Lunch with Betsy Devine: tenure, age, and folly

I finally had lunch with Betsy Devine today at the Bombay Club in Cambridge. This was a long delayed get together that was orginally intended to include Halley Suitt as well. Just as well that we ended up doing two separate lunches. I fear my head would have exploded if I had tried to keep up with both of them at the same time.

As with Halley, Betsy and I picked right up as old friends despite this being our first face-to-face meeting. Rich, stimulating conversation about education, organizations, knowledge sharing, writing, anthropology, humor, politics, science, and architecture to name just some of the topics I can remember.

One topic we talked about was what value was left in the notion of tenure in education both at the university level and below. At one point, Betsy served on the board of education in Princeton while her husband Frank was doing the research that led to his recent Nobel prize (how cool is it to get a chance to talk to someone that close to such an experience – who says blogging is a waste of time when it leads to opportunities like that?). Anyway, I was remarking on how odd tenure seemed to be when applied in public school districts. Betsy explained to me that the role of tenure in that environment was not about academic freedom but about creating some protection for older, more experienced teachers (generally women) who were otherwise at risk of being replaced by the newest crop of teachers just out of school who were not only likely to be more attractive to students and parents but much cheaper as well. I had never made that connection.

That flowed into a discussion of similar biases toward age discrimination in business organizations. That flowed into a discussion of the problems in the private sector that let organizations hold onto the profits that might accrue from replacing your aging, expensive workers with younger blood while being able to pass the broader costs of unemployed middle-aged executives with mortgages and tuitions to pay onto the society as a whole. Age discrimination laws notwithstanding, this pattern of privatizing profits and commonalizing costs is powerful and, unfortunately, rational behavior on the part of executives who are charged with putting the interests of their shareholders first. It says to me that our regulatory frameworks are broken in some important ways that will take a lot more than the trading of rhetorical positions that seems to characterize so much of our current public discourse. One reference that I want to reexamine in this context is the late Garrett Hardin’s Filters Against Folly: How to Survive Despite Economists, Ecologists, and the Merely Eloquent. I first found this slim volume about 15 years ago. It offers some excellent advice on understanding and acting on our collective responsibilities as informed laypeople in a world increasingly dominated by experts.