Zachary Ernst recently attracted a lot of attention by quitting a tenured faculty position (Associate Professor of Philosophy at University of Missouri). A bit earlier this year, he explained why he believes that the few who make it through the process and arrive at tenure have been hand-selected for mediocrity and obsequiousness.
Quite understandably, faculty try to instill in their students the same attitudes that enabled them to succeed. Unfortunately, those qualities are often counterproductive for any life outside of academia. But in order to fully grasp why this fact is so important, you have to understand a little bit about how careers are made and lost in academia.
Success as a faculty member requires one thing above all else: a good reputation in your field. During the tenure and promotion process, perhaps the most crucial step will be when your department solicits letters of reference from well-known senior faculty in your chosen specialty. They will review your research output and write a candid assessment of your work. Bad letters from these faculty will destroy your chances of being awarded tenure. And because tenure is an “up-or-out” system, failing to receive tenure means that you’re fired. Furthermore, in this economy, it usually means that your career is over, too.
The very worst thing that can happen is for your letter-writers to be unfamiliar with your work. Accordingly, savvy junior faculty members will direct their research to a very specific sub-specialty so that they increase their chances of becoming known within a particular group of senior researchers. That way, even though the junior faculty member won’t know who’s being solicited for letters during their tenure review, they can be reasonably certain that their work will be known to the right people. Because it’s so time-consuming to conduct research and submit papers and books for publication (it often takes well over a year for a paper to be published in a good journal, for example), a junior faculty member can’t afford to waste any time or effort. It’s almost suicidal to write a series of papers on different topics, even if those papers are very high-quality. Instead, it’s a far better strategy to try to achieve a “critical mass” of research output in a small, narrowly-focused area. Research areas, types of output (papers, presentations, books, grant proposals, etc), venues, and everything else are selected to maximize the probability that the right people will learn about one’s work. The math is terrible — rejection rates for top journals in my field, for example, are way above 90%, and this is quite typical. With a six-year window between being hired and beginning the tenure process, it can easily take a year to get one’s research off the ground. Between the end of any particular research work and publication (assuming it’s accepted for publication), there can easily be a year or more. This is why it’s so important to relentlessly focus on a narrow specialty; there is no time to waste.
Of course, it’s possible that after being awarded tenure, a faculty member might broaden her horizons and pursue a variety of different intellectual pursuits. This would be in keeping with one major purpose of tenure — to enable an established researcher to set her own research agenda without fear of losing her job. To be sure, this does happen. But in my experience at least, it’s very rare. The reason why it’s so rare is pretty simple: the tenure process filters out the people who would be most likely to pursue diverse intellectual interests. Having survived college, graduate school, and the tenure track, it’s very likely that whoever is left standing is the sort of person who fits comfortably into the existing structure. Someone who is prone to pursuing a diverse set of interests or (worse yet) interdisciplinary research will run a much larger risk of losing her job during the tenure review process. And of course, even if you started out with a lot of intellectual interests, the sheer habit of limiting yourself to the narrow range of acceptable work can change you over the course of a decade.
In this way, faculty are like columnists for major newspapers. Columnists for, say, the New York Times are perfectly free to write whatever they like (within appropriate professional guidelines, of course). But the range of opinion expressed in those columns is terribly narrow. The problem is not that the Times is exerting pressure on its columnists. The problem is that in order to be a columnist for the New York Times to begin with, you have to be the kind of person whose opinions already fall within a specific range. The same goes for faculty. Universities are generally pretty good about not exerting overt pressure on faculty and their research. Intellectual freedom is generally respected. But the university doesn’t need to exert any pressure, because it’s already filtered out the people who would need to be pressured. Those who survive are, for the most part, narrow specialists who care little about what’s happening outside their own area of specialization.
The same is true of faculty opinions about the university itself. With a six year pre-tenure filtering process, those who are granted the freedom to change the way their courses are run, try something new, or (gasp!) criticize the university have largely been eliminated. Those who remain are perfectly free to teach, conduct research, or express themselves however they like. But the people who would actually take advantage of that privilege are gone.
Hat tip to Karen L. Myers.