Sunday, October 20, 2013

Why I Jumped Off The Ivory Tower

I'm leaving my position as a tenured Associate Professor of Philosophy and taking a job in the private sector. By any normal standards, my academic job was excellent. I was tenured at a Research-1 institution, in a department with a growing PhD program. I had a lot of freedom to pursue the kind of research and teaching that I wanted. And I used that freedom to pursue a lot of diverse interests. My students -- especially my graduate students -- were excellent. I enjoy teaching, and I also happen to believe that philosophy is increasingly important and relevant.

I should begin by acknowledging that I've had some major and sometimes quite public conflicts with my home department and administration, especially about their treatment of my spouse, which I strongly believe to be the result of highly sexist attitudes. And to be perfectly honest, those conflicts and the resulting fallout certainly played a role in my decision to leave. However, I've been preparing my exit from the university for several years, long before those conflicts erupted. For a long time, I've been the uncomfortable owner of a coveted faculty position that I didn't want.

My decision to leave isn't really about my department or university in particular, but about a perverse incentive structure that maintains the status quo, rewards mediocrity, and discourages potentially high-impact, interdisciplinary work. My complaints are really about the structural features of the university, and not about the behavior of particular people. Although I believe that my university is unusually bad in these respects, I think these structural features are quite common.

Interdisciplinarity

It's no exaggeration to say that virtually all academic faculty have heard something from their administrations about the growing importance of interdisciplinary work and collaboration with others from different fields. Today's challenges require more knowledge and skills than any single specialist can bring to bear. As faculty, we are routinely encouraged to venture out of our narrow specializations and create the relationships and knowledge necessary to conduct research that crosses traditional disciplinary lines.

I happen to agree with this sentiment. In fact, I feel quite strongly about it, especially in relation to academic philosophy. Philosophers are experts in assimilating new information, evaluating complex lines of reasoning, and rooting out flaws in arguments. Without getting into too much detail here, I'll just say that philosophers' skills are especially well-suited for interdisciplinary work -- especially work that involves the so-called STEM areas of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

Although some of the talk about interdisciplinary work is insincere and self-serving -- often justifying the creation of new "Centers" without investing significant resources -- some of it is quite well-intentioned. To my own institution's credit, we have had a significant investment in at least some interdisciplinary research over the past few years. But as anyone in academia will tell you, these efforts usually fail. And although a lot of people have opinions about why it's so difficult to get this kind of research off the ground, I haven't heard a satisfying explanation. So I'll take a stab at it, drawing on my own (admittedly biased) perspective and experiences.

In my own case, I have a wide range of research interests including automated theorem-proving, logic, game theory, and formal epistemology. I've published in the philosophy of science, ethics, action theory, logic, and other areas that have very little to do with each other. I'm at least as comfortable in Computer Science as I am in Philosophy. For a philosophy professor, I've also collaborated somewhat more often than is typical, and so several of my research articles are co-authored. I'm proud of my research record, but I've increasingly found that the university is a harsh environment for these sorts of projects.

Here is one tiny example. In the spirit of interdisciplinary research, I've recently co-authored an article (with an excellent graduate student in computer science) in the journal "Lecture Notes in Artificial Intelligence", which is not a philosophy journal, but a computer science or engineering journal. One would think that this was precisely the sort of project that should get a warm welcome from a university that's encouraging interdisciplinary research. Unfortunately, I've actually incurred a small, but significant penalty for writing this paper. The reason for this penalty is simple. In my department (as is commonly the case), faculty salaries are determined largely by research productivity. But this is more than the mere quantity of research produced. A judgment is made -- based largely on the prestige of the publisher and journal -- about the quality and likely impact of one's work. This judgment is made, reasonably enough, by people in one's home department. Unfortunately, if you're writing papers that are eventually published in outlets that one's colleagues are unfamiliar with, they're unable to make a decision about the quality of that work. So, although it's definitely not a policy of our department, such publications are downgraded when it comes to determining the quality and quantity of research output. Furthermore, my department also considers single-authored work to be more significant than co-authored work. Frankly, I find this policy totally absurd, but it's not that uncommon. Because a lot of interdisciplinary work will appear in unfamiliar (to one's colleagues) venues, and be co-authored, that work is downgraded, not once but twice. The effect is that when it comes time to decide on salary raises, a faculty member with broad, interdisciplinary research interests is at a severe disadvantage. To put the point bluntly, interdisciplinary researchers get paid less.

Of course, in the current economic environment, faculty raises are tiny or non-existent anyway. So the effect is small for any given academic year. However, the cumulative effect over the course of an entire career is anything but small. People who have relatively narrow interests do much better financially than those with broader interests. Furthermore, even if the salary differences were negligible, it's highly demoralizing to know that your institution places low value on your work. And this is true even if it only accidentally does so.

There are more subtle ways that interdisciplinary work is discouraged. As anyone who has tried to get up to speed in a new subject would tell you, it takes time before you can be productive. You have to learn a new vocabulary, skill set, and you have to get familiar with a different literature, just to take a few examples. This means that you'll likely have a significant period of time during which your research output will slow down or stop. And that entails that you may miss out on salary raises for that time. Of course, people will quickly respond that the slowdown is only temporary, and so it won't matter in the long run. But this is not true, for exactly the same reason that we're all encouraged to start saving for retirement as early as possible. Missing a year or two of even a modest increase will have a dramatic effect in the decades ahead.

It may seem inappropriate to my fellow philosophers that I've been complaining about something as crass as money, and implying that money was an important factor in my deciding to leave academia. To this, I have three responses. First, money was an important factor in my decision, and I'm not ashamed of that. Second, allocation of financial resources is a good indicator of what a person or an institution values. If a department or a person is consistently short-changed when it comes time to decide on budgets, it's a bad sign. It indicates that your work is not a priority. This is true for universities, families, businesses, and every other kind of organization. Third, I think that philosophy departments (and the humanities in general) had better start paying more attention to money -- they're getting squeezed by universities all over the United States, and this interferes with their ability to do good work. Good work, whether it's in research or education, requires resources. Those of us in the humanities have gotten used to getting by with so little that we haven't even noticed the impact it has on our ability to do good work. If that doesn't change, we'll slowly starve to death and not even notice.

Impact

I've published in some very prestigious journals, but for a long time, I've wanted my work to have a greater impact than it has. Academic philosophy is a very small world, and like most academic specialties, it's rare for one's work to gain an audience outside of a narrow circle of specialists. To be sure, there are a few superstars whose work has had a major influence. But there are thousands upon thousands of university faculty, and only a tiny handful of those superstars.

On a couple of occasions, I've tried to initiate a collaborative research program that would have a shot at extending the reach of our work outside the usual audience. For example, I once wrote a grant proposal with the help of a colleague that was designed to start a truly collaborate effort between the departments of philosophy, economics and psychology. Generous funding was available, and we quickly got a lot of support from these other departments. What happened was very instructive for me. It was approved for a preliminary round of funding that was spent on a small conference which was quite good. But unfortunately, the terms of the grant required it to be submitted through the Chair of the department, and all communication was between the chair and the administration. My chair, predictably, had no real interest in interdisciplinary work, so there was no follow-through for subsequent (and much larger) funding rounds -- and I was too far removed from the process to take action. The conference, which had been a great success, wasn't followed by any other plans whatsoever. I think the failure to come up with a plan -- or to follow the plan in the proposal we had written -- was merely a symptom of the fact that the entire project seemed to be of rather dubious value to my department chair, and he had no experience with this kind of research.

Although it's unusual for a grant proposal to go so badly wrong (to the point where I wasn't even informed that it had been submitted, nor that it had been approved), I think it does illustrate a clear fact, namely, that you can't implement a novel initiative without a lot of buy-in from your colleagues. There's a great deal of inertia in academia, and it takes a concerted effort, a lot of resources, and the support of a lot of people in order to make these projects succeed. Without constantly pressing the issue, the department, college, or university will quickly swing back to the status quo. The assumption behind many interdisciplinary initiatives seems be that if we put smart people in contact with each other and give them some money, good work will happen. Unfortunately, this isn't true at all. The gigantic edifice of the university is at odds with any potentially disruptive effort. It's possible to overcome that inertia, but it's a Herculean task, requiring a lot of patience and a great deal of time.

That grant proposal illustrates how much psychological resistance there is to change within the university. The call for proposals indicated that there would ultimately be five awards, and they were allocated to various subject areas or colleges. One award was to be made to the College of Arts and Sciences, which is by far the largest college on my campus. At the time my colleague and I wrote our proposal, we had literally no competition from our college whatsoever. That is, ours was the only proposal that was being submitted from the entire College of Arts and Sciences. If anyone had written a competent proposal, they could have easily received millions of dollars in funding. Eventually, that component of the grant program was eliminated entirely, and nothing was given to the college. Personally, I think that the explanation for why there was no uptake on this opportunity was that the very idea of conducting potentially wide-ranging, interdisciplinary research was so foreign that the vast majority of faculty wouldn't even know how to being thinking about such a project.

In such an environment, our efforts are channeled into narrow sub-specialties, and we consign our work to a tiny audience. Despite the common talk about the importance of "disruptive research" in the university, there's no real understanding of what makes s's omething "disruptive". To disrupt anything requires going outside the normal methods for one's work, redefining what's important or interesting, and usually drawing on a wide range of data and methodologies. It almost always requires collaboration, and almost always requires going outside one's own comfort zone. But in an environment where the senior faculty and administrators have been rewarded throughout their careers for toeing their disciplinary lines, there's a lot of resistance to change. Some of that resistance is due to outright hostility, but most of it is just the result of a lack of experience and imagination.

None of this is to imply that there's no place for highly specialized work. Quite the opposite -- intellectual progress requires a combination of narrow and broad approaches to a variety of problems. However, we lose a lot of opportunity when there are powerful disincentives for conducting potentially important research.

Corporatization of the University

I've had one foot in the academic world and the other in the business world for a few years. It's been fascinating to observe the differences between the values of a small start-up and a large university. For a long time, there's been a steady flow of business expertise into public universities. At my own university, we've recently had Gary Forsee, former CEO of Sprint as President of the statewide system. Forsee happens to be widely considered one of the worst CEOs of all time, but his business experience was cited as a major qualification for his appointment as President. Our current President is Tim Wolfe, whose experience is in the private sector -- primarily as an executive for IBM. By all accounts, his business experience is nowhere near the disaster of Forsee's, but Wolfe has no advanced degree, and no first-hand experience in higher education. I don't know if Wolfe will be good for the university or not -- I've actually heard excellent things about his character and intellect, so there's hope. But it's very revealing that our Board of Curators has seen fit to appoint two businessmen as President of our entire statewide university system. Clearly, they believe that experience as a business executive is more important than experience as an educator or researcher. Whether it's a good idea or not, business expertise and values are creeping their way into universities all over the country. The University of Missouri just happens to be a particularly striking example.

Honestly, I'm not sure if the appearance of business executives in higher education is a good thing or not. I strongly suspect that it's a very bad development, coinciding with a huge increase in the number of administrators overall, a sustained attack on tenure, and increasing reliance on non-tenure track, adjunct faculty who are underpaid, overworked, and without any job security. What I am confident about is that there's no such thing as "business experience". Running a small business, founding a new start-up, and being CEO of a major corporation like Sprint are quite different propositions, requiring different skill sets, and calling for different decisions. Managing a gigantic organization of thousands of employees in a multi-billion dollar transnational is simply not at all like bootstrapping a small venture with one or two underpaid partners and a shoestring budget.

And yet, "business experience" is somehow taken as a qualification for running a university. But there's one crucial difference between being successful in running a big business and being successful in running a small business. Big businesses like Sprint or IBM, by definition, have succeeded in the current economic ecosystem. They dominate their respective sectors already, and they flourish in the status quo. Small, upstart ventures are intruders into the ecosystem, and they will succeed only if they cause some kind of disruptive change that gives them the advantage over their vastly more well-established competitors.

This difference between small and big businesses isn't a law of nature, and it's an oversimplification, to be sure. But it's a pretty good generalization with a lot of predictive power. And so we might ask what we'd expect a former CEO of a huge muti-national corporation to do when he or she is put in charge of a university. Their focus would be on marketing, cutting costs, and improving outcomes that are based on short-term economic measures. This means serving more customers with a smaller number of employees while cutting costs. A former CEO turned university president shouldn't be expected to like the institution of tenure any more than a CEO likes unions. And why should we expect the concept of "shared governance" to survive in an organization led by someone whose experience is in the most top-down, dictatorial institutions on Earth?

The answer is that we shouldn't. We're increasingly handing over power to people whose experience would naturally lead them to a conservative, short-term strategy that's based on optimizing quantifiable financial outcomes. But worst of all, we shouldn't expect someone whose experience is in leading gigantic, dominant corporations to create an environment that rewards original, interdisciplinary, potentially disruptive research. Their previous success (such as it is), is from operating in an inherently conservative environment, running an organization that thrives in the status quo.

Finally

What makes me pessimistic about my own university and public universities in the United States in general is that their inability to adapt isn't due simply to bad leadership or an unfavorable economy. It's based on structural features that are self-reinforcing. Poor leadership drawn from huge corporations, an incentive structure that favors narrow specialization, and a hostility to potentially disruptive research, all reinforce each other. Those of us whose interests don't fit into that structure have some difficult decisions to make.

[I've recently written a short follow-up post.]