Everyone knows this story, or a variant of it, even if it never hits the papers and no one wants to name names. It goes like this: Professor X simply won’t retire. It’s not that he/she (though it’s mostly he) is staying on for themselves, you understand. It’s for the department. If he/she (mostly he) left, there simply wouldn’t be any guarantee that a new tenure line would go back to the department. That position might go to another department – or another faculty entirely. And that would never do – think of the department!
So, let’s assume for a second here that the person saying this is on the up; that he/she (mostly he) really means this and is not using it as a rationalization for staying on for more years at a salary which is likely north of $150,000. Let’s not accuse anyone of any motive other than what to their minds is altruism on behalf of their discipline. It is still an act unconscionable selfishness, and goes to the heart of what is wrong with universities (from a management perspective, at least).
What’s important to recognize here is that most scholars have divided loyalties. On the one hand, they are all employed by a specific institution. On the other hand, they are each members of at least one global scholarly community (which, for the sake of convenience if not perfect accuracy, we will call “disciplines”). The institution gives you the paycheck, but the standards for hiring, promotion and (more importantly) professional standing and prestige are all effectively set by the discipline.
Now, these divided loyalties probably wouldn’t matter much were it not for one fateful decision that universities made over a century ago; namely, to permit discipline-based organizations – that is, “departments” – to be the fundamental organizing unit of the university. What that did was give these global communities significant say in how pretty much every university gets run. And to be blunt, those global communities are not overly sensitive to the local needs institutions need to serve and the local conditions under which institutions operate.
And so it is with Professor X’s motives. He/she (usually he) does not care about the health of his or her faculty or university. It may make eminent sense for the institution to transfer a faculty line from his department to another due to changes in student demand. Doesn’t matter: the discipline comes first!
But just think about the way the discipline comes first. It’s not about the need to make scholarly contributions to the discipline. A professor’s status at a university is immaterial here: plenty of retired profs continue to make scholarly contributions for years after getting their last paycheque. No, in this case the professor is supporting the discipline simply by being a body taking up space. Making numbers. Swelling the internal political heft of the unit. Denying this space to other disciplines who might need to make a hire. And why? To ensure that the discipline’s local base will retain as much political influence as possible. Period.
And this, recall, is the altruistic scenario, the one where the professor is being obstinate for “altruistic” reasons and not just to hang to the paycheck. It’s unconscionable, frankly. If you want an example of how difficult it is to manage universities along rationalist lines, look no further than this.
Quick note: I’ll be off the blog next week to recharge a bit. See you on October 30th.