Tacloban, the Philippine city ravaged by Typhoon Haiyan last week, appears on the brink of complete abandonment, with the mayor urging surviving residents to flee. Relief supplies are to be found just outside the city, but a range of physical and human obstacles are making it difficult if not impossible to deliver them.
Will Tacloban recover in the long run? Politics will play a role -- can the government afford to subsidize relocation into the area in the same way the United States did after Hurricane Katrina? Geologic considerations might factor in as well. The Leyte Gulf, after all, looks kind of like an upside-down funnel, and Tacloban's location at the narrow part of the funnel poses the same sort of hydrologic challenges as New York's location at an interior corner of the East Coast. There might be some argument for buying out the owners of what remains and starting over in a less dangerous location. But ultimately, rebuilding is a question of economics. Before the typhoon, it made sense for some 200,000 people to live in Tacloban. Will it make sense now?
For some time, the conventional wisdom among economists was that cities bounced back from disasters. Hiroshima and Nagasaki are two data points often cited in support of this view. The atomic devastation of these Japanese cities was different in some respects, however. The bombs targeted the center of town, leaving the outer ring of the metropolis more or less intact. Sufficient infrastructure remained intact in Hiroshima to allow limited streetcar service to resume just three days after the bomb. There was a fundamental logic in taking a devastated landscape in the middle of a sizable suburban ring and making a city out of it.
Most importantly, Hiroshima and Nagasaki were thriving cities before the war. Demand for residence in those cities, in other words, was strong -- and the rational response to a reduction in the "supply" of those cities was to rebuild.
Port-au-Prince, Haiti, is a more current example of the phenomenon. The city was devastated by the 2010 Earthquake, but given the almost utter lack of economic opportunity elsewhere in Haiti -- Port-au-Prince is home to 28% of Haiti's population but over 90% of the nation's manufacturing jobs -- there was no other place for the residents to go. It is the only part of the country with reliable electric service, and possesses the only modern port and air facilities.
A couple of years ago I made the argument that the same dynamics would not take root in cities experiencing decline before disaster struck, thinking specifically of New Orleans post-Katrina but also of some of the German cities affected by firebombing during World War II. When a city is in decline, a certain segment of the population remains there primarily because the housing becomes cheaper over time. Able-bodied workers might leave a city with no jobs, but a family living on disability or social security would not be bothered by a lack of economic opportunity. As the able-bodied leave the city, the houses remain, and the excess supply puts downward pressure on prices. For renters, this is nothing but good news. For owners, the news is not so good, but the disappearence of home equity makes it more difficult to contemplate affording life elsewhere.
When a disaster comes along and destroys the housing stock, the "excess supply" problem is solved, in a somewhat brutal sense, and downward pressure on prices ceases. This is exactly what happened in New Orleans. No longer a cheap place to live, the city remains about 25% smaller than it was in the 2000 Census. The demographics of the city have shifted predictably as well, skewing towards a more affluent population.
Which of these possible trajectories best fits Tacloban? Population statistics indicate that the region has experienced steady growth in recent decades. By regional standards it has been economically prosperous, and its waterfront location brings obvious risks but also certain advantages. In the coming weeks the city may well experience a near-total evacuation along the lines of post-Katrina New Orleans. But if history is any guide that is where the similarity will end.
Durham, NC came to be because of the railroad. In the mid-19th century, the state of North Carolina hopped on an infrastructure investment bandwagon that began with New York's Erie Canal, constructing a rail line from the capital in Raleigh to Charlotte. The tracks followed a natural ridge through what is now Durham County, fueling the industrial development of a spot on the map that had been simple farmland.
Today, the old North Carolina railroad cuts through downtown Durham, intersecting several of the major streets at grade. The grade crossings can snarl traffic and pose an obvious safety hazard. The aerial shot below shows the two crossings of main concern, near the top of the photo. To the south of the tracks lie Durham's Performing Arts Center, the minor league home of the Durham Bulls, Durham County's "new" courthouse, and the redeveloped American Tobacco complex, which once manufactured Lucky Strikes but now hosts restaurants, offices, and apartments. To the immediate north lies what most folks think of as Durham's "downtown," home to still more offices, restaurants, and condos. Ten years ago, downtown was pretty dead, but it gets more hoppin' every day.
A proposal has been floated to elevate the tracks along this stretch, replacing the two grade crossings at Blackwell and Mangum streets with underpasses. The two streets running parallel to the tracks would also need to be lowered. This plan has aroused some concern from nearby business owners, as they fear that the higher embankment required along the length of the block (and for at least another block on either side) would visually cut off the two sides of the tracks, and that pedestrians would be reluctant to traverse the underpasses.
Here's an idea, Durham: take a cue from Tokyo. Check out the photo below, which represents a section of the Japan Rail Yamanote line just south of Ueno station. Note the thriving pedestrian scene, captured right around dinner time on a weekday. And check out what's under the tracks -- all sorts of stuff: shops, restaurants, an entry to the JR station. The overpass carries all sorts of rail traffic, from local commuter trains to the Shinkansen. But there is a thriving commercial strip underneath. This isn't just a curiosity confined to one section of Tokyo, either. In Japan, elevated tracks are not supported with embankments and retaining walls. The space underneath is put to use, for everything from shops to museums.
So why not do that, Durham? Right now, a 40-yard-wide swath of the city's most valuable real estate is put to productive use -- by passing trains -- for at most 15 minutes a day. The space below the tracks could be put to any number of more productive uses. Rather than serve to blockade people on one side of the tracks, a below-the-tracks arcade could draw people from one side to the other. Two parcels of 20,000 square feet or more could be created where there is now little more than a grassy embankment. That's enough square feet to locate a full-service grocery store to serve the growing downtown population. It's enough for a market hall on the order of Seattle's Pike Place Market, or twice the size of Madrid's Mercado San Miguel. In a town becoming increasingly renowned for "foodiness," a below-the-tracks marketplace would be a signature destination. The railroad that brought Durham to life would become the destination that celebrated its postindustrial resurgence.
The best argument against this plan, of course, would be cost. A few thousand cubic feet of dirt would undoubtedly cost less than the materials required to sturdily support passing freight trains above an open-air marketplace or shopping arcade. But there would be revenues to offset these costs, in the form of rent. C'mon Durham, isn't this worth thinking about?
This post continues the occasional series on lessons learned from three years’ service on the promotion and tenure committee at Duke. If you need to catch up, the previous posts explained why lifetime labor contracts might make more sense than you think, how junior scholars should go about pursuing tenure, and what newly minted senior scholars should do once they get it. This post is squarely aimed at senior scholars, and in fact there is some chance that junior scholars who read it might freak out just a bit, as we’re going deep inside the sausage factory here. A few words of reassurance appear at the end of the post.
At the heart of every tenure or promotion review lies a set of evaluation letters. I’ve read about 2,000 of them over the past three years – most positive, a few negative, and some too confusing to understand. For a tenured professor, writing a letter on behalf of a junior colleague at another university is something of a solemn duty. It is a commitment to spend hours immersing oneself in that colleague’s work, then more hours composing a letter that can run to many pages of single-spaced type. There is rarely any compensation for the task.
The most common way to think about tenure letters is whether they are “positive” or “negative.” For reasons I’ll explain in a moment, “positive” letters are themselves often subcategorized into a range from “lukewarm” to “over the top.”
There is a more important dimension on which to grade letters, however, and that is on the scale from “useless” to “extremely helpful.” The bulk of this post will concern the problem that many letter writers are less helpful than they could be, and suggest some solutions to that problem.
Problematizing the letter
The main reason that tenure letters end up being unhelpful is that their authors are afraid of saying anything negative about the candidate.
Suppose you’ve been asked to write a letter on behalf of a junior scholar, and the honest truth is that you’re not sure whether the scholar in question has met the standards their department should apply. Were you not bound to keep the request and the letter confidential, you might be inclined to ask others for their opinion to help you formulate your own. Given your lack of confidence in your opinion, you’d hate for a person to be denied tenure solely on the basis of what you think. Should you write an unambiguously positive letter or what we might call a “nuanced” one?
This is what a game theorist might call a “multiple equilibrium” scenario. Others might invoke the concept of social norms. If the norm in your field is to write positive letters in this scenario, then a nuanced letter actually ends up looking bad. If, on the other hand, nuanced letters are the norm then there’s little downside risk to writing one yourself.
Among North American tenure letter writers, the norm is to limit nuance. There are a number of negative ramifications of this tendency:
In short, the tendency to avoid saying anything negative or neutral about a candidate makes letters less useful than they might be.
This can end up having negative ramifications for the candidate. Suppose the candidate works in a field divided into two camps. Let’s further presume that the candidate aligns more closely with camp “X,” and scholars in camp “Y” have a tendency to be critical or even dismissive of the work emanating from camp “X.” You, the letter writer, also align with camp “X” and you wonder if you should make any reference to the criticisms that you might anticipate arising from camp “Y” scholars.
Your aversion to nuance leads you to omit this discussion. The possibility exists, however, that the candidate’s dossier will include negative letters from camp “Y.” And if that happens, the question is whether readers of the dossier will correctly discern that there are differing camps in the field, or will instead interpret the camp “Y” letter writer as a rare person who is willing to be candid about a scholar and is saying what everybody else in the field privately thinks. Hopefully, somebody will step forward and contextualize the dispute for the scholar’s colleagues, dean, and other decision-makers in the chain of command. But this is not guaranteed to happen.
You, the hesitant letter writer, have a chance to prevent this from happening. But in order to do it, you’ve got to resist the urge to write a rose-colored letter.
Bringing the nuance back
In many fields, there are senior scholars who have an established reputation for writing blunt letters. European letter writers are often ascribed a similar reputation, though individual differences clearly matter.
If you’re a North American scholar who does not yet have the reputation of being candid, how can you signal to the world that your nuanced commentary should be seen as just that, and not a basic negative statement? Just say so, right in the letter! I’ve come to appreciate letters that have this type of embedded meta-commentary. Tell people that you know about the norm against nuance, and that it doesn’t apply to you. Then just say what you really think. Here’s a completely made-up (i.e., not cut and pasted from any actual letter), generic template for how the meta-commentary can play out:
“While I have focused to this point on the positive aspects of this candidate’s work, of which there are many, it is important to recognize that some scholars in this field would raise a few concerns. Personally, I do not attach much weight to these concerns, and I should reiterate that I am a big fan of the candidate’s work. I also understand that letters with nuanced commentary are often read as negative letters and would urge you not to apply that lens in this case. I’ll provide you with my understanding of the criticisms so that you might understand them in context.”
By providing meta-commentary, you temporarily elevate yourself from a participant in an ongoing battle against the forces of ignorance to a referee of said battle. That’s exactly the perspective that your readers will be coming from. You also permit yourself to raise concerns without assuming ownership of them. Your letter instantly becomes more useful.
A few further suggestions for letter-writers
Now of course, if you do all these things and cultivate a reputation for writing very useful letters, you could pay a significant price in terms of being asked to write them more often. Just remember the lessons from last time about knowing when to say no and everything will work out just fine.
Reassurance for Junior Scholars
And now a special word for the junior scholars who have completed this tour of the sausage factory. If you happen to be working in a field with sharp divisions, are worried that your colleagues might solicit letters from the other side of the divide come tenure time, and further fret that your friends on your side won’t adequately rush to your defense, bear in mind that you yourself have an opportunity to contextualize your work in relation to the divide, in your personal statement. First, ensure that you have a complete understanding of the nature of the intellectual dispute. It is unusual to arrive at such an understanding after reading literature on only one side. Then, spell out the arguments that a critic from the other camp would view your work in your personal statement, and describe your counterarguments. Leave not to a letter writer what you can do yourself!
Over the past several months I've been slogging my way through Robert Caro's multi-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson. LBJ rose to prominence in a political party that represented an uneasy amalgam of Southern conservatives and Northern liberals. A key strategic element of his rise, according to Caro, was his duplicitousness. He campaigned for the House as an FDR-aligned New Dealer, while convincing the business interests that bankrolled his campaign that he was anything but. In his years in the House he took great pains to avoid taking a public stand on almost anything, sponsoring next to no legislation. In the Senate, he chose whatever means necessary to make legislation happen, even if it meant collaborating with the other party to overcome opposition in his own. He blindsided opponents by cobbling together unlikely coalitions. And as president, LBJ championed the type of Civil Rights legislation to which he had exhibited 100% opposition in his days on Capitol Hill. Having risen to the top of this uneasy alliance, Johnson's actions ultimately spelled its doom.
In today's parlance, Johnson was the ultimate flip-flopper. He was against things before he was for them, and for things before he was against them. In fact, he was both for and against things at the same time. He waffled. He cut back-room deals that benefited special interests right and left.
LBJ did all these things, but that was the key to getting things done. In Caro's telling, Johnson never really compromised his principles in the process because he had none to start with, save self-aggrandizement. And Caro takes great pains to establish that Johnson's actions were critical to reforming what had been a largely ineffectual legislative body.
Where are the Lyndon Johnsons today? The pragmatic deal-makers for whom literally anything is negotiable? You're probably more likely to see them on Survivor than in Congress.
One could write volumes on the changes in politics over the past half-century, but among these changes is the fact that LBJ-style duplicitousness is less sustainable in an era where inconsistencies in a politician's record can be instantly uncovered and exploited. Legislators' need to exhibit consistency leads them to hew more closely to a set of principles, eschewing compromise. Their behavior needs to conform to the promises they made while campaigning, and as government is divided among legislators and an executive who made opposing promises, very little can be accomplished.
Sunlight, as they say, is the best disenfectant. But just as killing off all microbes indiscriminately would leave us humans unable to digest our food, killing off the logrolling and quid-pro-quos that marked the legislative process in the Johnson era has dramatically weakened the system's capacity to actually get things done. The wheels of the legislative process are no longer greased, and they have ground to a halt.
This is, of course, a mixed blessing. We no longer need worry about bridges to nowhere and other follies casually inserted into broader bills. But without the follies, we aren't getting the bills.
It may seem odd to wax nostalgic for the good old days when politicians could get away with being more "corrupt." But at times like these, it's clear that the country would benefit from the service of a few talented but unprincipled people.
I spent slightly more than eleven years of my childhood living on a peculiar street in Bloomington, Indiana. To get there, one drove down a busy road known officially as State Road 46 but colloquially as “the bypass,” turning right just before a set of train tracks (or left just after them, if coming in from the north) onto a short street that paralleled the bypass for about 400 feet before making a dogleg turn. Past the curve, Eastgate Lane continued for about 800 more feet, descending about 20 vertical feet into a usually dry creekbed and climbing the other side, before coming to a dead end.
There were exactly six houses and one apartment complex, Park Doral, on Eastgate Lane. The first four houses lay on the stretch parallel to the bypass. They dated to the late 1950s, as did both the bypass and Eastgate Lane itself, modest but sturdily built homes faced with limestone and brick. From their front doors, the occupants looked out on the Lane, a grassy patch about 10 yards wide, and the bypass. From their back doors, the occupants could view a more bucolic scene, with lots of up to an acre. When I first moved to Eastgate Lane, in the mid-1970s, there were open fields in back of these lots. The fields would soon be replaced with another apartment complex.
The fifth house on Eastgate Lane, number 2558, was mine. It sat right at the dogleg turn. In fact, if you didn’t know where you were going and missed the curve, you ended up in my driveway. This was the fate of many a visitor to the Park Doral apartments. It was a house of similar vintage, a single story over a crawlspace, three bedrooms, brick in the front and siding (which we would replace with aluminum) elsewhere. It had no garage or carport, the former attached garage having been finished to provide more living space at some point in its first two decades. Our neighbors included a couple of other families with children and a couple of retirees, a small group of families but a varied one. As far as I can recall, everybody was white, but that’s not surprising given the place and time. We bought the house from the man who would become my European History teacher in high school.
Whereas the first four houses were separated from the bypass by the lane itself and the 10-yard buffer, mine was effectively wedged between the bypass and the lane. At its closest point – the corner where, for about seven years, I slept – the house was a mere 20 yards from the dashed yellow line down the middle of highway 46. To this day, noise rarely prevents me from falling, or remaining, asleep.
We had a small concrete patio on the side of the house facing away from the bypass, with a picture window leading to it, and a bed of peonies just to the right. We didn’t have a backyard quite as nice as the first four houses, but it was of decent size, wooded with trees perfectly suited for climbing or hanging a swing. Squirrels, chipmunks, cardinals, and robins visited frequently, we would often find little bits of blue eggshell on the sidewalk to the front door in the springtime. The lot was separated from the bypass by a chain-link fence, overgrown with vines in most places. Like most southern Indiana homes, ours had a basketball hoop in the driveway.
This satellite photo, taken in early 2005, shows the scene. I’ve marked the location of the house and its crescent-shaped driveway. The four “upper Eastgate” homes are directly above; the sixth house – our only next-door neighbor’s – lies to the right. The tracks, which carried trains that rattled our windows as they carried loads from the coal fields of southern Indiana to the power plants of Indianapolis, are visible just at the top of the image. Park Doral – home mostly to college students who produced a variety of other sounds audible from our house late at night – lies to the right.
About 100 yards past the train tracks lies a major intersection, and past that cross-street lay the complex where I attended school from Kindergarten through sixth grade. University Elementary School, proximate to the Indiana University campus, served students from around the world, the children of graduate students, faculty, and an assortment of other Bloomingtonians. I walked to school nearly every day. I was one of the few students who walked to school along the bypass; many more came from university-owned apartment complexes just across the bypass from the school. The single crossing guard, an older man, would walk over from his regular post at the busy crosswalk to mine whenever I showed up.
When crossing the tracks, I’d strain to see the bright headlight of an Illinois Central freight train in the far distance. On those special occasions when one appeared, I’d stand by the tracks and wait for the train to pass, waving to the brakeman in the caboose.
Heading the other direction, less than a half-mile from my house, was another major intersection, this one anchored by Bloomington’s lone indoor shopping mall. One had to take a somewhat roundabout route to get there, as the bypass had no sidewalks, but it was an easy walk that my brother and I took all the time in the summer, our pockets filled with small bills redeemable for slices of pizza and arcade tokens.
Crossing the bypass and heading west, it was less than a half-mile to the outer edges of IU’s campus, and just over a mile either to the heart of campus or to IU’s outdoor pool, which was quite the preteen summertime hangout back in the day. It was less than two miles to the courthouse square at the very center of town. From this peculiar dead-end street I could walk virtually anywhere I’d ever want to go. There might be one or two dicey street crossings involved along the way, but these were of little consequence to an adolescent boy. It was the worst of locations, but it was the best of locations.
By the time this photo was taken, the house was gone. From an early point in our residency on Eastgate Lane, there had been talk of widening the bypass from two to four lanes. When first constructed, the bypass represented the eastern edge of developed Bloomington. Like many mid-century ring roads, development enveloped it, transforming it from a thoroughfare for those who wished to avoid Bloomington to a key artery for those who lived there. From my bedroom window I could often see traffic at a standstill in either direction.
Our family sold the home and moved away in the late 1980s. Sometime in the next decade or so, the house was purchased by the Indiana Department of Transportation and demolished. When I last visited the lot several years ago, not a trace of the home remained. The driveway was still there, but the basketball hoop was gone.
University Elementary School still exists, but it moved to a different campus soon after I left. The buildings that once housed the school, owned by the University, were converted into a computing center. Recently, that computing center too has been demolished.
While the four houses of “upper” Eastgate Lane were far enough away from the bypass to spare them from being acquired to widen the road, the private sector brought them to a parallel fate. Where children once played and retirees once gardened there now sits a complex of multi-story apartment buildings, bearing the possibly ironic moniker “East Bay,” a mere 500 miles from the nearest brackish water. The once-graceful backyards are now parking lots. Of the six single-family homes that once populated Eastgate Lane, exactly one remains.
And after nearly four decades of rumor and planning, the widening of the bypass is complete. It is four lanes wide with a narrow median. As the 2013 satellite photo below indicates, Eastgate Lane itself has been realigned; what was once my driveway now lies primarily in the right-of-way. Where I once lay my head to sleep there is now a sinuous paved path, leading to a pedestrian underpass that will ensure that no child need take the risks that I once did to cross that highway. Not that there are any children left to take those risks.
Eastgate Lane, once a dead-end street, is now a through street, with access to the bypass at both the north and south ends of the parallel portion. The eastbound portion after the dogleg has been decommissioned; the apartment complex in the creekbed has been connected to another street. Eastgate now looks like a frontage road, and indeed it serves much that purpose, with a bus stop allowing northbound buses to pull off the bypass and pick up apartment dwellers. The city’s traffic commission plans to make Eastgate one-way Northbound to improve this bus service.
The repurposing of Eastgate Lane makes perfect sense from an urban planning standpoint. Bloomington is a growing town, and infill development of this nature – close to the center, with convenient transit connections – is a smart way to accommodate this growth without carving up more fields and forest at the margins. It took what had always been a peculiar little stretch of road and made it make more sense.
But from another standpoint, this was my home, my neighborhood such that it was, my school. They have all been wiped off the map. If you never lived there, or never attended that school, there is not much to be sentimental about. The structures were close to valueless from a historical preservation perspective. For those whose lives revolved around this little street, though, something has been lost.
Eastgate Lane, in its peculiar way, encapsulates the key tension in modern society: between preservation and progress. When progress defeats preservation, we stand to lose something of our collective memory, culture, and experience, the things that knit us together as a society. But when preservation defeats progress, it often entails a victory for a well-connected few at the expense of many. To govern a modern community is to attempt to keep these forces in balance.
I don't fly Delta Airlines all that often, but a quick round trip to Atlanta last week left me with no other rational choice. I was struck by the subtle humor embedded in their safety video, perhaps just an attempt to showcase their hipness, but also possibly a way to convince people to pay attention. I often try to pepper my lectures with subtle jokes for the same reason -- the bored student peps up when classmates start laughing, thinking "what did I miss?"
Anyway, I was struck by the vignette appearing between the 0:40 and 0:53 marks of the video in which one passenger indicates an unwillingness to help the flight crew in the event of an emergency, and trades seats with a more willing passenger:
A clever joke, right? As it turns out, however, this vignette illustrates a general phenomenon relating ethnic heterogeneity to an unwillingness to take actions in the public interest. The phenomenon was first noted in the literature on developing countries, which noted that nations with more ethnic divisions had poorer records of economic growth. Soon, a similar phenomenon was noted in developed countries. For example, in a 2004 paper I reported that households living in racially heterogeneous counties were less likely to return their Census forms -- an action in the public interest since Census population counts drive Federal grants to local communities.
The Delta video shows the same phenomenon: the exit row passenger who doesn't "fit in" is unwilling to commit to civic responsibility; once the exit row is populated with comically homogeneous occupants the civic commitment is assured.
What explains this phenomenon? In a separate article, I made the argument that calls to take actions that are privately costly but help others -- such as opening an exit door for fellow passengers in the event of an emergency -- depend on how one feels about helping others. And how we feel about helping others, in turn, depends on our capacity to identify with them. The implication is that members of the same ethnic group find it easier to identify with, and therefore to help, one another.
I freely admit that this analysis of the Delta vignette amounts to overthinking the problem. Everybody knows that the real reason to snag the exit row is to get a bit more legroom, paying no attention to the infinitessimal likelihood that one will have to open the door. In that event, the simple desire for self-preservation is undoubtedly motivation enough to act. So it's really hard to know just what that fellow in the aisle seat was thinking.
This is the third in a series of posts inspired by a three-year term of service on a university-wide promotion and tenure committee. After discussing why lifetime contracts make more sense than you might think, and providing a pan-disciplinary, pan-institutional guide to landing said contract, this post discusses the first-world problem of what to do once you have it.
I know what I want but I just don’t know how to go about gettin’ it
Don’t know what I want but I know how to get it
The transition from junior to senior faculty member resembles the transition in attitude between the first and second lyric quoted above (and the timing is about right, too). The junior faculty member is motivated by pursuit of a single objective. While there may be some uncertainty about what it takes to achieve the objective, there is no doubt about what it is.
The tenured faculty member has no such well-defined mission. While it is possible to keep on doing the same things – publishing and teaching – for the remaining 30 years of one’s career, a number of other alternatives pop up. More than anything else, the tenured faculty member will have opportunities to play a leadership role not only in their own program of scholarly inquiry, but in their institution or discipline more broadly.
You can do a wide variety of things. And unlike earlier stages of your career, you face real decisions about which of them you might like to do. In an economy marked by rampant unemployment and job dislocation, this is a luxurious problem to have. But it’s a problem nonetheless. On the APT committee we often spoke of the need for professional development opportunities for newly tenured faculty. Here are the main lessons we spoke of conveying.
Lesson 0: It’s time to take on those risky projects.
I’ve already mentioned that one basic rationale for awarding tenure is to encourage faculty to conceive and execute projects that have both the promise of Earth-shattering advances in knowledge and the possibility of complete failure. So obviously it’s time to do that… if you don’t find yourself swamped with other things to do. Which brings us to…
Lesson 1: You Can Say No.
As your academic reputation grows, you’ll be presented with an expanding array of opportunities. We’ll talk about some of them in a moment. As an untenured faculty member, these opportunities came infrequently enough, and the importance of increasing your name recognition high enough, that the rough rule of thumb “say yes to everything” would not get you in too much trouble.
When opportunities arrive more frequently, and the importance of building name recognition declines (because you’ve already got it – maybe even too much of it), the decision rule should change. You needn’t say “yes” to every request to serve your university or discipline.
Those who have trouble internalizing this lesson will witness the following phenomena occur. First, the time available to do your own research and teaching – the things you’ve demonstrated a talent for – will dwindle, eventually to nothing if you let it. Second, once there is no more of your research or teaching time left to cannibalize, your service will eat itself. Every time you say “yes “ to one more activity, the quality of service you provide to every other thing you’ve said “yes” to will decline.
The “say yes to everything” rule of thumb, in short, will prove harmful not only to you but eventually even to those people to whom you say “yes.” You can throw family and friends into this category along with all the work-oriented folks.
What rule of thumb ought you substitute? Once you've had a chance to try a few different roles and responsibilities, the old "do what you enjoy best" applies. But it's hard to know whether you enjoy certain things unless you try them first.
A colleague of mine at Duke once suggested the following: imagine what would happen if you said “no.” The person who has made the request most likely has a list of possible candidates – on which you might very well not be the first name – and would proceed to the next name on the list. Is that next person likely to do about as good a job, if not better? If so, then say “no.” If you apply the rule correctly (not that there’s any guarantee that you can), then you will end up focusing your efforts in the places where you’ll make the most difference.
There can be a drawback to this strategy, if you are the sort of person who is conscientious, punctual, and otherwise competent at accomplishing things. You’ll end up being asked to do a lot, and by the above rule of thumb you’ll end up doing a lot of it. For this reason, I’ve been advised by more than one colleague to demonstrate “strategic incompetence.” I think that works best if you can get over the “conscientious” part.
If you are conscientious and competent, then your rule of thumb should be to stop saying “yes” when doing so will do harm to others that you’ve already said “yes” to. And do your best to say “yes” to collaborators, conference organizers, or other people whose requests involve getting your research done. That way you'll manage to reach this threshold before your research efforts have been completely cannibalized.
Lesson 2: The things you might do
The possibilities here are too numerous to list in a post of finite length, but I’ll offer a few reflections on some things I’ve said “yes” to over the past few years.
The typical academic scholar will possess tenure for decades – enough time to dabble across a range of these activities, plus others I haven’t mentioned. You may discover some of them to your liking; if you don’t mind the work and are reasonably competent at doing it, the odds are you’ll have a chance to spend an increasing proportion of your time on that activity. If you hate each and every one of them, it might be time to demonstrate “strategic incompetence” if you are lacking in actual incompetence.
Lesson 3: The Next Promotion
At Duke, and many other institutions, a newly tenured scholar receives the title “Associate Professor.” The process of ascending to the next rung, a “full” professorship, is often shrouded in mystery. For many, the route to securing your next promotion involves receiving an external offer at full rank from a peer institution. That isn’t always necessary, however. Once you’ve been promoted to associate, it is worth having a discussion with your department chair regarding the typical criteria for promotion to full.
Generally speaking, if tenure and promotion to associate professor is a statement that a university believes in a scholar’s potential, promotion to full professor is closer to a recognition that this potential has been realized.
In book-writing disciplines, promotion thresholds are fairly straightforward. To receive tenure, you need to publish your first book and make headway on a new project (in some cases, a contract on the second project may be expected). For the next promotion, you need that second project published and progress shown on a third. The exact placement of the threshold may vary; some letter writers will want to see published reviews on that second manuscript, others will be content to see it in pre-publication form.
In journal article-oriented disciplines, the threshold is a bit fuzzier. I’ve seen letter writers in more than one discipline refer to the h-index in defining a threshold. The h-index is a number h such that you have at least h articles that have garnered h citations each. And the magic number I’ve seen quoted is 20. While that might seem like a bright line threshold, it oversimplifies the process. To start with, there are different ways to calculate h (Google Scholar, ISI) which can give you very different answers. Suffice to say, if you’ve got an index number way above that and are still an associate professor, it might be time to bring up the subject with your chair.
If you received tenure on the basis of a strong research record coupled with a poor or below-average teaching record, your colleagues might expect you to show improvement on that score before promoting you again. A similar statement applies to service.
Some fields may state expectations about the length of time a scholar should spend in associate rank, but in general this is not a clock-driven process. In some cases, the criteria for promotion evolve over time. Scholars promoted on a quick timetable typically do so primarily on the basis of their publication records; with a consistent track record of strong teaching and service some universities will award promotions to those with a less consistent research record.
There’s one other factor that determines why some faculty earn their next promotion earlier than others: they ask for it. There is little downside risk to sitting down with your chair and discussing whether your time has come. In a surprising number of cases, this type of discussion is what sets the process in motion. If the answer is “not just yet,” you’ll nonetheless walk away with useful feedback and a clearer sense of what the expectations are in the department.
This is the second in a series of posts inspired by three years of service on a university-wide promotion and tenure committee. Last time, we discovered that offering lifetime labor contracts to faculty is smarter than you might think. Today, it’s time to reveal some patterns gleaned from analyzing over 200 dossiers in dozens of fields – the sciences, social sciences, humanities, engineering, business, and more.
It’s hard to give generic advice on what strategies junior faculty should pursue to increase their chances of a successful tenure review. This is because there are two essential variables in the process: institutions differ in how they carry it out, and disciplines or subfields vary in what they expect from scholars in their ranks.
With that said, here is some generic advice for things an assistant professor should do to help make sure that, when the time comes, their tenure dossier looks really strong. By “tenure dossier,” I mean the complete package – your own work, the letters that senior scholars in your field write on your behalf, and the reports that your colleagues will write putting a spin on the evidence and (ideally) making the argument that they are lucky to have you and should do whatever they can to keep you around.
The most important piece of advice, to start things off, is to solicit more advice. This is a generic discussion, thus it won’t delve into issues such as which journals or presses to send manuscripts to, which conferences to attend, which senior scholar’s toes to avoid stepping on, and so forth.
Stage I: Welcome to the Faculty!
You’ve just started work as an assistant professor. Maybe this means you just finished your Ph.D., maybe it means you’ve completed a postdoc or two, or a stint in a non-tenure track faculty position. Regardless, the mere fact that you’ve landed a tenure-track job is a sign that people believe in your potential. Depending on your field, you may have a few publications on your CV already. You know the drill: you’ve got to expand on that track record or, as the saying goes, perish.
You would not be in the position you’re in if you had not done great work already – written a strong dissertation, perhaps published some groundbreaking articles. The concern in the minds of your senior colleagues is a simple one: the great work you’ve done so far has been in a mentored environment. Although everybody believes you can accomplish great things once beyond the realm of your advisors, most of your senior colleagues will have seen cases where that just didn’t work out.
Your goal, once the tenure clock starts, is to demonstrate to your colleagues that you can get things done on your own – that you can assume a leadership position in your program of intellectual inquiry. What exactly does that mean? In some fields, it means transitioning from being a first author to a last author, generating your own stream of funding, and mentoring your own students and postdocs. In other fields, it means taking the promising manuscript that comprised your dissertation and expanding it in a new direction (at American universities, the general expectation is that you’ll do more work on a book-like dissertation before trying to land a publication contract). In virtually every field, it means you’ll show some meaningful evolution in your scholarly trajectory. You’ll start up at least one major new project that clearly departs from your mentor’s (or mentors’) own research agenda(s).
That’s an easy thing to say but not always an easy thing to do. When first starting out, you can give yourself an idea of how far you need to go. If you’re in a department that has successfully tenured people in your subfield recently, take a look at their CVs with an eye toward understanding how they turned the corner, so to speak. Of course, you can ask them directly too.
Your senior colleagues have almost certainly written tenure letters for scholars at other universities recently. So that gives them some notion of what it takes to get tenure in your field these days. The only trouble is that your colleagues aren’t supposed to reveal to you whom they’ve written letters for, as the letters are confidential. Just phrase the question the right way. Instead of asking, “tell me who you’ve written positive letters for recently,” ask “tell me about some of the people who are rising stars in this field.”
If you haven’t published your dissertation – or all the chapters of your dissertation – by the time you arrive, put real effort into getting that done. In most fields, a published dissertation (or collection of journal articles springing from the dissertation) isn’t going to be quite sufficient to get you tenure. But many of the people who write letters for you will be familiar with what the dissertation looked like at the time you defended it, and will be able to convey a notion about how you improved it once you were on your own.
New projects – ones you commence after joining the faculty – are the way you demonstrate progress towards independence. There will always be a soft spot in your heart for your dissertation – it was your first project, and you probably spent more time on it than you will on anything else for quite some time. But the odds are that your new projects will be considered better work. You mature as a scholar; you read more, interact more with others at the forefront of the field, and acquire better instincts for what constitutes an important project to work on.
Ideas will pop into your head from time to time. You’ll always have a decision to make: work on that idea or wait for the next one? Assessing the quality of an idea is a very hard thing to do. Here are potential criteria to use in judging whether you’re onto something big. You should favor:
One last thing to note: an assistant professorship is still a “mentored environment.” You can ask colleagues for advice and collaborate with them. But ultimately you’ll want to be able to demonstrate that you aren’t completely dependent on that mentoring. By the time the clock runs out, you should have a track record of work that is independent both of your mentors and your senior colleagues.
Stage II: Staying the Course
Most likely, you’ll have numerous opportunities to receive feedback from your senior colleagues while the tenure clock is running. Sometimes the feedback will be along the lines of “just keep doing what you’re doing,” which is about as positive as you can expect. Sometimes you’ll receive more mixed messages, such as “you’re going to need to publish more,” or “some of us think that this new project you’re working on is a dead end.”
The honest truth is that this feedback can be misleading. Your colleagues’ opinions about the merits of your new projects or rate of productivity could be at odds with conventional wisdom elsewhere – this risk is highest when you work in a different subfield than the senior faculty in your department. Your colleagues may think either too highly of you or not highly enough. It is always smart to get a second opinion.
The first place to go for a second opinion: your former mentors. They’ve likely been writing letters for other junior scholars in the field recently and can give you advice about productivity expectations more carefully tailored to your subfield. Regarding topical areas, they may have a bias toward your style of work because it resembles their own, but they can still ask you the right questions to assess it because they are used to receiving those questions themselves.
The next place to go would be the conference and seminar circuit. These venues give you an opportunity to receive feedback from prominent colleagues in your field. Moreover, at the time of tenure review your track record of conference and seminar presentations may be examined to assess your “visibility” in the field.
A brief digression is in order. For many junior faculty, particularly those raising young children, the travel associated with the conference and seminar circuit poses a significant burden. In the “old days” when (predominantly male) faculty had (predominantly female) spouses to shoulder this burden, the absence of conference and seminar participation was taken as a bad sign. Today, to be quite frank, it can still be seen as an issue; if you’re worried about it, it’s a good topic to discuss in conversation with your chair. Someday that chair will write a letter for your dossier, that letter can make note of the fact that you aren’t in an “old school” family situation. Also, should you turn down an invitation because you can’t spare the travel time, make a note of it.
Seminar invitations are to a large extent beyond your control – although senior colleagues can sometimes put in a good word for you, “you should have my junior colleague X out to give a talk – she’s very good.” But conference submissions are important in virtually every field – in computer science, acceptance to refereed conferences is now more important than traditional journal articles. In some disciplines, your chances of being accepted on a conference program are higher when you organize a session. Organizing a session can be a great way to introduce yourself to an arms’-length senior person in your field – a potential letter writer.
It isn’t always necessary to know your potential letter writers. I’ve read quite a few letters that begin by saying “I’ve never heard of this person before” and go on to say quite glowing things. But it can certainly help. Sometimes senior scholars in your field will decline to write a letter on your behalf if they haven’t heard of you, and that can be taken as a negative sign. If nothing else, having an opportunity to discuss your work in the presence of a senior scholar who did not mentor you – for example, in a conference session you organized – gives you a chance to hear feedback that contributes to the change in scholarly trajectory that your colleagues will be looking for.
On occasion, a senior scholar from another institution will give you a direct piece of feedback: “haven’t they given you tenure yet?” or “you seem to be having a lot of success in publishing things,” etc. These are great things to hear. Of course they reflect one person’s opinion, so don’t let your head swell too much. But file them away. A person who says something like this is likely to be a strong letter writer for you.
To this point, this discussion has focused on research to the exclusion of teaching and service. Be a conscientious teacher and mentor. Excellent teaching is not going to make up for a complete lack of research productivity, but it can help your colleagues overcome doubts if you have a borderline track record when the clock runs out. It is very hard to give generic advice about teaching. If you’ve got enthusiasm for the subject matter and can commit yourself to return students’ work promptly with generous amounts of feedback, you’re off to a great start. However good or bad you are the first time around, strive to improve.
When asked to provide service to your discipline – reviewing manuscripts, discussing papers at conferences – do what you can to pitch in, it is a way to help build your visibility in the field. When asked to provide service on campus, it’s good to say “yes” a couple of times per year. Again, take a look at the CV’s of recently tenured people, which will often contain information on committee work and other service. If you feel like you’re being asked to do too much, don’t be afraid to have a conversation about it with your department chair. Rather than whine about it, though, introduce the subject by asking for advice – you know you need to strike a balance, and honestly want to know whether your service commitments are infringing on your research too much.
Stage III: Sealing the Deal
So now your clock is running out. In some cases, you’ll be asked to write up a personal statement to be included in your dossier. This can be a tricky thing to write. On the one hand, it will be read by experts in your field. On the other hand, it will also be read by some people who don’t know the first thing about your field. How can you possibly write one document to serve such disparate audiences?
My advice: go non-technical. We’re not talking Dr. Seuss non-technical, but at the level you’d expect research discussed in a magazine for intelligent adults. I’ve certainly seen plenty of very technical, jargon-laden personal statements – not just in STEM fields, but humanities and social sciences as well. As an outside-the-field reader, they do very little for me. I, like most readers I’m sure, end up looking elsewhere in the dossier to figure out what the scholar does (a good tenure letter will summarize the scholar’s research in non-technical terms – more on that in a future post). Even if I’m reading a statement from a scholar in my field, however, I’d much prefer to have them tell me what they’ve accomplished in common prose. Going non-technical forces you to think a bit more deeply about what your body of research really means, what it amounts to, where it is heading. And this is exactly what the people reviewing your dossier are trying to assess.
Your tenure review is ultimately not about what you have accomplished. It’s about what your colleagues can expect from you in the future if they keep you around. It happens to be the case that these expectations are largely based on what you have accomplished, so forgive the circular reasoning. But your colleagues will be paying attention to your future plans. Particularly in cases where the track record to date is on the borderline, a strong discussion of work “in the pipeline” can make a big difference. It’s not a bad idea to send out unpublished work with your dossier, so long as you have some feedback to suggest that work is of good quality.
At some universities, including Duke, candidates have the option of suggesting names of letter writers, or scholars from whom names should NOT be solicited. There isn’t much point in providing names. Think of it this way: suppose your department gets letters from people you suggest and others as well, and suppose that the only good letters come from the people you suggest. Now suppose that all the letters are equally good – it doesn’t really make a difference whether you suggested names or not in that case. So there isn’t much upside associated with naming names, but there is a downside.
If you’ve managed to accumulate some real enemies – for example, scholars whose work you’ve criticized or refuted and who aren’t that happy about it – you might be inclined to put them on a “veto” list if you get to provide one. But you’d be surprised how many senior scholars in that situation end up writing a positive letter – and a great letter from a person you disagree with can really push your dossier over the top. If that person ends up writing a negative letter, your colleagues will have a chance to do damage control in the report they write, noting the intellectual dispute that predated the letter.
After you submit the dossier, you wait. Definitely submit updates if you receive good news, such as an article acceptance or book award. And don’t worry if the wait goes on and on – no news is no news. Your dossier may be held up waiting for some dean somewhere to write up a cover letter, or trying to schedule a meeting involving a few busy administrators with hectic schedules.
When the wait is over, ideally, you get tenure! And then the only question is, what next? That will be the subject of a later post.
When things go wrong
I’ve known many colleagues who have elected to leave an assistant professorship before the clock ran out. And I’d bet that just about every assistant professor entertains thoughts of leaving at some point. Many times, the departure is for another assistant professorship at another institution. Leaving for another tenure-track job, whether by going formally on the market or taking advantage of an opportunity that falls in your lap, makes the most sense when it gives you access to a better set of resources – colleagues, research infrastructure – to get your work done.
Sometimes, you may be tempted to get out of the self-directed research game entirely. The tenure track is stressful in part because not all the determinants of your success are within your control; the publication process can be arbitrary and capricious, and some departments just don’t have the right kind of resources – human and otherwise – to help junior scholars in a particular subfield find their way. When moments of angst arise, ask yourself whether you enjoy the work. It is definitely no fun to get a rejection letter, and sometimes working on requested revisions is only slightly more fun than being rejected. Ask yourself these questions. Do you live for the moments of discovery that come along with being a researcher? Is it a source of joy that you have the freedom to set your own research agenda? Or is it a source of anxiety? The main selling point of an academic career is this freedom. Quite a few junior scholars discover they can live without it. And many of them discover that their skills are highly valued in the marketplace, when put to work on someone else’s agenda. It can be a very soft landing.
Some scholars will stick with the program until the clock runs out, only to be denied tenure. In many of the cases I’ve witnessed, the real problem was not necessarily a lack of productivity on the part of the scholar, but a poor fit between the scholar’s agenda and the resources of the department. In these cases, being denied tenure might end up being the best thing that ever happened to the scholar – if it means relocating to a department more appreciative of, and better able to support, his or her agenda. That leaves only a small residual number of cases where the scholar really didn’t manage to accomplish much. Even for these people, a career transition often changes life for the better. At least one study has shown that junior faculty overestimate the severity of the shock associated with being denied tenure.
When all is said and done, the goal is career satisfaction, to do things that others value and derive happiness as you do them. If some part of the equation is not working out, have the courage to tinker with it.
I’ve recently completed a three-year term as a member of Duke’s Provost’s Advisory Committee on Appointments, Promotion, and Tenure. This is the first in a series of posts inspired by lessons learned in the course of that service.
I grew up in an academic household (put more crudely, I was a faculty brat). I have many childhood memories of discussions involving the word “tenure.” I had no idea what it meant. In fact, I thought that the term being used was “ten year,” which didn’t really help me make sense of it.
Tenure is an easy thing to explain – a lifetime labor contract – but can be a hard thing to make sense of. The commitment to lifetime labor contracts in other occupations, such as elementary and secondary teaching, or in other countries, such as Japan, has been assailed on several grounds. Employees on lifetime contracts face few consequences if they shirk their duties; employers without the capacity to reshape their workforce have difficulty in controlling costs or adapting to new realities in the marketplace.
These arguments are relevant to tenure in higher education. Tenured faculty might lose the respect of their colleagues if they slack off, but they won’t be fired. The presence of tenured faculty also makes universities less nimble in response to changes in academic trends. Back in the 1980s, demand for Japanese language instruction was high because we all thought Japan was going to take over the world. Nowadays, Mandarin seems to be the flavor of the decade.
Why does tenure make sense? Here are five arguments, the first one undeniably true but not intellectually satisfying, and the last four more sensible.
1. Universities tenure faculty because everybody else is doing it.
Universities want to recruit and retain the best faculty – the ones doing the best research and bringing the most up-to-date knowledge into the classroom. If you are a business that wants to recruit the best people, and all your competitors offer lifetime contracts, then you need to do the same.
What makes this argument intellectually unsatisfying is that it leaves open the possibility that tenure is a prisoner’s dilemma – a game in which everybody would be better off if they could collude and agree to abolish tenure. See, for example, the intellectual debate over employer-provided health care, which similarly developed as an alternative to paying employees cash. So “everybody else is doing it” isn’t necessarily an argument that would convince a tenure skeptic to stop worrying and embrace lifetime contracts.
2. Universities tenure faculty to encourage risk-taking.
This is the basic mantra we repeated on the APT committee. By giving someone a lifetime contract, you are giving them a license to work on risky research projects – ones for which the prospects of a true advancement in knowledge are highly uncertain and unlikely to be known for a long time. The focus on this sort of risky project is one of the things that makes the University a distinct place from private-sector R&D firms – pharmaceutical companies and the like. In the private sector, a failed experiment is unequivocally bad because it did not make money. At a university, a failed experiment is nonetheless valued because it creates knowledge.
3. Universities use tenure as a substitute for cash.
Labor economists speak of compensating differentials – the adjustment in salary associated with the offer of a non-cash benefit. Tenure is a non-cash benefit; we expect university faculty to accept lower salaries in exchange for their lifetime contracts. In the short run, then, the university saves money by granting tenure.
How big are the compensating differentials, in practice? Consider the following evidence, taken from the American Community Survey five-year sample of 2007-2011. It is a 5% sample of the American population, counting some 130,000 Ph.D. holders. For each Ph.D. holder, the survey reports their total wage and salary income, occupation and industry. This makes it possible to compare Ph.D. holders inside and outside academia – specifically the industry known as “Colleges and Universities” in the ACS. The comparisons here are restricted to individuals between the ages of 35 and 65, reporting occupations with strong representation both in academia and in the private sector (private sector here would also include non-academic government or nonprofit jobs).
Across the board, Ph.D.-holders in academia earn less than their counterparts outside, by significant margins. Psychologists and engineers with Ph.D.s report earning about 16% more in jobs outside of universities. Doctorate recipients in the biological and life scientists earn 50% more outside of academia. And scientists in a broad category including both chemistry and physics earn 60% more in the private sector.
There are plenty of caveats associated with this analysis. There is no way to know whether ACS respondents actually have tenure. Scientists both inside and outside academia might supplement their wage and salary income with independent contractor or self-employment income.
But there’s another facet to the story as well. Not only do universities pay below-market salaries in exchange for offering lifetime employment, they also don’t always bear the full cost of a faculty member’s salary. In the sciences, in particular, faculty members are unlikely to receive tenure unless they have a strong track record of winning grants to support their research – and their own salaries.
By this point, tenure might look less like a weird thing that colleges do and more like a shrewd business maneuver. But the story does not end here.
4. Universities tenure faculty because it’s too hard to evaluate them on an ongoing basis.
Faculty in many, perhaps most, disciplines conduct research that is challenging to explain or justify to a lay person. In some departments, faculty members conduct research that is nearly incomprehensible to other members of the same department! In order to understand the value of what a faculty member does, one typically has to consult with other experts in the same field.
That is exactly what happens in a standard tenure review process. Outside experts in the candidate’s field offer confidential assessments of the candidate’s research and prospects for future success. A review committee prepares a report summarizing these assessments and offering their own perspective; the full tenured faculty reviews the report; the department chair writes a separate report; the dean writes yet another report. A university-wide committee reviews all the reports and recommends a course of action to the top administrators who make the ultimate decision.
Many, many person-hours’ worth of time are devoted to this review process. Although there is no direct compensation for much of this effort, it is nonetheless extremely costly. To have to conduct such a review process for every faculty member, on an ongoing basis, in lieu of just granting them tenure and letting them do as they please, would amount to sacrificing enormous quantities of research for the purposes of review.
The obvious retort to this point would be to advocate for a simpler ongoing review process. And indeed, there is a cursory annual review process for tenured faculty at Duke. But a simpler process necessarily involves relying on people who are not experts in a professor’s field assessing what that professor has done. And that’s a recipe for making ill-informed decisions. With the benefit of hindsight, we might discover that mistakes were made in granting some faculty tenure. But the rate of mistake-making would almost certainly be higher if decisions were made more frequently and with less thought.
5. Universities are sophisticated enough to offer tenure only to those faculty who pose minimal risk.
The main downside risk of offering a lifetime contract is discovering, too late, that your employee is not inclined to do any useful work. The basic strategy for mitigating this risk is to identify people who not only have a track record of doing useful work, but also love that work so much – the research, the teaching, and the service to the institution and their field – that they could not even contemplate a life of leisure. As their field evolves, they want to evolve along with it.
My first insight into this point came courtesy of a professor whom I worked for as an undergraduate some years ago. I managed to get a good amount of work done on my assigned project, and in true economist style my supervisor said “this is great, but it makes me wonder how you consume any leisure.”
I responded, “I guess I just have a perverted notion of leisure.” Translated from the native economics-speak, I was asked how I could have any fun doing so much work, and I responded that the work itself was fun.
By this time, my professor was well aware of my intention to pursue an academic career. His response to me: “well, you’re going into the right line of work.”
Up until this year, public schoolteachers in North Carolina have been entitled to a 10% increase in salary upon receipt of a Master's degree. Recently enacted legislation has done away with that, but let's return to this in a minute.
Suppose you were an unscrupulous person. You know that any teacher should be willing to fork over money for an MA credential, since it instantly puts a few extra thousand dollars in their pocket each year for the remainder of their career. Of course, to get into the MA-granting business you've got to do things like offer courses, but your potential clients are probably not going to complain too loudly if you make the degree requirements pretty lax. The whole scheme could turn into a pretty nice racket.
It's not hard to conclude that the MA in teaching business has become a racket. To be sure, there are very strong schools of education out there that put a lot of effort into their MA programs; I count a number of good friends and colleagues at these schools. But if you do a quick Google search for "MA in teaching" you'll pull up ten or more paid ads, most of them from institutions that bear little resemblance to traditional research universities.
One potential consequence of a "race to the bottom" in MA-degree-granting is that the actual content delivered in those programs will dwindle to nothing; candidates will learn very little about how to become a better teacher. And in fact, numerous studies of teacher credentials have found that possessing an MA degree does very little for teachers. There are some exceptions; if you're a physics teacher, for example, getting an MA in physics appears to be helpful. But not many teachers fall into that category.
Now place yourself in the position of a 22-year old contemplating a career in education. The pay is not great, but at least you know you can secure a 10% raise by twiddling your thumbs for a little while as you pursue an extra piece of paper. It might make the difference between going for it and choosing another line of work.
If you believe that decision calculus holds sway for at least some promising teachers, then the inevitable conclusion is that the automatic increase for MA holders improves teacher quality even if the process of earning the MA doesn't make teachers any better at their jobs. The only lamentable part of the arrangement is that we've required promising teachers to spend a lot of time and money pursuing the piece of paper that does nothing for them except raise their salaries.
In previous writing, I've pointed out this problem and suggested that the automatic MA-salary link should go. But particularly given the low level of teacher pay in a state like North Carolina, it would be a mistake to remove the link and stop the teacher pay reform there. My original suggestion was that the money saved by eliminating the automatic step-up be used to boost teacher base salaries. Instead, the state legislature has tinkered with plans for a very modest pay-for-performance bonus system -- less generous, in fact, than the very popular system that was suspended a few years ago for lack of funds.
Unless further action is taken, the legislature will have succeeded only in making the teaching profession less attractive to upcoming generations of prospective teachers.