Academic tenure was originally intended to protect teachers and public intellectuals in academia. It has morphed into a brass ring attained only by a minority of faculty. Here are two recent developments on the subject.
State College of Florida to Hire for Annual Contracts Only
The Board of Trustees for the State College of Florida (SCF) has taken the final step to put all new faculty hires on annual contracts without protection, effective this fall. This is a likely trial balloon: if it succeeds without too much blowback, other boards of Florida institutions may be tempted to follow suit.
It started last summer, when the board of trustees for the State College of Florida (SCF) decided to eliminate a tenure-like system for faculty, effective this July. (It was proposed by then board member Carlos Beruff, who subsequently resigned and is now running for the U. S. Senate.) SCF had a system of "continuing contracts" in which new faculty served a probationary period and, having satisfied the college, would have their contracts renewed without going through a reappointment process. Faculty with continuing contracts were still required to perform and could still be dismissed for cause, but they could not be dismissed on a whim.
Under the new system, current faculty would keep their continuing contracts but new faculty would get annual contracts, subject to non-reappointment. Both the SCF faculty and administration feared abolishing continuing contracts would complicate hiring and opposed the change. No dice. Then the SCF Senate voted that they had no confidence in the board (the vote was 188 - 2), and there were other protests from the media and the community.
But SCF had no union, hence no collective bargaining agreement protecting continuing contracts. If SCF had had a union, and a collective bargaining agreement with continuing contracts written into it, then the board would not have been able to unilaterally abolish continuing contracts. (Tenure at USF is protected by our Collective Bargaining Agreement.) Some SCF faculty started a "card campaign" to start the process of making the United Faculty of Florida their union.
Perhaps stung by the criticism, and Mr. Beruff having left the board, the Board decided last month to instead convert to multi-year contracts. This proposal was presented as a compromise, and as a system resembling the multi-year contracts of the Florida Gulf Coast University (FGCU). But FGCU's system has tenure-like attributes that the proposal for SCF does not, and faculty were not impressed.
So at a contentious meeting, the Board reverted to their original annual contract plan.
SCF faculty have organized a chapter of the United Faculty of Florida and have submitted a petition signed by 60 % of the faculty for an election to decide whether SCF faculty are to be represented by UFF. This was more than twice as many signatures required to force an election, which should be held soon. If a majority vote in favor, UFF will become the collective bargaining agent for SCF faculty.
Note the relative powerlessness of the SCF administration. Florida college trustees are appointed by the governor (and, as one SCF faculty member observed, "These people were appointed by the governor for a reason"), and the administration serves at the pleasure of the Board. The administration had publicly advised against the innovation, to no avail. It was up to the faculty to defend their institution against board. And that is what the faculty are doing.
Why Young Researchers Aren't Getting Grants
Grant money is tight all around, but some agencies are worrying about young researchers not getting enough money to launch their research programs or to get tenure. (Some institutions have responded by quietly relaxing their grant requirements for getting tenure.) In the 13 February 2012 post on her blog, Sally Rockey - then a senior administrator at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) - worried that the average age of principal investigators was increasing.
Two explanations for the aging of principal investigators were the end of mandatory retirement policies and the "fewer people entering the faculty at ages 28 and below" (which is a tactful reference to the recent near-requirement that faculty serve a post doc or two first). Here was the resulting graphic that Dr. Rockey posted on her blog:
But assistant professors might not agree that the mean age of principal investigators of grants awarded is increasing because assistant professors are getting older. And indeed, one new study observed a decline in the percentage of NIH grant proposals funded across all age groups:
The report did not go into what is going on, but we can guess. It takes something on the order of one to two hundred hours to prepare a grant proposal. For a young researcher on the tenure clock, that is a sizable block of time, and hence a gamble. Young researchers may be told that the trick to getting a grant is to submit applications - and they may be advised of Bishop Desmond Tutu's dictum that no effort is wasted - but there will be pressure to get in that one proposal (if that many) that is just right. As a result, there are fewer proposals.