The real benefit of tenure

August 31, 2003

Receiving tenure can be truly exhilarating. Many of my newly tenured colleagues are profoundly happy with their newfound status. There are many too, who decry the benefits of tenure, and suggest that it was a huge anticlimax, or that too many others obtained tenure, when in truth, they did not deserve it. But by and large, people seem to find it a happy state to be in.

Whereas tenure seems to come with a general sense of well being, the underlying reason for this satisfaction seems to vary a lot. Some are happy to be able to be simply done with the tension of “making it”. There is a sense of relief that this phase of their lives is done with.
There is also the good feeling that comes from not having to worry about losing one’s job. It enables one to plan ahead, and do it with low risk. There is the calming influence of being able to pace oneself nicely.

Many academics (unnecessarily I might add) put their lives on hold until tenure arrives, and gain a new found freedom from these shackles of their own making. Why anyone would choose to suppress needs in a monomaniacal rush towards the “grail” beats me, but it is too widely spread a phenomenon to discard it as irrational. But freedom is freedom, and release from a prison of ones own making is still a release.

Too many academics savor the fact that this achievement comes with the benefit of not having to work hard again ever. While it is hard to suppress this conclusion, taking it too seriously can be quite dangerous. The real benefit of academia comes not from not working but from intellectual pursuit.

This is the only reason for tenure, and should be emphasized more. Intellectual pursuit is the only “holy grail” in my opinion, and tenure makes it risk less and unfettered. Still, it is sad that many, if not most academics, behave post-tenure in a manner suggesting unawareness of this, the only real reason for tenure. Indeed, they are off taking unfettered risks in any area but academics. I have no problem with folks that decide they have paid their dues and while continuing to publish research, also decide to allocate some of their time to the pursuit of wealth.

But to continue to be risk-averse in academic pursuit, while risk seeking in other aspects of life seems to be a huge waste of the true benefits of tenure. Still too many academics look back and say tenure was no big deal. They just don’t get it. If only they looked ahead, they would cherish and exploit the great benefit of true intellectual freedom they have been given.


Education for the “Masses”

August 29, 2003

As universities adopt a “portfolio” approach to admissions, I fret that real talent will be left by the wayside. The ability to detect true genius is orthogonal to the portfolio admissions system, for a person with great talent in a single, unfunded area would never make an admissions cut. We will admit more of the “above average” kids of the world and fewer of the truly gifted.

However, it is also undeniable that the portfolio approach de-emphasizes in-depth test-taking ability, and this is a good thing. A range of talent is often missed in monoline tests. What we really need is a set of “general” yet “non-standard” tests – though this may be very hard to implement. The problem today is that kids spend way too much of their lives taking classes to prepare them for tests, or doing parentally imposed “portfolio” activities. Children are being robbed of their childhoods.

But mostly, the portfolio approach biases admissions in favor of kids of privilige. Poorer families just do not have the time and resources to enable their children to build a reasonable portfolio.

A “lexicographic” admissions approach might be better than the “average” portfolio one. Children should make it on a few cuts, and the ability to sort kids is not distorted with the lexicographic model. Maybe its time for campuses to give this a try. As long as kids know they need to do a few things well, parents will relax, and the “arms race” in portfolio building should cease.