Tenure and the Second Law of Thermodynamics
Change is inevitable

By Vicki Hertzberg, Associate Professor, Public Health

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How must tenure change in an environment of an aging professoriate, soft money, and skyrocketing costs?


For more information
about tenure at Emory, visit the provost's web site. For more opinion on tenure at Emory visit the March/April 99 issue of the Academic Exchange.

Academic Exchange October/November 1999 Contents Page

Like Thomas Jefferson, I hold certain truths to be self-evident. One is that academic freedom is the cornerstone of higher education in America, the greatest system of higher education in the world. This cornerstone rests squarely on the foundation of tenure.

Another truth is the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which, very loosely translated, states that change is inevitable.

Change is good, although many of us naturally fear it. Change is necessary for academic vitality. We need the shifting perspectives our students and new faculty bring to our programs.

Alternatively, the faculty that grows old together grows stale together. Our mark as individuals and as programs is our ability to manage change, rather than viewing it as an inconvenience we must accommodate.

Tenure is changing, and some might say it is slowly crumbling. We in the academy are challenged to respond to that change. At Emory in particular, we are blessed with a unique institutional position that will allow us to manage these changes rather than accommodate them--if we will rise to the occasion.

What has wrought this challenge? First, the professoriate is aging, and there is no longer a mandatory retirement age for faculty. Second, many research universities such as Emory have leveraged themselves highly on soft money support. Such funding is imperative to finance research, but it is used in almost circular arguments by high-level administrators. Soft money is used as an indicator of institutional quality in rankings of research funding without any other attending measures of quality.

Soft money support, vital to the mission of our nation's flagship research universities, is also used in tenure decisions without substantial analysis of long-term consequences. That is, although one important indicator of future funding success may be the presence of current funding, its long-term (over decades) predictive ability has not been well established.

The increasing dependence of research universities on soft money support has also had consequences for academic freedom. In the hard money environment, academic freedom means that the faculty can say what they want and research their chosen topic. In the soft money setting, however, faculty can only research their chosen topic if the funding is there to support the research, including buying their time to do so. We find ourselves asking, what is the meaning of academic freedom in this soft money environment?

Change is upon us, and we must begin to adapt tenure to this changing environment. Without mandatory retirement, institutions may be forced to take such drastic measures as demonstrating incompetence in its most senior faculty in order to create vacant lines for younger faculty. We must be careful not to subject some of our most senior scholars to such indignities in order to sustain the cycle of academic life. We must begin to address the meaning of academic freedom under a new definition of tenure.

On the other hand, to America's business leaders who are quick to dismiss tenure as a safe haven for faculty dead wood, I counter that they should be careful what they wish for. If the characteristics of employment change, the dynamics of the academic marketplace will follow suit. Salaries and tuition will skyrocket as a result if the intangible benefit of tenure is no longer available. For instance, the salary that a biostatistician with my years of experience could command is considerably more in private industry than in the academic setting, and the stock options are certainly more attractive than at Emory.

I have no answers on the best course to take. We must face the calls for change, however, and shape the future that is the best for preserving academic freedom. To hide our heads in the sand would be to put academic integrity at risk. To face this challenge will allow us to manage change in ways that will preserve our leadership in higher education.

Vicki Hertzberg is associate professor and chair of biostatistics in the Rollins School of Public Health and a member of the Faculty Council of the University Senate.