Not all university scientists are so blessed as to acquire multiple research grant awards, have dozens of research students and collaborators working in their laboratory, produce 5-10 new research publications every year, and easily advance right up the career ladder. Most faculty researchers work hard to achieve some fame while dealing with the large problems involving time, money, and integrity. To demonstrate the perverse atmosphere now commonly present at too many modern universities, I will describe here some eye-opening stories from the life of two fictitious members of the science faculty at some large state university in the USA. I will not hold anything back, and do not exaggerate anything. These stories are very realistic since they are based on actual faculty scientists I have known during my own career as a university scientist; although the stories will be difficult for many adults to believe, these episodes can be considered typical of the undeserved problems facing today’s modern academic scientists.
Joseph H. Smith, Ph.D.
Joe Smith is a 42 year-old tenured Associate Professor in the Department of Chemistry & Biochemistry. Every year, he gives lectures and teaches laboratories for both the very large undergraduate chemistry course and the biochemistry course; he also presents an advanced graduate course in Environmental Biochemistry. In addition, Joe serves as Director of Graduate Studies for his department. He has a research grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) that provides salaries for 3 graduate students and one Postdoctoral Research Fellow; he has successfully renewed his grant one time. Joe’s salary is quite decent and he manages to stay home on weekends to be with his family of 5. Joe enjoys his research work immensely and is respected by other scientists in his very specialized field. His departmental colleagues all consider Joe to be a successful scientist, a good teacher, and a friendly associate. Joe feels confident that he has nearly achieved enough to merit promotion to become a Full Professor. On the surface nobody has any reason at all to suspect that Joe is not fully successful or is troubled by anything in his career.
Unexpected events occur (i.e., shit does happen!)
One day, to his enormous surprise, Joe is notified by an official letter that his application for the second renewal of his NIH research grant has been approved, but cannot be funded (i.e., his priority score is below the cutoff). This means that his Postdoc must finish her work, get manuscripts submitted, and leave within 6 more months. Two of his 3 graduate students are just starting their training, and so decide to move out of his lab to start working with a different professor. Joe therefore decides that he now must start working on weekends to compensate for his new much smaller research staff. He also immediately begins work on a new research grant application; Joe is dismayed to see that there are only 5 more months before the next deadline for submission. After changing his own work schedule, Joe comes to realize that he now is extraordinarily short on time in his new situation, since he also has upcoming deadlines for revising 2 manuscripts, submitting abstracts for a science meeting, finishing revision of the Department’s graduate training booklet, mentoring a new Assistant Professor in his Department, and revising all the student handouts for his class lectures for the forthcoming semester. To put it mildly, Joe now is extremely busy and begins to feel somewhat stressed.
A new character enters this drama
The Chairman of Joe’s department is a famous old chemist who is well-liked by his entire faculty. The old professor suddenly has a heart attack and must retire. The search for a replacement succeeds in attracting a middle-aged bright and very ambitious polymer chemist. This new Chair soon announces that his academic unit now will be renamed as the Department of Chemistry and Polymer Science, and that the biochemistry course now will be listed only by the Department of Biological Science; Joe will continue working in that course despite these changes. Nobody voices any dissent or concerns about these changes, and Joe initially does not perceive any bad consequences for himself.
During his first interview, the new Chair explains to Joe that the Dean wants him to modernize and rejuvenate this old department, and so he must act vigorously to get this done. Several distressing pronouncements then are given to Joe: (1) if he cannot win a new grant award within 6 months then Joe’s laboratory assignment will be terminated, (2) Joe will stop directing the graduate student training program, so as to give him more time to work on his new grant applications, and, (3) in recognition of his long service at this university, the new Chair is prepared to write a salutary letter of recommendation on Joe’s behalf should he ever need to apply for a new position elsewhere. Joe is startled to hear all this, but does not comment. The new Chair then continues that he wants to make room for several new faculty appointments in polymer chemistry, and so more lab space will soon be needed for those newcomers. The new Chair ends the conference by smiling and telling Joe, “Please let me know if I can help you with anything!”
Joe initially wonders what all of this means. After discussions with other faculty in his department, he starts to realize what is going on and exactly what now is happening to him. Through no fault of his own, Joe the biochemist suddenly has become an “odd man out” in the new regime. Joe starts to feel increasingly uneasy and worried about his career.
About 6 weeks later, the new Chair calls Joe in for another private conference. Joe has since gotten advice from several senior faculty members and feels fully prepared to protect his status. However, he is utterly shocked when his Chair opens by announcing that Joe’s efforts with his new situation are progressing too slowly. The Chair pauses and leans over to look very closely at Joe, and then continues in a somber voice, “I expect a lot from all my faculty, Joe, and I have been trying to help you. However, I must tell you that if you cannot be more reasonable and accept all I suggest, then you might be officially investigated for insubordination! We need to work together here! I also am wondering if maybe you should now try to find a new job somewhere else?” The new Chair then again ends the session by smiling and telling Joe, “Please let me know if I can help you with anything!”
Joe becomes very upset. All his actions to be a good member of the faculty now seem to count for nothing with his new Boss. Joe cannot believe he really heard that last query and so replies, “You are very wrong about me! I have always done a good job here and am a successful faculty member! I publish my research results in good journals, serve my employer, and receive good reviews from the students for my teaching! Furthermore, I don’t have to take this crap from you, since I am tenured! You can’t just push me out!” The Chair smiles and calmly replies, “Yes indeed, but you now appear to be slowing down and deactivating. Since I was hired to reform this moribund department, we have no use for slackers or dead wood. I myself have several big research grants and publish many full articles every year. I certainly expect my entire faculty to be as productive and successful as I am! Please be more cooperative, Joe! You must try harder to do much better! ”
My analysis of Dr. Joe Smith
Joe Smith certainly is a good person and a good faculty scientist. He suddenly finds himself put into a very difficult situation in the reorganized department. He clearly is at a disadvantage in resolving this problem because he has always been sincere, honorable, and committed; unfortunately for Joe, this type of situation in academia involves another world that is based on power, deceit, personal politics, and aggressive actions. Thankfully, not all universities have this type of situation occurring with aggressive leaders who are power-hungry and duplicitous, but some most certainly do so.
Won’t academic tenure protect Joe Smith? Achieving tenured rank in universities very often is taken by the public as the golden protector of an academic career. In theory, academic tenure protects and enables faculty freedom (i.e., ability to hold and announce any conclusion or belief, no matter how controversial that is). In practice, tenure only goes so far and really can be only an empty promise. There are at least a dozen ways that academic tenure can be negated, ignored, superseded, or limited. Like many other perfectly good academic scientists, Joe Smith learns about this aspect of faculty life only through his actual personal involvement in the new situation described above.
New chairpersons often are given a mandate to reform and improve some dusty university department. They seem to have a strong general tendency to hire and then favor “my new faculty”, instead of also putting effort into improving the activities of their inherited faculty. Certainly, some older faculty members with high salaries often are not so modern or productive enough, but that does not mean that those employees should be booted out with no regard for their earlier accomplishments. Truly good leaders in universities are able to deal with these issues in an effective manner without causing the undeserved problem that Joe Smith innocently ran into.
It is very likely that the new Chair will try to remove Joe in one way or another. I believe it is unlikely that Joe can win this conflict. Even if he does manage to retain his position, he will be labelled as a troublemaker, his salary will be reduced, and any of his requests for assistance will be rejected. A grievance or lawsuit is unexpected to help Joe. He is too young to take early retirement. Joe simply is trapped, and I see only 2 possible ways for him to escape doom. One possibility is that Joe might be able to transfer his status and tenure into the Department of Biological Sciences; his ongoing major teaching role for their large biochemistry course provides strong support justifying moving Joe into that department. A second possibility for this innocent scientist is to seek a new position with a different employer where he and his work are not viewed with such hostility; this is not easy to do until he gets funded again, but is the only effective way to totally remove his very negative situation with his current employer.
Concluding remarks for Part I
All readers are urged to accept that the very distressing situation encountered by Joe Smith actually does happen in modern universities. Yes, university scientists live a dangerous life because unexpected changes can and do occur easily. Being a good and hard-working research scientist at universities or being tenured does not offer much protection against such unanticipated predicaments. Acquiring several research grant awards simultaneously now gives more protection to the career of a university scientist than does academic tenure. I emphasize that Joe Smith is innocent of any wrongdoing, and is simply a victim of perverse circumstances.
This disgusting situation is not unique to Joe Smith or to any of the hundreds of universities in the USA. In the forthcoming Part II, I will relate a different fictional story that also is strongly based upon real university scientists I have known.
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