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As I was thinking about the question Can I slack off and get a PhD?, I realized that I wanted to say in my answer

If you want to slack off, the best time to do so is after you have received tenure as a college professor, because at that point you can't be fired except for egregious offences.

I am not yet even an assistant professor, so I don't know whether the statement above is really true.

Question: What could the negative consequences be for a professor who has just received tenure, if he were to put in the bare minimum effort needed in teaching just to achieve average teaching performance, and were to just stop doing research and publishing papers?

Note: I don't plan to slack off if I were in the future able to get a tenured position, but I am just curious what happens to those professors who do.

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    I would think the answer to this question is very much dependent on the context, different countries (and even different universities) might have varying regulations that might punish slacking off more or less. – tomasz Jan 25 '15 at 12:35
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    If you want to slack off, that's a strong indicator you don't like your position in the first place. Sad life will follow. – Carl Witthoft Jan 26 '15 at 1:48
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I think the first question is, what does "slack off" really mean? Many professors do change their priorities after tenure for a slower paced approach to their work more in line with their own intellectual values. Many things that might be perceived as "slacking off" in a pre-tenure professor actually do have value and are much easier to pursue post-tenure, e.g., dedicating more time to students and teaching rather than research, or taking a slower pace to try to figure out an angle on deeper and harder to address issues.

But let's assume that our hypothetical professor is just saying, "I got mine, and I'm going to do the absolute minimum hereafter!" Here are some of the non-firing consequences:

  • Not getting grants, it will be hard to have students.
  • Their professional prestige will plummet, and anything they do want to do will get harder.
  • They may get stuck with unpleasant scut-work tasks for the department, and will have more responsibilities foisted on them because "they have the time" that their harder working colleagues do not.
  • They will not get promotion to higher academic ranks, nor the accompanying pay rises.

Some people may actually be comfortable with this, and having a person who's given up ambition and embraced a comfortable position as the organization's reliable clean-up detail can actually be a good thing, as it takes those tasks away from others who have more ambition.

But what if the slacker professor really doesn't care, and does a poor (but not quite enough to be fired) job at all the tasks they are assigned by the department? Well, every organization has ways to make a person's life hell without firing them. In the next departmental reorganization, the slacker professor might find themselves getting moved to a small lightless basement office, the administrative staff may ignore requests for assistance, colleagues may simply treat the person as a pariah. Few people last long in an actively hostile workplace, and it may be harder to fire a person than to make them quit...

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    They may get stuck with unpleasant scut-work tasks for the department In my experience the opposite of this is true. People who slack off in their primary responsibilities (teaching and/or research) are often the same people who never do any committee work. They will not get promotion to higher academic ranks, nor the accompanying pay rises. At my school, promotion and pay are based entirely on seniority and education. – Ben Crowell Jan 25 '15 at 15:43
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    Indeed, my department is similar to Ben's. The slackers in my department aren't widely respected, and are not very influential in matters where they voice an opinion (which they usually don't). But their life is not "hell". – Anonymous Jan 25 '15 at 16:12
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    @Anonymous Sure... lots of departments are comfortable carrying some dead weight... – jakebeal Jan 25 '15 at 16:33
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Teaching

In general, schools have no way of measuring performance or effort in teaching. They can try to do it by using student evaluations, but student evaluations don't actually measure effort or performance. People get good evaluations by giving high grades and giving polished presentations. If you've taught freshman calculus a dozen times, and all you do is walk into the classroom and deliver the same canned lecture year after year, your teaching evaluations will be fine, even though you're putting in zero effort. Another way to get good teaching evaluations is to give scantron tests and tell your students what will be on them. There is some good material on this topic in the book Academically Adrift, by Arum and Roksa. They cite an implicit contract between teachers and students: "I'll leave you alone if you'll leave me alone."

Research

I think this varies quite a bit from school to school. First off, not all schools really care about research. For example, California has a three-tiered system, consisting of UC, Cal State, and community colleges. At community colleges, research is neither expected nor supported. At Cal States, some research is required in order to obtain tenure, but over all there is very little emphasis on research. So at many schools, the consequences of ceasing to do research are zero.

Other answers have suggested that if you slack off, you will not receive promotions and pay raises, and will be stuck with scutwork. Again, this depends on the school. At my school, promotions and pay raises are on a set schedule, which is negotiated by the union and depends only on seniority and education. In my experience, people who avoid working hard on their primary responsibilities of teaching and/or research are the same people who avoid committee work.

In summary, my experience is that external incentives tend, if anything, to be anticorrelated with the quality of one's work as a tenured professor. People who do a good job and work hard are doing it because of their own internal motivations.

  • It's interesting that when promotions and pay raises occur on a fixed schedule, then they cannot be used to reward/punish a professor for working hard/not working hard. – I Like to Code Jan 26 '15 at 0:49
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I believe the consequence question has been answered here:

In practice, how secure is a tenured position in the US?

I'd just like to add that I believe the overall, industry reaction to "tenured slackers" is that tenure track positions are rapidly declining. Nobody, but nobody wants to be saddled with a slacker for life.

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    tenure track positions are rapidly declining This sounds false to me, although it may be true in some places. Here in the US, I believe there was a big drop in tenured positions ca. 1970, and since then it's stayed about the same. – Ben Crowell Jan 25 '15 at 15:45
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    @Ben Crowell - Thanks Ben. Here's an article that will flesh things out much better than I did agb.org/trusteeship/2013/5/changing-academic-workforce – Inquisitive Jan 25 '15 at 16:26
  • The article is interesting, but its statistics compare 1969 with 2009. My impression is that the big shift happened near the beginning of that period. But I'm sure it depends on the country, system, and school. For example, California set a faculty obligation number (FON) for community colleges in 1989, and since then there has been a gradual increase in teaching by tenured faculty, as the FON target has gone up and colleges have gradually come into compliance. Some schools have complied more fully with the spirit of the law, while others have found loopholes. – Ben Crowell Jan 26 '15 at 17:42
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Some consequences may be: minimal raises; more teaching assignments; administrative duties. Perhaps it is not a desire to "slack off", maybe they just lost the "spark" (or the funding) for research. And they are eager to pull their weight by doing other things.

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Their students will suffer. And, their ranking on ratemyprofessor.com will most certainly go down causing people to avoid their classes. Probably not the type of answer you were looking for, but true nevertheless.

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