On June 6, Tamar Lewis wrote an article for the New York Times titled “Colleges Re-Evaluate the Concept of Tenure.” I came across the article, however, in the Seattle Times, where it had been republished.
The premise of the article is expressed succinctly in the teaser: “In an era of rapid change, long life spans, economic strains and a dwindling college-age population, there is a high cost to awarding professors lifetime job guarantees.” But the impetus for the article was very clearly the radical attack on tenure by Scott Walker and Far Right legislators in Wisconsin.
Although Lewis is very right to consider whether Walker’s action may be replicated elsewhere, she distorts the discussion by accepting as a baseline the arguments against tenure offered by such ideologues who wish to eliminate academic freedom and by administrators who wish to reduce and even eliminate shared governance.
Less than 30% of the professoriate is now tenured or on a tenure line. So, the attacks on tenure parallel the attacks on unions in that both would have made much more sense 35 to 50 years ago, when about 30% of American workers were members of unions and about 70% of faculty were tenured or tenure-track. When only about 6% of the private-sector workforce is unionized, the idea that an individual’s “right to work” is impeded by unions is ludicrous. Likewise, when less than 30% of the faculty are tenured, the idea that tenure is an impediment to anything but the absolutely complete corporatization of higher education is ludicrous.
Indeed, so few faculty are now tenured or tenure-track that the financial “flexibility” to be accrued from eliminating tenure are very minimal within the context of the total university budget. At my university, the, total compensation and benefits of tenured and tenure-track faculty account for about 13% of the $420 million annual budget. And my university is not atypical. So, that’s clearly not where the budgetary “fat” is.
Moreover, the tenure lines within the disciplines that have the lowest enrollments have already been pruned. Ask new Ph.D.s in a long list of disciplines, not just in the humanities and social sciences but also in education and even the sciences, how easy it has been to find a tenure-track position. Or ask the members of the few search committees for tenure-track positions in such disciplines how many applications they have received for those positions. At the annual meeting, an acquaintance who teaches at a small, private college told me that for a philosophy position advertised this past year, they had received more than 500 applications.
The imperative that institutions must have the “flexibility” to deal with “rapid change” would be more convincing if those who are advancing that argument most pointedly were not also willing to defend or to ignore the now deeply entrenched administrative bureaucracies in our institutions. Very few administrators ever get fired. Even when they are being pushed out for being incompatible or incompetent (and the standard for the former seems to be much higher than for the latter), they are usually “re-positioned” to allow them an opportunity to focus on acquiring a new position. For instance, at my university, several unsuccessful provosts have been given new positions as executive vice presidents to permit them to job hunt without pointed disadvantage, and both eventually found positions as university presidents elsewhere.
In several other posts, I have written about why the “rapid change” mantra of corporate America—in particular of the technology sector—is a grossly inappropriate model for higher education. But, if it is going to be imposed on higher education, it seems to me that it would make much more sense to impose it very aggressively on the administrative side, rather than on the instructional side.
When total compensation and benefits for all faculty—tenure-eligible and not, full- and part-time—account for less than a quarter or even a fifth of most institutional budgets, the “economic strains” on colleges are clearly coming from someplace else. Although administrative bloat is clearly a significant factor, the primary factor in the rise in tuition and student debt has been the decline is state support for higher education.
So, ironically and shamelessly, the same radical political ideologues who are demanding solutions to the problem are the very people who have largely created the problem. They have prioritized tax cuts for the wealthy and the expansion of “corporate welfare” over public services and public institutions and especially over public education. Not coincidentally, the affluent class is also profiting directly and enormously from the privatization of public services and public education. On the other hand, most of us have not benefitted very much if at all from these “anti-tax” policies simply because privatized services still need to be paid for by someone.
Pointing to declining pools of traditional students as a cause of the “economic strain” on our institutions would be more convincing if the ideologues and administrators making that case were not in other arguments proposing technological “solutions” to the “problems” facing higher education and emphasizing the expanding demand for continuing, if not lifelong, education.
Likewise, the argument that faculty in tenured positions are simply living to an inconveniently advanced age and hanging on too long would be more convincing if the ideologues and administrators making it were not also cutting faculty pensions and eliminating the tenure lines that provide the best compensation and benefits.
In short, if you listen to people who shamelessly speak out of both sides of their mouths and don’t hear the self-serving inconsistencies and outright contradictions in the totality of their arguments, then no cochlear implant or brain transplant is probably going to make much difference.
But that’s not a problem attributable to tenure either.
Tamar Lewis’ complete article is available at: http://www.seattletimes.com/nation-world/colleges-re-evaluate-the-concept-of-tenure/.