Saturday, March 30, 2013

Relief of Professors

I am reading Tom Ricks' The Generals. His main theme is relief of officers if they do not perform, perhaps giving them a second chance, but always keeping victory, the Army, and the troops in mind. At the beginning of World War II, the officer corps was comparatively lacking in energy and leadership, and Marshall and Eisenhower relieved many officers, generals on down.

It strikes me that universities committed to research as well as teaching do not have the capacity to recognize nonperforming assets. Tenure protects faculty from arbitrary dismissal, and it encourages faculty to take risks or make long-term investments in their research agendas. But a good fraction of the faculty in most research universities might well be relieved. Perhaps they could be sent to institutions where their talents would be more valued. Perhaps retirement, early if necessary, is a better strategy. I would think that universities could arrange retirement contributions, so that 20 years after tenure faculty members could afford to make a transition in their lives to roles that would be more rewarding for them and for society.

I appreciate that some faculty display growth and development over the years, and their trajectory might well be the right path. But it seems that many faculty do not know what to do with themselves, at least in their research careers, maybe half-way through their years at the university. I suspect that the fraction is about half the faculty, more in some fields, much less in others.

Right now, universities cannot tolerate nonperforming assets for two reasons: they are being watched more closely by outsiders; and, the junior faculty and new scholars are often much more ambitious and even achieved than that one-half.  I realize that some faculty make major contributions early in their careers, and then cannot match their earlier achievements. And some faculty make major contributions after a long periods of nonperformance. I do not believe that good teaching is a substitute for strong research achievements, nor is administrative appointments.

We ought ask our faculty, What have you done in the last five (or seven or eight) years? Is it impressive and powerful? Would you  be better off somewhere else? In another role? And we would need an exchange to move faculty readily to new roles that would match their achievements and strengths. It makes sense not to displace faculty who are likely to retire in the next 5-8 years, with consideration for age-discrimination. But for many faculty, relief would be a real relief, starting them on a more productive and happier path.

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