Wednesday, May 08, 2013

Sitting In My Office Until I Die

When I started this blog, I imagined that there might be more cognition, and less reality.  However, the business of discovering and disseminating cognitive science currently faces the harsh reality of our recent provincial budget.  I now find myself quoting Alberta Hansard!

Consider a small exchange at the Alberta Legislature that occurred Tuesday afternoon, May 7, 2013.  Dr. Neil Brown, the progressive conservative MLA for Calgary-Mackay-Nose Hill asked why the government has not allowed postsecondary institutions to adjust tuition fees for the increased cost of living.  He prefaced his question with a reference to faculty retirement packages: “Postsecondary institutions in Alberta are struggling to cope with the 2013 budget cuts, and some of them are offering retirement packages to faculty, including some of our leading researchers.”

Dr. Brown addressed his question to Thomas Lukaszuk, the Deputy Premier and the Minister for Enterprise and Advanced Education.  Mr. Lukaszuk answered as follows:

“Well, Mr. Speaker, offering early retirement packages to tenured professors, who have no mandatory retirement age and actually can sit in office till they die, is not perhaps a bad idea if they choose to take those retirement packages, but we were very, very clear in our messaging. We will not be balancing the budgets of this province or our provincial universities, schools, and colleges on the backs of students. We have to make sure that we have efficiencies in the system, that we run those institutions as efficiently as possible before we ask students to pay additional money through tuition or taxpayers to invest additional dollars into the institutes.”

I was astonished by the minister’s comments about retirement in his answer; I have bolded them to bring them to your attention.  They seem to imply that once a university professor achieves tenure, they are strolling along easy street.  Something like that might be true of some political institutions – the Canadian Senate? – but  not of our postsecondary schools.  I would like to make a few quick points in response to the minister’s answer:
  1. It is true that there is no mandatory retirement age at the University of Alberta.  However, I do not believe that is true of all of our postsecondary institutions.
  2. Achieving tenure is an important milestone in a career, but it does not eliminate the challenge of the job, or its accountability.  It increases it.
  3. I am accountable for my job performance.  Each year I compile an annual report, a document used to evaluate my performance (annually).  This evaluation considers all three cornerstones of my position: teaching, research, and service.  If I am not performing to expectation, then there are mechanisms in place to remove me – even if I am tenured.
  4. Tenure and promotion lead to more accountability, not less.  As I proceeded through academic ranks, the expectations about my performance increased.  The university expects full professors to do much more than assistant professors do!
  5. I am accountable for every class I teach.  Near the end of each course, students anonymously evaluate my teaching performance along a number of different dimensions.  The results of these evaluations are publicly available to any student or faculty member who has a valid University of Alberta computing id.  The Chair of my Department uses these results as part of my annual overall evaluation.
  6. I am accountable for all of my research.  Any grant that I apply for, or any manuscript that I publish, is subject to peer review.  This means that my grant proposals, or the manuscripts that describe my research, face external evaluation before being successful.  Furthermore, this evaluation is external to my university – it taps into the opinions of national and international experts.  If these experts do not think highly of my efforts, then I do not publish, which means I perish – probably as the result of unfavorable annual evaluations.
  7. I am only as good as my next discovery.  What do university researchers publish? They publish new discoveries – their novel additions to our understanding of the world.  In order to keep publishing (and to keep from perishing), we must be innovative.  We always face the challenge of pushing the edge of the envelope in our disciplines.  Every day we deal with the pressure of what to do next, with the challenge of coming up with new answers to questions.  To succeed in our research – for which we are constantly accountable – we must always find unbroken paths. The pressure to do so can be unbearable.
 When I was a senior undergraduate, I submitted a manuscript to a leading journal for review.  The reviewers’ comments were very cutting, the paper rejected.  My mentor, Albert Katz took the opportunity to teach me a life lesson about academia.  “Mike,” he said, “you have to realize that this is a terrible job because people just shit on you all of the time.”  His advice did not turn me away from the profession – but it was certainly true.

Having no mandatory retirement age, it seems in principle that I could sit in my office until I die.  In practice, to pull that off I had better be working damned hard while I sit, because that is what my department, my university, and my peers across the country and the world expect of me.  That is not cognition – but it is reality.


  1. I would like to add another point to your list.

    8. Very often it seems that research is driven by particular intellectual trends, funding concerns (as we have seen), or even dominate personalities within a field. When these factors are in play, research which might stand on the outside of the "acceptable" research interests dictated by these factors can become devalued. As associate professors are often in competition for few positions, willingness to stray outside the orthodoxy is not high. Tenured professors, however, stand in prime position to investigation topics, issues, and areas which might not otherwise be valued for the reason previously described. To undercut the possibility of tenure is to possibly remove promising lines of research.