, particularly on issues rather than code words (not, are you a Marxist, but do you think everyone should have health care, do you think the rich ought to pay more in taxes, etc.), that you would find as many "radicals" in the various levels of a corporation like General Motors as you would at a university.

-- Gregory P. Nowell Associate Professor Department of Political Science, Milne 100 State University of New York 135 Western Ave. Albany, New York 12222

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