I read with interest the cover story on academic tenure (C&EN, Sept. 19, page 28). I believe it accurately captured the essence of the debate about the value of tenure in our current academic climate. In my 25 years as a faculty member at a major land-grant university, I have seen changes over the years. I have also had the privilege of serving under the leadership of some excellent administrators, but have suffered under the burden and the weight of others.
Twenty-five years ago when I was hired as an assistant professor, the main mantra was “publish or perish.” The tenure and promotion process was unambiguous (at best) and lacked transparency. Today, our assistant professors have mentoring committees and multiple-year checkups and other systems to elucidate the process; all this is good.
When I started here, the deans and chancellors knew me and knew what I did. Today, however, many administrators use a variety of metrics to “quantify” research, teaching, and service impact. I have no problem making these metrics, but I wonder sometimes if faculty effectiveness is quantifiable.
My h-index is 19, I publish in journals with an impact factor of 1.63, and I generate XX external dollars; does this mean I am doing research that really matters and really makes a difference? In response to this, I share an idea with our new faculty, one that says, “Administrators can count, but they cannot read.” An administrator can tell you that you have seven refereed journal articles per year, but they cannot evaluate the relative impact or importance of those papers. An administrator can count your grant dollars, and the resulting overhead that comes with them, but seldom do they ever ask, “Why are you doing this research?” or ask, “What is the relevance” of this research to the state and nation?
I am very happy to be in a tenured faculty position. I work in the area of agrochemicals, and the instability of companies, as demonstrated by massive mergers and buyouts, reinforces my attitude of being a risk-averse person. To quote a colleague of mine who commented after many company people were “let go” after mergers, “These low-paying government jobs are not all bad.” Yes, I could make substantially more money working for a company, but I really enjoy what I do and I have the academic freedom to pursue those areas of inquiry that matter to me and to my stakeholders and to my state. I can also write this letter.
Thomas C. Mueller
(Can the tradeoff in pay versus security be quantified? If a professor takes a position for $10,000 less than an industrial position and gets tenure, how much is the potential pay gap at the end of a 30 year career, assuming the industrial person doesn't get laid off?
Back of the envelope calculation: In 2015, the median salary for academic ACS members was $78,000, while the median industrial salary (heh) was $115,000. Over a 30 year period, this gap would be a pretty substantial amount of money. I don't have the time at the moment to do the calculation, but my guess is that it would amount to a $500,000 gap over a career - that's a lot of money.)