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Academic Deadwood

September 11, 2009

Of all the possible topics that academic bloggers could write about, one of the more interesting to me is “deadwood” or “dead wood,”  if you prefer.  (In spite of my spell checker, I am going with deadwood.)  See for example Historiann’s blog  Dead wood: a person, a place, or a state of mind ? and Lumpenprofessoriat’s Producing Deadwood.  By deadwood, an academic means a faculty member who is not pulling their weight.  Operationally, it means someone who is teaching fewer courses, publishing fewer papers, bringing in fewer grants,  serving on too few or on too many departmental, college or university committees, going to fewer departmental seminars, etc.  Like beauty and pornography, academics know deadwood when they see it.    Critics of universities also seem to have almost a supernatural ability to detect deadwood.  In fact, it often seems hard for them to see anything else.

Deadwood should not be confused with derelict faculty.   Derelict faculty will not or can not perform normal faculty duties.   Like all universities, we have policies to deal with dereliction of duty, but they have never been used, as far as I know.   I have encountered only two faculty members – one now retired – who were derelicts.  One simply collected his university salary to supplement his income as a real estate developer.  He did not teach, do research or publish a paper for over twenty years, and, speaking of deadwood,  his department chairs, deans, and provosts let him get away with it.  The other clearly is mentally ill.  Fortunately, less than 0.001% of our faculty fall in this class, and I suspect that this is generally the case at universities.

Deadwood’s most visible characteristics are gray hair and wrinkles.   In 35 years, I have never seen this term applied to non-productive junior faculty.  Nevertheless, I have seen considerably more junior deadwood than senior deadwood.   The obvious reason is that junior deadwoods are denied tenure.   Tenure, however, is viewed by some as the cause of deadwood.  The “violence” associated with the tenure process due to escalating tenure standards or requirements is postulated to turn “vibrant and creative” young faculty into deadwood – see the Lumpenprofessoriat’s blog for details.   Others, however, see the increased discussion of deadwood by faculty and administrators as yet another attack on tenure – see Historiann’s blog for more on this topic.  

The one part of the university that seems to contain no deadwood are administrative offices.   I have never heard an administrator call another administrator deadwood.  The Peter Principle evidently does not apply to university administration.   Unfortunately, this is not the case, based on my experience.  Given the small number of administrators relative to faculty, there seems to be a disproportionate amount of deadwood in administrative offices.   Paper pushers with no imagination or tolerance of faculty foibles and who have no leadership skills are not hard to find at universities.  If no or little teaching, research, grant funding, and publications, as well as gray hair and wrinkles, are characteristics of deadwood, many senior administrators easily qualify.  Administrators, of course, will argue that they are providing an essential service to the university.  Faculty, however, who serve on committees and task forces and who write reports rather than teaching classes and doing research and writing grants and papers are frequently viewed as deadwood by administrators, as well as their colleagues.

I have recently attended several meetings of various kinds of administrators at which the topic of deadwood came up.  From the tenor of their discussions it would appear that we are facing some kind of deadwood epidemic.  All of the university’s budget problems would be solved if we only had a way to get rid of our deadwood.   Increasingly post-tenure review is seen as a way to deal with this epidemic.  If we make post-tenure review more rigorous,  the argument goes, we can bring deadwood back to life or we can rid the university of it.  If a miracle does not occur, then after two negative post-tenure reviews,  professor deadwoods will lose part of their salaries, if not their jobs.   The ultimate question for enhanced post-tenure review is, will it actually create more deadwood, as tenure supposedly does, or will it  just reduce the number of tenured faculty?

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