Expand Tenure, Don’t Weaken It

When Clark Ross sent me “Toward a New Consensus for Tenure in the Twenty-First Century” for possible inclusion in Academe, I was immediately interested. Not only was I seeing the ramping up of attacks on tenure but I have always felt the system too weak, if anything. My family moved every couple of years as I was growing up because of my father’s radical beliefs within his field, politically and in teaching methodology. Had tenure been more broadly applied, my life would certainly have been different and my father’s career, I suspect, would have been more successful. One of the reasons I did not start an academic career myself until in my fifties was that, naturally enough, I did not trust it.

When I did teach in those early years, it was mostly as an adjunct. Over two decades (more off than on), I taught at eight schools—and was not re-appointed at four of them. I didn’t really understand (or care) that adjuncts are supposed to keep their heads down and do no more than not draw notice.

The ways I have seen highly trained professional maltreated within academic institutions are stupefying in their numbers. Faculty members who, themselves often with no background in teaching pedagogy and no record of good teaching on their own, too frequently take advantage of “peer observations” to demolish fellow teachers. Students who, not liking the demands put on them in the classroom, sometimes organize punitive student evaluations. Administrators who, wanting only certain types of professors around them, block re-appointments more often than an outsider might suspect. Bullying of faculty is so normal within academia that it is hardly commented on. From the top research institutions to the most humble of community colleges, teachers and scholars put up with intimidation, unreasonable workplace demands and much more, too many of them losing their jobs as a result not of their value to their students or to scholarship but of displeasing someone for some murky “reason” or another.

The way tenure is constituted today, it is something that has to be “earned” within the particular institution, generally through six years of renewed one-year contracts and the meeting of certain scholarly benchmarks specific to one’s field and the fulfillment of sustained “service” to the institution. In the meantime, however, one is particularly vulnerable. A promising career is easily sabotaged.

Yet those in precarious positions on the “tenure track” are the lucky ones. Most college teachers today are neither tenured nor on the tenure track (only a little more than a fifth are) but are working either on contingent and/or otherwise limited contracts or are part-time adjuncts with almost no rights at all. It is easier to simply not re-hire these instructors than to deal with any problems that might come up relating to them. Let them disappear; there’s always someone else to cover the courses.

“Due process” is not considered their right. Avenues of appeal, for the most part, don’t exist.

Instead of trying to expand rights of tenure in one form or another to a greater percentage of the faculty (it is half what is was just forty years ago), what we are seeing today are attempts to limit tenure even further, even though, as the New York Times editorial board writes, weakening tenure, as Scott Walker is trying to do in Wisconsin:

will damage the university, perhaps irreparably. It will make it harder to recruit top-tier faculty members, who have the pick of other institutions that respect academic independence and where they do not have to fear dismissal for taking controversial views or for doing research that might be frowned upon by politicians.

If we want to keep American universities among the best in the world, we need to be finding ways of expanding tenure, not cutting it back. This is what Michael Bérubé and Jennifer Ruth propose:

Bérubé and Ruth assert in The Humanities, Higher Education and Academic Freedom: Three Necessary Arguments (Palgrave Macmillan), the real crisis in the humanities is the large-scale employment of non-tenure-track professors with no academic freedom who are hired, rehired and fired relatively informally and noncompetitively. Bérubé and Ruth also propose a solution to the “deprofessionalization” of the professoriate: a teaching-intensive tenure track that would grandfather long-serving adjuncts but for everyone else prioritize the competitive hiring of those with terminal degrees.

The flexibility Bérubé and Ruth are looking for is also important to Ross:

Many reasonable individuals are talking about new models for addressing the simplistic and unnecessary binary choice between “senior tenured faculty over the age of seventy” and “per-course adjuncts barely paid the legal minimum wage.” In the future, it is likely that institutions will develop varying blends of faculty categories to meet their educational objectives and the needs of the faculty they employ. The most successful institutions will match institutional purpose with course and curricular offerings and with corresponding types of faculty appointments. There will not be a standard model of faculty employment; rather, different ones will be tailored to institutional objectives.

None of this can happen, however, if proposals like the Wisconsin one are allowed to stand. Whether we are tenured, on the tenure track, teaching on a term-limited appointment or scrambling about as an adjunct at a variety of schools, all of us should want to see tenure preserved—and expanded. That it is, right now, good for only a few doesn’t mean that we should not be fighting to make it good for everyone. Certainly, we should all be fighting to stop its further erosion by legislation of the sort being enacted right now in Madison.

3 thoughts on “Expand Tenure, Don’t Weaken It

  1. Thanks so much for this and for your wise posts in general. What scares me right now is that with the shrinking of the number of people with tenure, fewer and fewer people seem to understand why it’s so important. People who have seen their parent’s career suffer for radical beliefs or seen the way people will try to squeeze someone off the teaching roster from petty animosity get it. But too many people have begun to think of it as a privilege or perk that serves no collective purpose. There are things I wouldn’t have published and lines of inquiry in the classroom I wouldn’t have pursued if I did not have tenure. But, even more importantly, tenure has made it possible for me to articulate difficult but, to my mind, necessary positions in service and governance. If we want the majority of the professoriate to participate in service and governance (or have the right/opportunity if they wish to), and I think we do, then we must expand tenure so as to strengthen the integrity of our institutions.

  2. I’m so fascinated by what is clearly a pretty sharp distinction in the way that we perceive tenure from our different perspectives. Though my dad got and held it, the whole process seemed terribly “high stakes” and, frankly, really scary to me. Once I finished my PhD, I was delighted to have the opportunity to come back to my undergrad school and teach on yearly and multi-year contracts. I also have to confess to being exceptionally fortunate in that I am surrounded by administrators who make me feel secure and supported even without tenure. I’m also active in governance. So, in my mind, I have so much more freedom to, for example, publish on non-trendy topics, or take up controversies in class, than I would if the university had vested a great deal in me and was attentively monitoring my every move. In some ways, I’m just not “expensive” enough to merit many people really fussing over everything I do. I’m paid, I believe, very fairly, and some of my projects are supported by the college, so I feel a sense of ethical responsibility to stay right on the same page with them there. But my research, in this current system, is just sort of “gravy” so I can do or not do a lot of different things without pressure. Admittedly, I’m hardly a radical or polarizing intellectual figure, but I do appreciate the sort of independence I have. That’s not to say that it might not be wonderful to one day have tenure….it’s just the actual drama of the process of getting there that absolutely frightens me. I’m right now, for example, waiting to hear from some peer reviewed journals and am able to deal with long waits and possible rejection precisely because I won’t be “fired” if I don’t get them…only “good” can come of it. Successful publishing might help solidify my administrators’ faith in my scholarly abilities so that I get even more fun opportunities (study abroad, new corses in my area, etc.). So, from the perspective of a very, VERY lucky lecturer (one among several, our department does a great job making opportunities for leadership and innovation available to people who seek them) who has had great administrative mentors recognizing, nurturing, and drawing out my best abilities, I’m sort of on the fence about the whole tenure conversion idea…

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