Here’s what in journalism would be called a “dog-bites-man” story: a study has found that somewhere, some long-term employees may not be pulling their weight. If this study were in any line of work but academia, it might not even be reported upon. But because it’s about tenured faculty, the story line gets taken that there is a direct relation between tenure and incompetence.
Insider Higher Ed just reported on a study by John M. Rothgeb, Jr., of Miami University, with the headline “Tenure and Incompetence.” The study is even more provocatively titled “When Tenure Protects the Incompetent: Results from a Survey of Department Chairs.” On the one hand, this is an important first step toward addressing the actual issue of whether tenure protects the employment of faculty who may no longer be living up to expectations. But on the other, what the study finds not only isn’t surprising, but also, taken in greater context, doesn’t show much about tenure per se at all.
In a survey of chairs of political science departments, with 361 respondents out of 1,212 valid addressees, 62% of respondents responded positively to the statement, “At my college/university, tenure has shielded incompetent faculty from dismissal.”
Let’s think about this. First of all, the study’s follow-up questions don’t address competence; rather, they address productivity. The two are not the same thing. But that criticism aside, is it tenure protecting these faculty members, or just long-term employment? Department chairs are likely to been at their institutions for a long time. They’re likely to be well-connected at their institutions. They also work at what would be characterized in the private sector as mid-size companies, or bigger. So the survey’s result means at 38% of institutions, chairs couldn’t even think of a single case of a long-term employee protected by tenure in all the years and their colleagues’ years at the place; in 62%, they could. But again, that could be anywhere in the college or university, places with hundreds and sometimes thousands of faculty members. What if you asked the same question to mid-level managers at mid-size companies, substituting “long-term employment with the company” for “tenure”? I’d be shocked if you didn’t find a similarly high, or perhaps higher rate of people being held on even through “incompetence” (or declined productivity).
Furthermore, the study shows that the rate of “incompetence” (again, I’d argue that what’s being measured here is productivity) is higher when “collegiality” is more likely to be taken into account. Here too, I’d say, that in any workplace, when the degree to which someone is pleasant to work with is taken into account, that person is likely to be kept around longer. Is that an argument against using “collegiality” as a criterion? Maybe. Remember that everyone is more productive when people can all get along. My goodness, the toll of time and stress that I and others have suffered because of an uncooperative colleague has probably resulted in lower overall unit productivity, no matter how productive or “competent” some jerk may be individually. It’s a good study that opens as many questions as it answers.
Let’s face it: at many workplaces, people’s productivity drops off, or people end up in positions that they can’t or won’t handle. That’s not a tenure issue. That’s just the workplace. You could make a similar argument about any large institution, public sector or private sector. You could make the argument even in the most measured, high-pressure, high-performance environments: think of all the professional athletes who stay with a team beyond when their productivity would suggest; here too, being a “team player” (i.e., “collegiality”) makes a difference, and may mean that the team overall is still better off with the player despite his erosion of skill and perhaps even increased incompetence. Think of all the members of Congress or your state legislature who seem no longer to be fully engaged in the legislative process, or are less so than earlier in their careers. You think only 62% of athletes in the NBA or NFL or 62% of state legislators can dredge up at least one case in which someone has stayed past his or her prime? Academia is probably actually as good or better on this scale as most lines of work.
Maybe this survey does say something about tenure. My guess is that it really says something about employment in general. And until we see statistics that show that academia measures worse than other lines of work on these kinds of measures, I’m not sure that this is really about anything inherent in tenure at all.