Tenure Tracks and Terminal Degrees: A Reply to Maisto and Kahn


The May-June issue of Academe included Maria Maisto’s and Seth Kahn’s review of Michael Bérubé’s and Jennifer Ruth’s 2015 book The Humanities, Higher Education, and Academic Freedom: Three Necessary Arguments.

What follows is a rejoinder from Bérubé and Ruth. A response from Maisto and Kahn will be published on this blog shortly.

We are grateful for Maria Maisto’s and Seth Kahn’s response to our book, The Humanities, Higher Education, and Academic Freedom: Three Necessary Arguments. Reviews of our book have been few and far between (this is only the third, and by far the most engaging and detailed), and we had begun to worry that the book had disappeared into an ideological vacuum. Nobody, it seemed, wanted to discuss a book that proposes moving contingent faculty onto a teaching-intensive tenure track–and the few discussions we have seen so far, consisting only of blog posts and comment threads in the higher-ed press in response to our own essays about the book, have been dominated by people who apparently think that because we are tenured, we are somehow proposing a plan that would prevent contingent faculty from doing research. So we are happy to have a serious discussion at last.

And we reply for that reason–to continue the discussion. It will probably not come as a surprise that we disagree with Maisto’s and Kahn’s disagreements with us, but we’d like to explain why.

The first has to do with the value of terminal degrees. Maisto and Kahn apparently don’t see much value in them, and don’t see why faculty members with terminal degrees should be granted priority over faculty members without them: “the assumption that terminal degrees are necessary for tenure and for high-quality teaching and research is untested,” they write, and “it harms current contingent faculty without terminal degrees.”

We believe that people who complete dissertations have accomplished projects that teach them something important about conducting research. But we take the point that people who have completed terminal degrees are not necessarily better teachers than those who have not, and we admit–as we did in the book–that our plan does not help (though it clearly does not harm, it merely does not change the condition of) contingent faculty without terminal degrees.

“It is admirable,” Maisto and Kahn write, “to support new and recent PhD recipients, but not at the expense of women and older faculty members, with or without terminal degrees.” Here the argument gets muddled, for there is no sense in which our proposal supports new and recent PhD recipients at the expense of women, or at the expense of any faculty member with a terminal degree. The argument against terminal degrees themselves is a legitimate one–a fact made apparent by the many people who do admirable jobs teaching without them; it has, however, consequences Maisto and Kahn do not acknowledge. We in this profession each take this or that position on our broken system but until we follow through on the logic of these positions, we will be unable to agree upon any of the imperfect solutions before us. For their part, their position does not help anyone who has earned a terminal degree and is working off the tenure track. What we have now is a system in which students are told they must earn a doctorate (or, in some fields, an MFA) to be eligible for jobs in higher education–and then, when they do, find that most of the available jobs are off the tenure track, and many of those positions go to people without terminal degrees, hired ad hoc by unit heads without any meaningful form of professional review. (Maisto and Kahn do not address our argument about ad hoc hiring.) If Maisto and Kahn are serious about the near-worthlessness of terminal degrees, they should be arguing strenuously for massive closures of doctoral programs. Because right now, we are running a shell game.

We believe, by contrast, that terminal degrees are not just credentials, not just pieces of paper, but evidence of years of real intellectual work. We believe that people who have completed all the requirements of a graduate program have ipso facto done more work than people who have completed only some, though we know full well that this work does not necessarily translate into better teaching (or better people!). And we are hard pressed to think of any profession that is so dismissive of terminal degrees as ours.

But that is our bias, you might say, our own skin in the game–we want to preserve (with modifications) some semblance of the current system of graduate education. Yes, we do. We think terminal degrees are meaningful, and we can say this without casting aspersions on any faculty member who, for whatever reason, does not have one. Maisto and Kahn argue, with some justification, that our profession’s obligations to currently-serving contingent faculty members override any concern about the current system of graduate education. In which case we should be producing far fewer new PhDs–if not scrapping the doctorate altogether. We would certainly support programs in which institutions provide time and resources for non-tenure-track (NTT) faculty to complete terminal degrees, but that is apparently not the route Maisto and Kahn would prefer to go. So do we close PhD programs nation-wide or do we give employment priority at four-year colleges to people who have completed the PhD? We must do one or the other, because right now too many people at too great a personal cost are falling into the gap created by our incoherence on this point.

At one point, Maisto and Kahn take us to task for not articulating our argument to labor law:

Engagement with, and reform of, definitions and regulations governing contingent faculty work would help reestablish an ethically grounded professionalism… Unfortunately, Bérubé and Ruth discourage such engagement by contending that understanding the profession of college education as labor reflects “a curious strain of anti-elitism on the left” that “badly misunderstands the nature of academic freedom and the nature of college teaching.”

This is a severe misreading. Here’s the passage from which those words were taken:

there is probably no way to make the case for tenure and academic freedom to people who oppose tenure on principle. The past forty years have witnessed sustained and largely successful attacks on all forms of job security and organized labor, with the result that the union members are a tiny percentage of the American workforce and public school teachers have come under withering assault by charter-school merchants and their many allies in the media. When such people read that over 70 percent of American college teachers have no substantial job security and are being paid subsistence (or sub-subsistence) wages, their response is not “my gosh, that’s terrible–higher education is one of our most important assets as a nation” but, rather, “good! Now let’s get the other 30 percent.” But there is a curious strain of anti-elitism on the left that plays into this logic as well. It goes something like this: it is wrong for college teachers to claim special privileges for themselves, such as “academic freedom.” College teachers are part of the workforce at large, not special snowflakes that require extra protection. There is nothing college teachers need–in material or intellectual terms–that every other worker in the world does not need. This aspirationally egalitarian argument, we think, badly misunderstands the nature of academic freedom and the nature of college teaching; and we will address it when we talk about the role of contingent faculty in campus governance.

When we spoke of that curious strain of anti-elitism on the left, we did not attribute to it the belief that college teaching is labor; college teaching is labor, labor that should be compensated fairly, and we stress that point throughout the book. Rather, we are objecting to the form of anti-elitism on the left that opposes tenure, on the grounds that the labor of college teaching is no different from any other kind of labor.

And that brings us to our most important disagreement with Maisto and Kahn. They write:

what seems more urgent to us is an exploration of the effects of innovative strategies like the Vancouver model, which largely abolishes at-will employment; the 2012 Colorado statute providing for long-term contracts that only financial exigency can void; and collective bargaining contracts that have incorporated academic freedom, due process, and other protections for contingent faculty.

It is striking that none of these innovative strategies involves converting NTT positions to the tenure track. Maisto and Kahn imply–but do not quite say–that we did not consider these strategies. But we did; our disagreement with the Vancouver model, for example, is laid out in a long footnote. And we proposed our plan instead, precisely because we believe that tenure and academic freedom are as necessary for shared governance as they are for research and teaching. (We will set to one side the question of whether the abolition of at-will employment is a plausible political goal in the United States.) This has long been a central tenet of the AAUP, and is admirably defended in Larry Gerber’s The Rise and Decline of Faculty Governance. One might say that the day the AAUP gives up on the tenure system in favor of long-term contracts is the day the AAUP will have lost its raison d’etre.

Still, we support long-term contracts and collective bargaining agreements anywhere faculty can get them. We support any improvements in the working conditions of contingent faculty, and we are trying to implement them at our own institutions even if we can’t get the conversion system our book advocates. (We have made our arguments to our respective provosts and presidents, and Michael has succeeded in revising the faculty bylaws so that contingent faculty can be reviewed for promotion by committees elected by the contingent faculty themselves.) Nobody–certainly, not us– is saying that where improvements can be made, even if they don’t include tenure, they shouldn’t be made. But we are saying that we shouldn’t give up the fight for tenure and for free academic intellectual inquiry for fear of looking elitist. Faculty who teach and participate in governance need to have the protections tenure provides. The reason the anti-tenure position on the left is so distressing to us is that college teaching and the work of shared governance is different from other forms of labor; or, to put this another way, the university is not a business, and should not be run like one. On that point, one would think, Maisto and Kahn should agree with us.

Notwithstanding these points of disagreement, we wish to thank Maria Maisto and Seth Kahn for engaging our book thoughtfully–-and for all their work on behalf of contingent faculty.

2 thoughts on “Tenure Tracks and Terminal Degrees: A Reply to Maisto and Kahn

  1. Thank you for this terrific debate regarding tenure and NTT faculty. I am a long-term NTT faculty member (38 years) with a doctorate, and a member and supporter of AAUP guidelines for conversion of NTT positions to tenure lines, which emphasize new hires connected to attrition and retirement. In my opinion, tenure should remain the gold-standard for higher-ed faculty, BUT NOT AT THE EXPENSE OF LONG-TERM CONTINGENT FACULTY.

    It seems to me that the debate with my colleagues, Maisto and Kahn, centers around the problem of the two-tier system. We should all be on a salary grid that includes a bump for terminal degrees; we should all have job security, i.e. the possiblity of tenure; we should all be included in faculty governance. Institutions should also have the right to hire us for positions that include research or not. (I do as much research, if not more, as my tenure-line colleagues, and I am sure I am not alone in that. That is part of what it means to be an academic). All of us should make a living wage with benefits for whatever we are hired to do.

    We are at a particular time in history where our profession needs desperately to be reformed. All of you in this debate have serious ideas that need to be considered in this reformation. I would urge that the two-tier system be eliminated, and that those long-term faculty on the lower tier be immediately integrated into a one-tier faculty model, rather than phasing them out to make room for new hires.

  2. Pingback: Academic Labor: A Response to Bérubé and Ruth | ACADEME BLOG

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