November 25, 2003

The Luxury of Agony

To quit or not to quit? Our younger colleagues of the next generation -- those hired in the late 1980s and after -- have never been psychologically burdened by mandatory-retirement rules. Their professional futures have always been open-ended. But those of us who won a reprieve, literally at the last moment, were left in a kind of limbo: We had been accustomed to thinking in terms of a mandatory closure, but were now left to fend for ourselves in unexplored territory -- that of unhindered choice, for which we were, psychologically, mostly unprepared.

-- Henry Huttenbach, "To Retire or Not?"

From 1980 to 1997, reports Lynne A. Weikart,

CUNY funding from the state decreased 40 percent in constant dollars...
...The cuts have had a powerful effect. Between the years 1976 and 2000, the full-time CUNY faculty was reduced by half, from 11,268 to 5,594, so that 60 percent of all classes are now taught by part-time faculty.

To repeat: 60 percent of all classes at CUNY are now taught by adjuncts. To put it another way: adjuncts now make up the majority of CUNY faculty (between 7,200 and 7,500 adjuncts, as against between 5,300 and 5,600 full-time professors -- the figures vary slightly according to source, but the 60-40 divide is indisputable).

What's amazing about the above-linked piece by Henry Huttenbach is that it comes from a senior tenured professor at CUNY. To quit or not to quit? Does Huttenbach not realize that there is something rotten in the state of Denmark? Sixty percent of his "younger colleagues of the next generation -- those hired in the late 1980s and after -- have never been psychologically burdened" not only "by mandatory-retirement rules" but also by the rules of full-time salaried employment. Certainly, their professional careers are "open-ended:" they are hired by the course as contingent academic labor. How can Huttenbach speak of senior tenured faculty having to "fend for themselves" when the majority of his junior colleagues earn about $2,500 per course? Theirs is not and probably never will be "the luxury of choice" giving rise to "the agony of indecision."

Actually, Huttenbach does realize that there is an unfortunate budgetary context within which to view the issue of faculty retirement. "By the late '90s," he suggests, "as budgetary crises caused the loss of precious faculty lines," the pressure to retire diminished and "some administrators were relieved to see us hold on to irreplaceable positions until better times." I've heard this argument before, and I have to say I don't find it very convincing. "No doubt moods and attitudes," Huttenbach adds, "will fluctuate with the ebb and flow of economic (mis)fortunes."

But such "moods and attitudes" are apparently just so much unwelcome and unwarranted background noise. Huttenbach seems put out by the fact that many in the "outer world" don't view faculty retirement as a "purely private" issue.

Nor has it been a purely private decision. The outer world has had its unsolicited say, from colleagues and administrators to family and friends. With the coming of 1993 there was a distinct fear by management that I and my colleagues would stay 'forever,' permanently inhabiting precious faculty lines. These unflattering sentiments were voiced sometimes sotto voce and sometimes openly. We were described as 'ballast' or 'albatrosses.' Hints, some subtle and some less so, were voiced by way of friendly or concerned curiosity: 'So, you must be thinking of retiring by now,' a question in the form of a statement.

Well, why should it be a purely private decision? I'm reminded of Lynn Hunt's "Generational Conflict and the Coming Tenure Crisis," where she suggests that "the tenure system has fostered a kind of anarchic individualism that has sapped any collective ethos of responsibility." Using tenure "simply to prolong a career," argues James Shapiro in "Death in a Tenured Position," constitutes an abuse of the tenure system: "When tenure so nakedly serves the interests of established senior scholars, while it remains beyond the reach of most young scholars, any defense of the tenure system is badly weakened" (for a discussion of the Shapiro piece, see this entry).

I've said it before and I'll say it again, loud and clear and not in a whisper: tenure without mandatory retirement is indefensible and, in the current climate of casualization (and the CUNY system is exhibit A for the process of adjunctification) unconscionable. Senior tenured professors should be spared the agony by a mandatory retirement scheme (it needn't be age-based, it could be based on years of service).


I wrote the above an hour and didn't post it because I was afraid it sounded too snarky. But I've decided to go ahead, while adding the following: I don't want to be unsympathetic to the "fear of impoverishment in very old age." But I don't think the issue can be fairly addressed without an acknowledgment of impoverishment in younger age: many CUNY adjuncts teach more than the equivalent of a full-time load and still earn so little that they qualify for food stamps. Given the context of scarce resources, the rewards and burdens should be spread more equitably.

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at November 25, 2003 10:46 AM

I'm with you - and you're not at all being snarky. As for the "fear of impoverishment in old age" - huh? An American who has been tenured for decades is trying to tell us that he or she will be "impoverished" in old age? It's not impoverishment this sort of person has to fear -- rather, it may be the inability to live an upper middle class life forever. Or maybe this person is one of millions of Americans who has for decades spent beyond his or her means and fears being unable to dig him or herself out of it. Or maybe this person has sent his or her kids to colleges that are unconscionably overpriced instead of reasonably priced state schools, etc., etc.

Posted by: malcolm at November 25, 2003 10:56 AM

Look, I don’t want to sound mean-spirited, and I freely admit that I am a middle-aged tenured social scientist, so I’m not exactly without an interest in this argument. But why on earth is it Henry Huttenbach’s responsibility to solve the problems of the academy. He’s not taking away anyone’s job; he’s keeping his own. I imagine that if you asked him, you’d find that he deplores the adjunctification of his—and all other—universities. He’s not the enemy, and he’s not the problem. Do you really think that if all the Henry Huttenbachs retired tomorrow, it would make even a trivial dent in the adjunct population? Do you really think they all would be replaced by new tenure track hires? And do you really believe that Professor Huttenbach has a responsibility to fall on his sword to help us answer these questions?

In my experience, there are very few faculty members past 70 engaged in full-time teaching. Most of them retire because the retirement benefits are too good to pass up. The ones that stay are typically the ones most dedicated to their teaching and research. And please folks, spare me the anecdotal evidence about Professor Deadwood, the inept 70-something historian who put you to sleep and ruined your GPA as a sophomore. Yes, a few of them do exist; I understand that. I’m just saying that if you’re looking to overage senior faculty as the solution—or even a solution—to the adjunct problem, you’re looking in the wrong place.

There seems to be a lot of resentment from the participants on this website toward tenured faculty members, as though we have somehow played a leading role in the increasing use and abuse of adjuncts. In my view, the real villains are the state legislatures that inadequately fund their colleges and universities, the voters who prize lower taxes over excellent schools, and the Boards of Regents who insist we serve as many of our state’s children as possible regardless of the sacrifices we are forced to make in terms of quality.

Am I saying that those of us at the tenured ranks bear no responsibilities? Of course not. We should and must do a better job of educating the public as to the value of having permanent tenure-track faculty rather than an army of part-time adjuncts. We owe it to everyone—voters, legislators, our students, our colleagues—to make sure that we carry out our teaching and research responsibilities to the fullest, and not use tenure as an excuse to turn our work into a part-time job (for what it’s worth, I favor post-tenure review systems with real teeth—and real safeguards). And if and when we reach administrative positions, we must do what we can to treat adjuncts with respect and try to provide them with the highest pay and best benefits possible.

We do not, however, have the responsibility to sacrifice our careers to any of these pursuits.

It is clear that there are some tremendously talented people on this site (including IA herself) who would be an asset to any university in the country, including my own. I deeply regret that the academy has changed in such a way that many of you will never achieve tenure-track employment. But I sure do wish you’d stop blaming me for your situation.

Posted by: No name at November 25, 2003 11:38 AM

No name:

I can't believe I am about to defend state legislatures and their meddling, but we have the exact same issues of adjunctification and deadwood tenured faculty in my (private) university.

Posted by: gerald garvey at November 25, 2003 11:47 AM

If IA is blaming individual faculty members for not retiring, then that's wrong; but I don't think that's her concern. At least it's not mine. From what I can see, universities are making a fairly sensible economic decision when they avoid making what had been a 40-year commitment to employ a professor, and what now could be a 50 or 60-year commitment. The Prof. Deadwood stories are not trivial; in the Ivy League school where I did my master's, all three profs in my subfield were non-professionally-active bad or mediocre teachers with no doctoral students, and all around 70. They're what made me think tenure was a bad thing, and if, as an ABD who hopes to get a tenure-track job, *I* think it's bad, imagine what it looks like to everyone else.

Posted by: alwaysfortunate at November 25, 2003 11:58 AM

Part of the problem with mandatory retirement is that in terms of energy /intellectual output /productivity/ability to teach, there is no good age (based on chronological age or on years in service). There are productive scientists I know in their 70's. There are bad teachers, likely with incipient physiologic issues that impact on mental competency, in their 50's. There are people in my department who became deadwood on the heels of tenure.

The problem is not open-ended tenure, the problem is tenure without a reasonable review and evaluation process.

Posted by: bioprof at November 25, 2003 12:44 PM

On the topic of deadwood: I'm dyin' to tell a bitter joke we used to make at the Ivy League school where I did my master's, but That Would Be Wrong, as it would necessarily involve using the actual name of the professor. Ah well. Get me drunk at the next IA Lounge Party.

I think IA is exactly right on this topic, and for heaven's sake don't worry about being snarky -- isn't that what blogs are for?

Posted by: language hat at November 25, 2003 01:01 PM

This may be offtopic, but I have an interesting general query for anyone willing to answer. If, as a relatively green and naive entering grad student (or grad school prospective student) the department which you are entering (or to which you are aspiring) is full of nothing BUT deadwood, should you truly be frightened? Should you be genuinely concerned about the lack of any effort to fill the place with fresh blood, what this says about its propensity to expand, its vitality, etc.? Or is it still inappropriate to automatically judge a book by its cover?

I once had some experience with such a department and, let me tell you, my initial suspicions about its lack of vitality (never mind sense of direction) ultimately were - hands down - confirmed.

Posted by: Smarmy at November 25, 2003 01:26 PM

So maybe the fact that I'm just past the 40 mark and will only be working for another 20 years or so gives me an edge when looking for tenure-track jobs?

Posted by: Another Damned Medievalist at November 25, 2003 02:31 PM

I know, I know, they love to teach.

And they're worried about their allocation decisions in TIAA-CREF.

*playing world's smallest violin*

Posted by: Michael Tinkler at November 25, 2003 04:30 PM

The point's been made a couple of times, but not quite as forcefully as it might. Several years ago, the best teacher I've ever had led an intense year-long seminar at an age well past any mandatory retirement limit. He's still teaching and it would be plainly unforgivable to make him stop.

I understand the deadwood problem (though I haven't experienced it; on the contrary, some of my finest professors have been downright elderly), and I understand the economic motivations, but any system that would force exemplary instructors to retire is unacceptable.

Posted by: ogged at November 25, 2003 06:54 PM

A quick note to Poster #2 - I'm Malcolm, Poster #1, and I'm a tenured professor in a wonderful job at a great university. I don't have "resentment" toward tenured faculty - I AM tenured faculty, and I'm very grateful and happy to be so.

It's not a very good form of argumentation for you to accuse anyone in reasonable opposition to a particular postion of "resentment." You trivialize and distort my position - and anyone else's on this thread who objects to this situation - by calling in a word like resentment.

You also resort to the canard about mean ol' legislatures making professors poor. I'm sorry - but the reference to the world's smallest violin in another post here really pertains. Check out the median salaries of tenured American professors. It isn't resentment. It's a perfectly appropriate sense of distributive justice that underlies the initial IA post and most of those that have followed.

Posted by: Malcolm at November 25, 2003 07:18 PM

The "world's smallest violin" is being paid by an adjunct professor whose parents are both retirees from a particulary shambolic state university system who keep being told by the lawyer to give away more money. Luckily, he has no pride.

Posted by: Michael Tinkler at November 25, 2003 08:01 PM

For the record, I support IA's position: tenure should be accompanied by mandatory retirement. One who remains an excellent teacher past 70, and wishes to continue teaching, could certainly work out a decent ongoing relationship with his or her institution -- post-tenure adjunctification, let's call it. AAUP guidelines should encourage, even mandate, this sort of thing. But at some point the tenured positions should be freed up for younger scholars.

Re Malcolm, though: he invites us to "Check out the median salaries of tenured American professors." I'm wondering whether doing so would show such people living the "upper middle class" lives Malcolm says they do. Though I am a tenured professor, my neighbors aren't lawyers and vice-presidents, they are carpenters, printing-press operators, elementary-school teachers, and data processing clerks. Given rising life expectancies, if I retire at 70 I may have to find a way to feed and house myself for another fifteen years or more. (And it's not like Social Security is a sure thing.) So some people may be hanging on to their tenured positions, even with fewer tax incentives, past 70 because they're not sure they can avoid the actual poverty that afflicts so many elderly people. I don't think that's a concern to sneer at.

Posted by: Ayjay at November 25, 2003 08:17 PM

Re: median salaries. If we were to check out medians across the board, I suspect we'd find that most tenured professors living in most regions are not in danger of the actual poverty that does afflict many elderly people. That said, since I've made a particular point of the economic context of the CUNY system, it's only fair to acknowledge that the CUNYs are of course in New York City and NYC is very expensive. A tenured professor in NYC brings in the same salary as a tenured professor in upstate New York: upstate, that salary counts as "upper middle class," but in NYC it does not. Though retiring faculty are hardly in danger of ending up on the streets, I suspect that fear of poverty of which Huttenbach speaks does have some foundation.

But then, the CUNY adjuncts make $2,500 per course, and they're living in New York City, too. Again, it's a question of distributive justice, as Malcolm puts it. I don't expect an individual to retire out of the goodness of his heart or a very well-developed sense of the common welfare. What I'm arguing is that the system should be structured so that individuals are simply not given the option of not retiring after x number of years of service.

Ogged raises an excellent point. But again, this comes back to equitable distribution. Some of the younger generation have the potential to become exemplary teachers, but are not given the opportunity. This is not only unfair to the younger generation, it's also very damaging to the profession: exemplary scholars and teachers are made, not born, and they are made through support and encouragement. Anyway, as Ayjay points out, retirement from a full-time tenured position needn't mean no more teaching role at all. If there were the will, it would be possible to create arrangments that allowed for post-retirement emeritus teaching.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at November 25, 2003 09:52 PM


Just so you know, although my post (#2) immediately followed yours (#1), it was not specifically intended as a response to you. (As it happens, I actually wrote most of my message before your post even appeared on-line; it just took me a while to complete it and send it out because I got caught up in other things.) Thus, my comment about "resentment" had nothing to do with you. Moreover, it was simply an observation, and not a "form of argumentation".

Anyhow, I never said anything about "mean ol' legislatures making professors poor". I said that legislatures "inadequately fund their colleges and universities". This does not always mean that tenure track faculty are paid poorly (though sometimes it does; see post #13). But it does mean that schools lack the resources to hire an adequate number of tenure track faculty to teach all the students who are allowed to enroll. Thus, the problem of adjunctification.

Posted by: No name at November 25, 2003 10:06 PM

"Find a way to feed and house myself"? Ayjay - it's precisely this sort of rhetoric that makes people laugh - and yes, sneer - at the situation. Maybe the French would take this sort of thing seriously - the woeful self-description of people who've had marvelous prestigious guaranteed jobs with good pensions telling us that once those jobs end they might actually have to do some years of some other sort of work to "feed and house" themselves.

This isn't 1936, we aren't sharecroppers, and I don't see any James Agee coming along to chronicle the hungry unhoused American professor emeritus. This is why I think it would be better for tenured professors to admit honestly that their worry is not about being unhoused and unfed in retirement, but about being insufficiently affluent. To say "I'd rather continue making $70,000 a year than retire and generate a comfortable but much lower figure than that" would be more becoming.

When you give people something to sneer at, I'm afraid they sneer.

Posted by: Malcolm at November 26, 2003 02:09 AM

What a delightful reply, Malcolm. Tell me, do you ever stop sneering? But whatever range of facial expressions you command or don't command, if you think feeding and housing retired people can't possibly be a major problem in the coming decades, you're just not paying attention. Social Security is a disaster wating to happen, life expectancies are increasing, and a rising stock market is hardly guaranteed. Obviously you are confident -- though "confident" is too weak a word -- that your TIAA-CREF stockpile will insulate you from any nasty economic fallout from the retirement of the Boomers. Here's hoping you're right. But people whose fortune-telling skills are not as finely-honed as yours will probably be concerned about their futures, and will make decisions like Henry Huttenbach's. So look on the bright side, Malcolm: there'll always be such people to sneer at, thus making your golden years still more golden!

Posted by: Ayjay at November 26, 2003 08:35 AM

As an objective outsider, I think that you should continue to blame "No Name" for your situation. He's obnoxious enough to be an OK scapegoat.

Posted by: zizka at November 26, 2003 10:43 AM

Ayjay's idea is the best. Mandatorily retired professors who love teaching simply should take adjunct jobs and let new blood get the tenured jobs. In fact, adjunct positions used to be used primarily for that kind of thing.

There seems to be a general downward decline though, which means that tenured positions are often disappearing with each retirement.

All the forces at work today seem to be working against the traditional role of the university as a home and support for humanistic studies. That's my dog in this fight. The combination of budget pressures, ideological pressures inside and outside the university, increased emphasis on teaching defined as job training, and student demands for entertainment, all end up meaning that the old-time scholars are disappearing. The final time I decided not to go to graduate school it was because I realized that none of the eminent scholars I admired had been (or would be) replaced when they retired, and that one of them never got a position at all (PhD ~1980).

Posted by: zizka at November 26, 2003 10:55 AM


Leaving aside your sorry attempt at an insult, you are more or less making my point:

"There seems to be a general downward decline though, which means that tenured positions are often disappearing with each retirement."

Exactly. Requiring mandatory retirement is not the solution to the adjunct problem.

Posted by: No name at November 26, 2003 11:06 AM

As Zizka points out, some schools are phasing out their tenured positions, making it less helpful for older scholars to bow out in favor of younger ones. I don't know what to do about that, but here's an interesting story: I know a senior scholar at a Canadian university that, several years ago, was facing some budget shortfalls. This scholar offered to take slightly early retirement -- but only on the condition that his position remained a tenure-track one. He actually had in mind a gifted younger scholar whose terminal appointment was about to, um, terminate -- and indeed that's the person who got his job and, later on, tenure. The university was apparently persuaded to keep the job as TT because they were escaping a heavy salary-and-benefits obligation. Who knows, maybe that would work elsewhere. All we need is some very wealthy or very selfless older professors. . . . but forgive me for not assessing the likelihood of that. . . .

Posted by: Ayjay at November 26, 2003 01:05 PM

Well, I have a few questions.

First, why not have people teach past retirement as adjuncts? Two of my favorite law professors did that and my favorite professors at the undergraduate institution next to the law school did the same. I'm not sure why that is considered snarky now, when it was pretty standard almost thirty years ago.

Second, where is the money going, going to that was saved by moving to adjuncts or is the entire system just becoming impoverished. Where has the cost savings from adjunctification and taing gone? Assuming it hasn't gone to allow the people that used to teach those classes to teach only small section graduate student classes, where is it (and a have universities without graduate departments had the same thing happen to them).

Third, why doesn't the tenure system have a method for removing deadwood -- and how much deadwood is there? For every professor in his 90s who is still bringing in grants and students, how many professors are there who don't?

Fourth, would it make sense to have tenure last a period of time -- say twenty years -- after which one had to requalify for tenure?

Posted by: Steve at November 26, 2003 05:34 PM

"Where has the cost savings from adjunctification and taing gone?"

Have you seen the list of College and University President's salaries that was published a few weeks ago?

Posted by: Chris at November 26, 2003 07:31 PM

Actually, having emeritus faculty continue as adjuncts is common practice, especially as part of early retirement programs--I'd hardly consider it a snarky suggestion. The CSU system, for example, hires back emeriti half-time. We've got several emeriti who still teach one course per semester or so.

Posted by: Miriam at November 26, 2003 08:57 PM

Even after finishing the early retirement routine, an emeritus professor who happens to be an excellent teacher or researcher ought to be able to continue as an adjunct. That's what's happening with one of the professors in my CSU department (I'm a grad student). Rumor has it that he's finally _really_ ready to retire after this spring. Come January he's going to walk into a packed classroom for a course that normally draws less than 20 students. Everyone wants to take that class while he's teaching it.

I'm sure he'll be replaced by an adjunct. CSU is just as broke as the rest of California.

Posted by: Karen at November 27, 2003 01:15 AM

"It isn't resentment. It's a perfectly appropriate sense of distributive justice that underlies the initial IA post and most of those that have followed. "

Distributive justice?? Everyone sounds so darn entitled. It seems to me that the function of universities has changed considerably in the past fifty years - as we have increased access to higher education, we have created a budgetary time bomb that will logically have a negative effect on the future of tenure-track employment. I'm not sure it's reasonable to expect taxpayers or students to foot the ever-growing bill for life-long tenured professors who teach two or three classes per semester. I know it's unreasonable to expect senior faculty to voluntarily 'make way' for their junior colleagues.

Posted by: Anna at November 30, 2003 07:56 PM

I wonder if the tension between tenured professors and adjuncts doesn't presage tensions between other groups as our society becomes increasingly hobbesian. Why should adjuncts turn a rancorous eye on established professors, or lower income whites look resentfully at blacks or browns who vie for the same job at Wal-Mart? From a certain remove, it must be pleasant to see the academic laborers fighting among themselves for a 1 in 200 chance of salaries that are, even on the high end, a fraction of corporate salaries for mediocrities. $70,000 is what you pay an editor with, say, 8 years experience, who can write routine pamphlets or sales copy. It is the salary plus bonus for a grade 15 on the Haye scale, a Director, not even a low end middle manager. (And the benefit percentage, would average an additional 30% of salary.) Two promotions later the Director of Sales Copy would be a Corporate Vice President in Charge of the Brochures for a given division. She might have two or three Directors of Sales Copy under her, and she would making $140,000 a year supervising the writing of shine and shinola. And she would still be an insignificant middle manager, an interchangeable part in a big machine, with five or six rungs above her. She would be two promotions short of even being listed by name on the org chart in the annual report.

If all the adjuncts were paid $70 k a year after a decade of teaching you would still be getting shafted. You are worth more than that. Instead of envy for the tenured you should feel compassion that they have worked all their lives for so little, financially. Of course they are concerned about retirement.

Atomization seems to be working bigtime on the campus. Sad, given that the campus is the one place you might expect a broader perspective.

I would suggest that some readers here join the world of business, for the bucks, but what a tragedy to lose the highest and best use of the talent. Reading IA is almost unbearable; it is like watching a 4,000 car pile up, with carnage, day after day after day. Such good people in such a hopeless mess, barelling along, right into the wreckage, again and again and again.

Moral heroism - foot to the floor right into the truck in front of you, cursing the truck, in a line backed up coast to coast. "If that damn truck would just get out of my way..."

Posted by: The Happy Tutor at November 30, 2003 11:48 PM