Wednesday, March 18, 2009


It is no surprise that, like any junior academic, I have seriously mixed feelings about the slow erosion of tenure. I must admit that I agree with the author of Confessions of a Community College Dean that the current academic system (two tracks) is a symptom of a system in decline.

What is not addressed there, but which is really relevant to my area, is how the loss of tenure changes my job. As a researcher (without tenure and with no prospect of tenure), my career is now dependent on getting funding or working on projects that get funding. In a real sense this is the death of the "freedom to explore" that originally lured me into the academy. Now, it is quite true that there was never a utopian time where professors and post-docs could diligently pursue their whims where-ever these might lead. Certainly modern teaching loads are completely different (at least in medical schools) which really does change the character of the job.

Still, it means that my career will now be spent responding to requests for funding in a broad range of government initiatives. Long periods of funding are five years and it is quite possible to have the more appealing types of grants last two years. This is actually less stable than the contract system that the University of Kentucky is implementing!

It is not that great research can't be done under these conditions. But it does really change the definition of stability. I never thought, when I left the banking industry in 2002, that I would have less employment stability. More curious, I seem to have about the same freedom to innovate (I can innovate insofar as it advances a pre-specified set of goals).

It's certainly food for thought.

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