Abandoning Tenure's Golden Handcuffs


I gave up tenure last summer after an excruciating year of fighting against budget cuts for the writing program I directed. I was told that, to save money, students would have only one semester of writing instead of two and that the program’s full-time professors would, over time, be replaced by adjuncts.  It’s a familiar tale:  most members of the university’s faculty were “untouchable” because of tenure, and the untenured writing faculty stood out to the provost like a beacon.

Of course, programs have been cut many times, and their tenured directors seldom, if ever, give up tenure in protest. But I felt deceived and depleted by the upper administration’s baseless about-face: a year earlier, our program had been lauded as a cost-effective triumph. However, when visible cuts needed to be made, the program’s tiny group of faculty, among the lowest paid in the institution, who served 100% of the students, was targeted as a source of the university’s multimillion-dollar budget woes. When a casual inquiry at a local high school led to an interview and then a job offer, I decided to take it and let the university know why I was leaving.

The Chronicle of Higher Ed reported the story, and I began to hear from people around the country, largely with comments like “Good for you!” or “Finally, a tenured professor willing to stand up for contingent labor issues.” But a number of comments were critical, and those fell into three primary categories that I have considered deeply during the past year:

  1. That’s one fewer tenure line for the university to have to deal with.

Yes, the university is no longer locked into my tenure line. I was not replaced by a tenure-track faculty member, so my leaving did indeed give the provost a financial gift and eliminate  one hard-earned tenure line from my department.

Yet I believe we must look at tenure from multiple directions. As much as it is a commitment from the university to its faculty, it is also a kind of imprisonment.  One of my former colleagues is fond of saying, “Tenure is the right to be abused in perpetuity.” My problem was not, however, that I was being abused, but that I was being asked to abuse others.  I was expected to hire talented professors at unconscionable wages so that administrators and some tenured colleagues could continue to earn obscene salaries; to a lesser degree, I was also expected to lie to students, telling them that they were getting the best education money could buy.

The upper administrators never imagined that I would actually give up tenure.  They assumed that I would put up a fuss about adjuncts and then proceed to hire them, because that’s what tenured professors in cash-strapped universities do. They believed that investing in me with tenure and a living wage was enough and that I, in exchange, would turn away from the injustice being done to contingent faculty.

My unwillingness to fall into line came as something of a shock to the university, which had seen me as a fixture in the program, someone who would continue to do my work regardless of the conditions to which it was sunk.

Disabusing administrators of the notion that a tenured professor will accept any level of degradation is itself worthwhile. The university valued my contributions, and my leaving showed them, and others, that leaving is a real possibility, even for professors apparently shackled by privilege.

  1. If the fighters leave, who will remain to defend what’s left?

This point, more than any other, tormented me as I made my decision. I was the single barrier between my full-time contingent colleagues and their unemployment.

But then it was over: all but two of them were not renewed; of those two, one had a year left on her contract and would likely not be renewed regardless of our arguments in her favor, and the other had her contract extended in order to take my place. I could have stayed to fight for the program itself, but that, too, was gone.

I tried to envision what staying would mean: over the coming years, I would rebuild our decimated program. The provost would leave or be fired in a year or two, and we might get a provost more sensitive to education. Over time, I would hire full-time faculty members to replace the ones we lost. We would conduct hours of professional development together, as we had done with the previous cohort, and we would assess our program repeatedly, proving its effectiveness, as we had also done. We would pilot new courses, teach workshops across the curriculum, lead thoughtful orientation sessions, partner with librarians to develop information literacy programming, and all the other things we had done, and been commended for, previously.

We would begin to feel comfortable with our work and satisfied with the state of the program.  And then a massively overpaid president or provost or vice president would determine that something needed to be cut, and he would look around and see a program staffed by non-tenured faculty and think, “Aha, that looks easy.”  And it would all be gone again.

The other possibility — that I would be able to convince the university to build a writing program of tenured faculty — would not happen in my lifetime.  I believe the only choices I faced in staying were the Sisyphean task of rebuilding and watching our work and our people destroyed, again and again, or not having it rebuilt at all and retreating into a program staffed entirely by mistreated adjuncts, a line I simply refused to cross.

My other constituents, the students, deserve better than they’re getting too, but I hope they will protest their lessened educations or choose another university that will serve them better, with greater integrity. They, unlike adjunct faculty, have the purchasing power to make other decisions or to effect change.

If my faculty were still present and relying on me, I’m not sure I could have left. But without them, remaining to fight for the mere idea of a writing program seemed empty and purposeless.

  1. Quitting is retreat: it shows they won.

On some level, yes.  They beat me.  The program is gone. The people are gone. The university saved its pittance of money and was able to announce that it “did” something towards balancing the budget (although everyone, including the students, realizes that the fix was a financial joke and actually accomplished nothing but a lessening of the education). The troublemaker who fought the university is gone. But is that truly a victory for the upper administration?

To me, at best, it seems like a draw. I am not saying my loss is insurmountable; I believe it was lamented this year and may be for another year or two, at most.  And then, I will be forgotten at the university, as is wont to happen. But my leaving had some effect, on the morale of others around me, many of whom are now looking for jobs elsewhere, and on the administration, which learned that valued faculty members can and will leave when pushed too far.

I hope it may make a difference at other universities, too, which may begin to find that tenure is no longer the guarantee of a fixed faculty that it once was. Tenured professors elsewhere can threaten to leave, and mean it, offering the possibility that administrators will have to watch how far they push. Believing in the fair treatment of faculty is not enough, nor is offering it lip service; professors have to be willing to say that they will not perpetuate such treatment nor stand by as it occurs.

Tenure often feels like a state in which we permanently trade choice for privilege. But, as I learned this year, choices can still be made.

13 thoughts on “Abandoning Tenure's Golden Handcuffs

  1. An excellent and principled article. One small question nags at my mind, though: without the offer of a job elsewhere, would you have felt so clear about leaving?

    • Great question! Given my background, initially it hadn’t occurred to me that I would leave without an academic post at another university. Giving up tenure for anything outside of academia seemed pretty insane. But as the situation got worse, I realized I could just look for some other job of whatever type I was able to do. As it turns out, teaching high school is great in a lot of ways (which I’ll post about soon), but taking that job was a real leap of faith.

      Would I have left without ANY other job, though? No, I wouldn’t have. Maybe that’s its own hypocrisy, but I felt that opening my job search so far outside of parameters that had seemed fixed, given my doctorate and tenure and salary, was still a sacrifice. I’m not sure I needed to commit myself to unemployment (and, if so, for how long?) in order to make the point, although I do, of course, recognize that many of my faculty members were in just that position. I actually devoted a significant portion of my last few months at the university to helping them find other jobs, which, happily, they all have.

  2. Gillian, I don’t think you need to second-guess yourself or your decision. You did what you needed to do, which is your right. If tenure is seen as a pair of handcuffs, we have big problems. That said, I don’t think it’s right to say you abandoned tenure. It’s not like you kept your old job, but agreed to give up your tenured status. That would have been awful! Instead, you decided — as many others have, for a wide variety of reasons — to move on to another job in another field that you hope will be less stressful and more rewarding, even if it might have weaker job security. A reasonable choice that people make. But you changed careers; you didn’t abandon tenure. Maybe a petty distinction, but a real one, I think.

    • Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Hank. I think to reduce my move simply to taking a “less stressful and more rewarding” job misses the point. I suppose on some extremely generic and partial level that’s true, but what matters here is WHY I felt the need to leave. Yes, lots of people leave jobs for lots of reasons, but I believe that my reasons identify a systemic problem in higher education that is often ignored because the people with voices in our field (tenured professors) don’t often enough articulate or stand against the oppression of those in our field whose voices are silenced (contingent professors). Why are they silenced? Because of issues related to job security, which you present in your comment as incidental but which, I believe, are actually central to all of higher education today.

      Whether “abandoned” is precisely the right word is a semantic question worth consideration, but I don’t believe that giving up tenure — even to switch to an entirely different career — is the same as simply switching careers. The many, many people with whom I’ve spoken in academia agree. Tenure is indeed a pair of handcuffs, and we do indeed have big problems: about that we apparently agree!

      • I think we do basically agree. I understand that you did not simply leave your position. You resigned in protest and, via this post (and perhaps by other means as well) sought to publicize your decision and the problems to which it was a response. I both respect and admire you for that. For the past several years I’ve been speaking and writing about these issues — and devoting much of my life to organizing around them. For two examples, see my post, “Is It Time to Abandon Tenure” (https://academeblog.org/2016/07/07/is-it-time-to-abandon-tenure/), which immediately preceded yours on this blog, or for a somewhat fuller presentation my article, “Does Academic Freedom Have a Future?” (https://www.aaup.org/article/does-academic-freedom-have-future#.V4J5hqLELYg) in the November-December Academe.

        But I can’t agree that tenure is “a pair of handcuffs,” because I fear this formulation — and this was my original concern about your post — intentionally or not feeds a reactionary narrative that says the biggest problem in academia, the source of such evils as the rise of student debt, cost inflation, administrative bloat, and the exploitation of “adjuncts,” is an “outdated” and elitist tenure system and that tenured faculty, not anti-intellectual politicians and corporate-style administrators are the “enemy.” To be sure, too many tenured faculty members are far too timid, even cowardly, to speak about and fight against these evils, although I sense this is beginning to change. In my career (I’m now retired), colleagues often praised me for my “bravery” in standing up to the administration. “Brave?” I’d usually respond. “I’m a tenured full professor in a unionized faculty, I don’t need very much courage to speak out and neither do you!” If tenured faculty members fail to speak out in support of their contingent colleagues — and themselves! — it is certainly not because they lack job security or even because they fear they will lose it.

        If anyone believes that without tenure such colleagues might suddenly muster new courage and that entire faculties hired on short-term, often part-time, contracts will be in a stronger position to stand up for what is right, then I have a wealthy aristocrat willing to send them $5 million if they only wire just $10,000 to a foreign post office box. Tenure isn’t perfect, but it’s designed to protect both the academic freedom and the basic security of faculty and the biggest problem is not that it may “handcuff” a few but that there are not enough faculty who enjoy those privileges and, even worse, far too few who even have the opportunity to try for it.

        Again, I don’t fault your response to this situation. Indeed, as I’ve said, I admire you for it. But what do you think would be the result if your action became a general rule, if everyone “abandoned tenure’s golden handcuffs” in protest? Would it solve anything? No, it would simply make matters far, far worse. Yes, tenured faculty members enjoy a privileged status. But does abandoning that “privilege” change anything for the rest? Only a small fraction of today’s work force enjoys the benefits and protections of a union contract. Those who don’t are most often in a far more vulnerable and weaker position. But is the answer for the union members to abandon their unions? Or is it to fight harder to extend union protections to the rest of the work force, to the benefit of all, unionized and not-yet-unionized? In the past some union members, for instance in the building trades, fought mainly to protect the gains they had won for themselves and not to extend them to others. In the end they lost much of what they had. Hopefully the union movement has learned a lesson from that experience. And it’s a lesson that we tenured faculty members now need to learn too, which is, I think, our most fundamental point of agreement.

        But I suspect you don’t really disagree. Thank you for this fruitful exchange and for your provocative and thoughtful post.

  3. Reblogged this on MMontserratblog and commented:
    “We would begin to feel comfortable with our work and satisfied with the state of the program. And then a massively overpaid president or provost or vice president would determine that something needed to be cut, and he would look around and see a program staffed by non-tenured faculty and think, “Aha, that looks easy.” And it would all be gone again.”

  4. Reading this reminded me of a similar situation with the music department at the university my son attended. It was heartbreaking to see the program gutted and the non-tenured faculty members let go or cut back to part-time. Meanwhile new administrative positions were being created to “solve” issues plaguing the university. I wish you all the best in your new career as a high school teacher!

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