Bad Thinking In Detroit

The Detroit News has weighed in on the Wayne State (WSU) tenure battle (h/t Tax Prof Blog):

Mark Taylor of Columbia University calculated that one tenured professor teaching for 35 years costs a private university an average of $12.2 million and a public university $10 million. Universities in 2010 averaged $168 million in debt nationwide. Removing 15 under-performing tenured professors could put a college in the black.

Students should also reap benefits of a more effective tenure system. A Stanford University researcher found replacing the lowest-performing 5 to 8 percent of teachers with an average teacher could enable American students to catch up with those in higher-performing nations. Pearson’s 2014 ranking placed the U.S. at only 14th in worldwide education system rankings.  [Emphasis added.]

Where to begin?  Rarely have two paragraphs contained as much nonsense as these two.  The colors red and black refer to the income statement.  Being in the black means that you made a profit.  Debt is from the balance sheet.  The analogy doesn’t make any sense to start with.  Taylor doesn’t say where he gets his numbers from.  If you take him at his word, the total cost of salary and benefits alone for 35 years, then the division comes out to just under $350 K per year in a private school and around $285 K for public schools.  We wish!  Fringe benefits usually figure in at 30-40 percent.  Very few faculty in public universities are making $220 K.  There are zero at my old school.

If you eliminate tenured faculty what do you replace them with?  Taylor doesn’t want itinerant adjuncts (his term).  He wants seven year renewable contracts.  We would consider that option.  We can’t speak for all the colleges but in the business school (and highly likely in WSU’s med school), the Taylor Plan (not to be confused with the Taylor Rule) is going to cost money.  New faculty make more than old faculty in the business school and you are giving them less too.  As an example, we were the lowest paid PhD in our department when we retired.  So abolishing, limiting, or making more effective tenure is unlikely to save much money.  It might be more expensive but it has a chance to increase quality.

It might, however, benefit the students. The editorial first uses one reference about K-12 and then one that seems to be about K-12 to buttress its case.  Those are unconvincing.  The Stanford study is especially misleading because in that they are going to replace the worst teachers in K-12 and replace them with average teachers.  If tenure is abolished who will be the first to go?  Those that don’t publish as TaxProf says in the WSU case:

The five professors in question are in research-centric roles, officials said, and most had no publications in the past five years.

The connection between teaching and research is weak.  We have seen prolific researcher that are great teachers but our experience shows that quality of research and quality of teaching is unconnected.  Knowing administrators and the importance of accreditation, it is at best questionable that changing tenure will lead to better teaching to students.

It is a good thing to evaluate tenure and other rules at universities.  The editorial has done a disservice by the nonsense attack.  It is hard to avoid such attacks because university tenure is so special and those attacks are one of the reasons faculty defend tenure with such tenacity.


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