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UC Tenure: a Forest of Deadwood

August 13, 1989|Jack Miles | Jack Miles, a former professor, is The Times' book editor

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Bill Honig asked last month whether California was getting its money's worth from University of California faculty who teach as few as six hours per week. He complained about the faculty member who says, "I'll do my research and you leave me alone." Honig argued, "That's not good enough. The people of the state are paying the bill . . . and they deserve a better accounting."

Honig is right, but the situation is worse than he may realize. Many UC full professors do not teach as many as six hours per week, year-round. Typically, they teach six hours during two quarters, three hours during a third quarter and zero hours during the fourth (summer) quarter. Those who do maintain a heavy schedule of research, I hasten to add, are fully employed even at that modest level of teaching. Yet many professors do no research at all during time bought for them by the taxpayers.

Honig questions the quality of UC research: "You look at the published stuff some of these guys do and you wonder if it's all that valuable." For the moment, forget quality and only consider quantity. During nearly seven years as an editor with the University of California Press, I had abundant contact with the best of the UC faculty; a perennial topic in their conversation was "deadwood"--the distressingly large number of their colleagues who did no research but, in effect, took state money and ran.

I am not talking about the most senior or junior professors, who, for good and different reasons, might be less than abundantly productive. I am talking about people in their prime who "haven't published anything in years," to use a phrase heard with alarming frequency.

Deadwood is a drag on academic competitiveness. It is also, obviously, an affront to elementary ethics. The amount of teaching required of a UC full professor simply does not constitute full-time employment. Any tenured professor who does his teaching and stops there is a thief. What else do you call someone who takes money for work and then doesn't do it?

In any other walk of life, someone who--over the years--failed to discharge a major portion of his or her responsibilities would be fired. UC professors who fail to do research are not fired. What protects them is tenure, that munificent guarantee of lifetime employment bestowed on the fortunate after only six years' probation.

But if tenure prevents dismissal, it does not prevent another corrective response. Once a tenured professor at a research university is clearly doing no significant research, that professor should be stripped of full-time pay for de facto part-time work and be required to teach full time.

This "punishment" would scarcely be cruel or unusual if the teaching load were pegged at the level required of faculty at the Cal State system--12 hours of teaching (plus three of advising) per week.

Nor would such change create the "two-class faculty" of teachers and researchers that one Berkeley dean has warned Honig about. Such a division, in fact, already exists. Just ask professors who work long hours on research how they feel about those colleagues who, with perfect impunity, go golfing instead.

The proposed reform would address the most notorious consequences of the status quo: the ever-rising cost of higher education. At California State University, Long Beach, where enrollment is 33,700, according to "The College Blue Book," full-time faculty numbers 950. At UCLA, where enrollment is 33,167 (same source), full-time faculty numbers 2,100. If UCLA faculty time not actually spent on research were claimed for teaching, that university would need fewer faculty. Alternatively, it could enroll more students without hiring new faculty.

The "punishment" of extra teaching would not end the research career of any serious professor. One early discovery at UC Press was the outstanding research being done in various parts of the Cal State system, the supposed "teaching system" of the state. A given department on a given Cal State campus might well rival its UC counterpart. Shift the comparison to the level of individual professors, and all old bets were off.

During the 1970s, many UC departments began to be "tenured in"-- all members holding lifetime employment, all still too young to die or retire. Bright new Ph.D.s from the best universities turned perforce to the less prestigious Cal State campuses, bringing their research plans with them. An acquiring editor interested in publishing the best new work, no matter who was doing it, could find plenty of possibilities at the erstwhile teaching campuses.

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