"Dead wood," mandatory retirement, and advancement (oh my!) Plus the Isley Brothers.

Tenured Radical has a brief comment in a web feature at the New York Times called “The Professors Who Won’t Retire.”  (An entirely unjudgmental and impartial title if I ever saw one!)  Read through all of the comments–a virtual rogue’s gallery of faculty and (former) university administrators if ever I saw one.  (Click over there–you be the judge.)  Many of the commenters (TR included) push back against the notion that it’s the “professors who won’t retire” who have cause the (40 years and counting) job crisis in academe, and not the “universities who won’t hire tenure-track faculty and hire adjuncts instead.”

That old expression “dead wood” appears in a number of the commentaries, and commenters either dismiss it as a figment of the imagination or wield it like a truncheon.  You all know what side of this I’m on–for a reminder, see my post about “dead wood” from two years ago.  I’ll just reiterate my suspicion that “dead wood” is mostly a political tool for those who don’t want to fully fund higher education and adequately staff academic departments.  (Why buy a tenure-track faculty member when you can get three adjuncts for the same price?)

I’ve been mulling our current conundrum lately since my last (not entirely articulate) post about the academic life and the three-legged stool of research, teaching, and service that’s supposed to be the foundation of our careers. I think commenter Perpetua expresses my thoughts (and perhaps yours, too) very well here:

But as to the question of service – it’s interesting because on one hand we have the fact that service is totally unrewarded and uncompensated, feminized as Historiann rightly says. Try getting a promotion to associate professor on the strength of your SERVICE RECORD! Ha ha ha ha. Even the provost would deny your case. I say “even” here because the university administration itself devalues service, while simultaneously expecting faculty to engage in more and more of it. . . . And while research is the #1 road to success at the majority of our universities, these same universities don’t seem to believe that research is real work. Or rather they seem to think that this chunk of our job is something we should do *on our own time*, whereas the 50 hr work week should be full of teaching and service responsibilities. They seem to think that they don’t *benefit* from our research. And it’s true there isn’t the more obvious correlation between effort and reward as one finds in teaching (each seat filled = $$) or service (running the university for administrators for free). I don’t mind service work generally, but I am more and more troubled by the trend I see among administrators that research *doesn’t count* somehow – unless of course we’re talking about denying someone tenure or a full professorship, then everyone’s shrieking about publications. It’s a weird tangle. 

I’m with you, Perpetua.  I don’t mean to be such a Debbie Downer this morning, but I’ve concluded that that three-legged stool (research, teaching, and service) isn’t a foundation for our careers so much as three useful sticks with which to beat us.  Whatever we’re doing, it’s the wrong thing.  The general public doesn’t understand the value of our research (either intrinsically or to our teaching), so they think we’re moochers on the public dime if we’re not in front of a classroom 40 hours a week.  University administrators want more “innovation overtime” from us, as well as research and publications without giving us research or even travel budgets.  Is there any other learned profession that’s subject to so much second-guessing, condescention, and public contempt these days?  (Or at least in the pages of the New York Times?)

So in these trying times, friends, I’m not calling for a big pity party.  I’m here to say just nous devons cultiver nos jardins.  (That’s Voltaire, y’know.  Cultivate your own garden.  Do your own thing.)  Do what you want to do.  You can’t please everyone all the time, but you can probably please yourself most of the time.  And no, I won’t promise to retire at 67 as TR has done today, in public, on the New York Times website.  I’m only 10 years younger than the Radical, but I don’t know what’s down the road for me 25 years hence (if I’m lucky enough to have 25 more years.)  My husband might drop dead, or dump me, which would jeopardize my economic future.  My joy in professing might totally desert me, but I might also win the National Book award, or at least a blue ribbon at the Weld County Fair.  My students might hate me and stop enrolling in my classes.  (Not a bad bet, actually.) 

But the manufactured academic job crisis isn’t going to end because I or any of the rest of you bow to the demands that you retire before you want to.  Remember–the people making those demands have an agenda of their own, and my bet is that it’s not just to help the poor, struggling scholars of the younger generation.

0 thoughts on “"Dead wood," mandatory retirement, and advancement (oh my!) Plus the Isley Brothers.

  1. This is the thing that I find troubling about the conversation about mandatory retirement or individuals declaring that they’ll retire by x age (67 in the case of TR). It is not outside the realm of possibility that we’ll all live 20 to 30 years beyond, say, 67. No, all of those probably won’t be highly productive work years, but a good many of them could be. Let’s say that a person has absolutely no inherited wealth. And let’s say that person has student loan debt that won’t be paid off until she is 53. Just to pick a number out of a hat. And let’s say that this person is also working at a regional university that is in the middle of a salary freeze and where historically there have been enormous problems with compression, such that most full professors in the humanities make under 75K/year. And that person doesn’t have a partner. How does that person support herself *without working* for 20-30 years? Oh, esp. when her health care through her university ends with retirement? Because the idea that one can run out and get a new career at 70 – or even a part-time job at 70 – seems incredibly unrealistic. And I know a lot of people who couldn’t survive as “independent scholars” for 30 years, myself being one of them. I fear that mandatory retirement ages would only produce more adjuncts – elderly formerly tenured professors who need to become freeway-fliers to pay for their prescriptions. Sounds awesome.


  2. Dr. Crazy needs to stop writing my life story. Except that it’s “63”, not “53.”

    And great advice from the Isley brothers. If my chair thinks I’m not doing enough somehow, she’ll tell me. Anyone else — service-martyrs in my college, my colleague Professor Venerable (who has, quite literally, never published a single peer-reviewed anything in his 40+ years at the university), provosts who have never taught a course, state legislators trying to make their bones, or commenters at the CHE, IHE, NYT, or any other damn place — can kiss my fundamentals.


  3. Speaking of and for those who faced the earliest and most deadly part of the by-now forty year-long job crisis, I’d say they *did* retire early, by virtue of jobs not gotten because they didn’t exist at the time, or of radically delayed entries into the ranks of the professoriate. So of them, and for them, I’d say thanks but no thanks to invitations to help resolve the crisis now by leaving early, or even leaving whenever. Both for the specific nuts and bolts reasons that Dr. Crazy outlines above, and for more general moral economy reasons. That there is “dead wood” in academia is unquestionable. But as anyone who’s looked out into their own back garden, so lush last spring, wood dies on its own idiosyncratic schedule, not on some sort of beer company marketing department “born-on” dating scheme. I’ve seen worrisome signs of leaf-edge browning on people who I helped to hire. What’s to be done about that? Voltaire, though, for years had a fairly cushy gig as jardiniere-in-chef (equivalent to distinguished research prof.) at the U. du Chatelet, didn’t he?


  4. You touch on many important points here, and I will address one because it reflects my life experience, and that is, we should do our own thing. That is, if we can and if we are lucky enough to land in a situation where we can afford to! I was well paid for an adjunct, I must admit, earning sometimes double per class what many of my peers were making. That mainly because of my work experience prior to academia. Having said that, it was still not much, it still came without those benefits which make life less harsh and more productive–health benefits, paid vacations, etc.–and what really eats at you, is to realize how low one is on the hierarchical totem pole. Tenured professors would pick my brain for ideas and information, so clearly there was respect for my knowledge, but this never panned out in the way I–nor any of my adjunct colleagues–were treated by administration. I live outside the US now, and work in academia, in a country where there is no such thing as tenure. You get short and long term contracts, period. Nevertheless, I get paid relatively better, and the respect with which one is treated here is surprising! Because my US earned degrees are held in high esteem, I can afford to pick and choose the academic organizations I want to work projects with, and I divide my time between working in internationally-funded NGOs, which is very fulfilling, and as a professor and thesis advisor for a university, where I am treated with appreciation. I feel much more useful, I am motivated to work even harder. This has opened my eyes and made me rethink the way we do things in academia, in the USA. I am still thinking about it! How much more productive I would have been, and felt, had we been treated in the US the way we are treated here. I won’t even go into the fact that in the US, I don´t believe I would be able to gather enough retirement funds to retire early or at 67!


  5. In my first job at a SLAC, a senior colleague joked that it used to be that you got tenure and a hobby, but once they upped the standards for full prof, you didn’t get the hobby until you were a full professor. But I have to say, I don’t think there is that much dead wood around. (There are people, like Notorious’s colleague Prof. Venerable, who were hired under different assumptions, but in my experience, many of them did pull their weight in different ways.)

    That said, I probably won’t retire until I’m 70 because that maximizes my social security. At that point I’ll see what I want to do — I could keep doing research, or sit quietly and read, or volunteer for the Peace Corps.

    TR and I are lucky, though: we started our careers when higher ed was in relatively good shape, so we’ve had a better run than those who have entered more recently. I have worked during periods when I got raises….


  6. I’m glad mandatory retirement is a thing of the past.

    Even just looking at averages, as mortality has dropped, so has morbidity and mental acuity. A 70 year old is much more able than a 70 year old was 30, 50 etc. years ago.

    On top of that, academics tend to have more marbles to lose than the average person. They spend their lives thinking and building dendrites and not destroying their bodies with heavy labor. Age 67 should be nothing.

    And I don’t know about your field, but mine has tremendous salary compression… the new assistants they hire tend to get paid as much as or more than the fulls who are leaving.


  7. Commenters, don’t be defensive. Stay as long as you wish to stay; the administration doesn’t give a flying something about you, why should you care about them.

    These days retirement is risky; Obama is on his way to screw with social security and your 401K may go downhill in a jiffy. Stay, dead or alive (wood).

    In my area research count at times. When I brought the millions, the chair was corrupt and I was ignored. Now, when I am in my 60s and the money does come in as before, research seems to be more important. Service never counted except for faculty politicians who tried to be as visible as possible.

    My experience is that unless you stay around to your 80s, “dead wood” were dead in their 30s and even before. You don’t switch of from alive to dead at 50 or 60. As I said, dead starts dead.


  8. oops, mental acuity has increased, not dropped

    Can you believe I’m decades away from normal retirement age? Maybe we should get rid of all the untenured assistant professors…


  9. Susan and Indyanna: your cases raise a point I meant to make in my post, which is that not everyone starts a tenure-track job at 29 (as I did) and is tenured at 35 (as I was.) IIRC, you both were tenured in your 50s, not your 30s, for different reasons, and that necessarily means that you’re going to have a different perspective on your career and your longevity as a professional.

    A few of my new colleagues turned 40 or were already 40 in their first year on the tenure-track. Do we want to give them the bum’s rush only a few years after winning their final promotion? I think koshem Bos, Indyanna, and Nicole are right: chrono age doesn’t probably correlate with deadness as much as we (under 50) like to think it does. I like the expressions you use–“dead starts dead,” and the part about the beer freshness date. Hee.

    Dr. Crazy and Notorious make great points about how coming from different backgrounds and being single affect one’s personal finances, too. (Selfish, selfish, selfish!)

    Trudy’s experience is interesting–and perhaps optimistic? (You’ll have to tell us which magical earth nation you’re located in, so that we can follow you if we want to!)


  10. Why, oh why, is the coverage of universities so inaccurate in content and so poisonous in tone? It doesn’t reflect public opinion (Gallup recently found that professors are esteemed almost as highly as dentists: if you want to see low ratings, look at the banksters). It doesn’t reflect reality, as you all have shown with admirable lucidity and, all things considered, restraint. And yet the NYT goes on treating Vedder and Taylor as authorities and reporting on how mean we are not to take our buyouts.

    As to teaching and the rest, remember what the dean said about Jesus: granted he’s a great teacher and delighted to serve others, but what has he written?



  11. In the UK, where academics mostly opt into an extremely cushy pension scheme- like many if not most state workers- forced retiring is quite controversial- on the one hand, you can theoretically replace expensive workers with cheaper workers; on the other hand, pensions cost a lot of money.

    In fact, pensions are a huge crisis area in many European countries. Whereas women can currently retire at 60 in the UK on a state pension (which is pretty basic), I will have to wait til 70 to get mine as they are incrementally raising it over the next few years. Similarly, many pension schemes (which top up your state pension) are in major trouble due to longer life expectancies and bad investments. People joining pension schemes in the future are being told not to expect as much as those of us already on the schemes will get (presuming they don’t go bust in the meantime). At the same time, pension contributions are going up, up, up, which is always harder for those on smaller incomes- and the benefits will be smaller predicating against people retiring early.


  12. I’m not sure I’ll make it to 57, let alone 67, with my sanity intact. Budget cuts are taking a huge toll on both functionality and morale here at Provincial State U. The folks I know who have made it into their golden years as faculty have refined the gallows humor into a fine art. Support staff with 20+ years of service are taking early retirement (lower retirement income but ensuring health benefits) and finding part-time work elsewhere to fill the salary gap.


  13. Bless you, Historiann, for this: “I’ll just reiterate my suspicion that “dead wood” is mostly a political tool for those who don’t want to fully fund higher education and adequately staff academic departments. (Why buy a tenure-track faculty member when you can get three adjuncts for the same price?).” And a big thumbs-up to Dr. Crazy for this: “And I know a lot of people who couldn’t survive as “independent scholars” for 30 years, myself being one of them. I fear that mandatory retirement ages would only produce more adjuncts – elderly formerly tenured professors who need to become freeway-fliers to pay for their prescriptions. Sounds awesome.”


  14. Just to agree with Susan: Yes, Prof. V. was hired under different assumptions, so I agree that “It’s your thing” applies to him, too, and I’d never call him “deadwood.” There are other factors at work in this case that would constitute post-jacking to go into. But I do want to go on record as conceding to Susan’s point.


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  16. “Cultivons notre jardin”? So much easier when you hold a job that pays for that garden… It is truly fascinating to see how people involved in the discussion here–I suspect most of them tenured or with tenure-track jobs–seem oblivious to the fact that originally, behind this question of “dead wood,” the larger question raised was not about them, the offensive suggestion that their mental acuity might diminish some day or, worse, that they might have to rely on their shrinking 401k someday. I would just like to point out that for some of us who are reaching their mid-thirties, are barely making 15k/year as adjuncts, and have even less prospect this year than the previous 4 or 5 to snatch even a one-year position, 75k/year salaries and 401ks are things from another world. OK, OK, I can do the math for 75k, it’s 5 times what I make, but a 401k is truly something I know virtually nothing about, besides the fact that it’s something that people who must be smarter than me because they have jobs know about.
    Personally, I don’t care whether “dead wood” is an objective cause of the academic job market slump or a political tool wielded by administrators. This seems to me to be an argument between privilégiés. Yeah, a bit like an argument between the king’s historiographer and his ministers. Reference to Voltaire ironically fitting.


  17. You know, it’s a capitalist’s wet dream, faculty claiming the right to work more (for less) and arguing amongst the ranks about who is worse off than whom.


  18. Well, Campbell, with due respect, I think it’s literally irrelevant whether you care or not about the distinction offered above. It’s what’s on the table in this post, and what’s being chewed on today, and distinctions of the sort are meant to be interrogated and analyzed, whether by “privilegies” or others. There have been lots of posts here on the plight of adjuncts and I think people’s views are pretty clear in the archive. The question today is whether the threadbare trope or figure of the doddering elder is a legitimate basis on which to make policy, or even to shape discourse. Privileged or otherwise, there aren’t too many people still teaching today who got their job because some famous lion called their advisor and said send us whoever you’ve got as long as they’re good. That generation is gone and basically everyone commenting here waded through the same bloodbath you are now, with even worse statistical odds I would guess. Tenured Radical is a pretty rare philosophe among this cohort to be even willing to ruminate aloud about any obligation to get out the way for the good of the larger profession. And that’s before you factor in Dr. Crazy’s very astute dissection of the material realities underlying the question.

    I’d even go as far as to say that TR’s formulation in the Times debate, viz., “I believe that if senior scholars offer experience, young Ph.D.’s challenge us with new knowledge,” is a bit trite and hard to measure empirically. A hobbled coot like Alfred Fabian Young [whose tirade in the _AHA Newsletter_ in 1978 against smug Ivy League proposals to “end” the job crisis should be required reading] limping into an archive and uncovering documents that have eluded generations is offering us “experience” or challenging us with “new knowledge?” A newly minted scholar a few years ago announcing the 502nd “Middle Ground,” or the 258th “imagined community” is doing what again? Anecdotal evidence, as we rightly said of various Reagan formulaics, but not irrelevant, especially when a subtext (in the Times’s framing of the matter, not this blog’s) is rolling back, or at least informally subverting or unravelling, a civil rights law.


  19. I’ve been up for about 24 hours. I’m pulling my third all-nighter this year, freshly promoted, to grade papers and draft a powerpoint for an intensive August class for pre-freshmen. There is no end to my labor. I feel like I will work until I die. So I just wanted to thank y’all for the stimulation – and the Isley brothers!


  20. Campbell, how exactly is a retirement somewhere going to open up a tenure-track line for you? Because I guarantee you that it won’t in my college. We’re already 6 or 7 tenure lines down from retirements and resignations by people who left for better jobs–but we’re not seeing them replaced by people in tenure-track lines. They’ve been replaced by adjuncts and lecturers.

    And if you think most people commenting here make $75K, that’s hilarious. Indyanna and truffula are correct–and you’re just lunging at the chum that Mark Taylor and company are putting in the water.

    Lance–awesome!!! (I could never do all-nighters, not even in college.)


  21. Speaking of the three-legged stool and turning the conversation in a slightly different direction, I just received stomach-churning news that my uni is about to ramp up it’s “tougher” tenure standards. Apparently it’s embarrassing that no one has been denied tenure in many years in my department. I know this is an issue we’ve discussed here before, but any conversation about excellence without money brings me back to this point (as someone on the brink of maybe tenure- maybe unemployment). Why not have rising tenure standards in a context in which junior faculty have less leave, less research money, and less time? As Historiann would say, *awesome*! This is particularly funny in the context of my department where I would say I find junior faculty remarkably unsupported (unmentored, silenced, etc). The whole idea of tenure-denial statistics meaning anything in the context of a department’s quality is as absurd as saying ‘This department can’t be any good – look at all the dead wood!’ Are rising tenure standards another “political tool for those who don’t want to fully fund higher education and adequately staff academic departments”?


  22. That idea that there’s a fixed number of jobs and we need old people to make way for new people is very European. Only recently has their pension and protection legislation been changing to ease up from that idea.

    Like truffula was getting at, capitalism means that when more people are working the economy is more productive and more people can buy more stuff which means more jobs. Fighting to work more really is a capitalist nocturnal emission.

    It’s a little more difficult to see in the context of education, but it is obvious that tenure track positions are no longer being replaced one-for-one, at least not on any campus I’ve heard about in recent years.


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  25. I used to feel rather like TR. Then my university stopped replacing tenure-track retirements in all but a few cases. Apparently it doesn’t matter if the retirement will gut your program and lead to an accreditation crisis a few years down the road. Maybe they’ll hire replacements in time to avoid that. In the meantime, no jobs for anybody except the tenured faculty and a few established adjuncts.

    If I died right now, I’m pretty sure the U would hire someone to finish out my courses for the term/year and then call that finished. Certainly doesn’t make one sanguine about the prospects of jobs in academe, I must say!


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