BY MICHAEL DECESARE
On Thursday, I posted Michael Bérubé’s and Jennifer Ruth’s rejoinder to Maria Maisto’s and Seth Kahn’s review of their book The Humanities, Higher Education, and Academic Freedom: Three Necessary Arguments (Academe, May-June 2016, 47-50).
Below is Maisto’s and Kahn’s response to Bérubé’s and Ruth’s rejoinder. Please continue this important conversation in the Comments section at the bottom of the page.
We are grateful for the opportunity to have this dialogue with Michael Bérubé and Jennifer Ruth. We thank them for their response, particularly because it helps us to clarify the terms of our agreements, which are many, and disagreements, which are few but significant.
In a nutshell: we agree that patronage hiring is bad, but think that they’ve missed an important point about how it got that way, and don’t agree that their proposal is necessary to solve it; tenure is important, but don’t agree that terminal degrees, while important and valuable, are inherently connected to it.
Put another way, we agree that large-scale changes are necessary (to borrow their word), but don’t agree that the harm which they acknowledge their proposal does to current contingent faculty is an acceptable price to pay to ensure the viability of the profession—in fact we see that aspect of their proposal as undermining the ethical foundation of the profession. Our critiques and counter-suggestions, some of which they misunderstood or overlooked, seek to build on what we see as valuable in their proposal: its clear commitment to finding solutions to the contingent employment crisis and its argument for the importance of due process, academic freedom, and shared governance—what we see as the substance, if not the current practice, of tenure.
We’ll begin by acknowledging that we didn’t address patronage hiring in our review. So: we agree that patronage hiring is bad. (So are other forms of ad hoc hiring—casual, over-the-phone or by-the department-administrative-assistant hiring.) It’s not just bad because it is unfair to people who are not getting a fair shot at employment opportunity or because it represents a disinvestment in tenure. It’s also bad because it is a major reason for the existence of the “adjunct stigma.” People who have gone through a more formal hiring process will always be susceptible to bias against people who have gone through a less formal hiring process, even if the informally hired person could have easily passed the formal hiring process had they been given a chance. Patronage and ad hoc hiring poison institutions.
With that said, much of the point we’re after is that their proposal isn’t the right way to address that problem. A much simpler solution is to hire systematically, support equally, evaluate rigorously, and pay fairly, grandfathering in all current contingent faculty who have demonstrated by their service that they deserve to be there as much as any other faculty member who may have a tenure line or a terminal degree. We can do both of those tomorrow without having to argue about terminal degrees or job descriptions or tenure at all; in fact, we included such a recommendation in the CCCC Statement on Working Conditions for NTT Writing Faculty (we co-chaired the Task Force that wrote this statement). This would be a way to affirm that the problem with patronage/ad hoc hires isn’t the quality of people who get hired that way—an unfortunate first impression of Bérubé and Ruth’s proposal.
In fact, in her chapter on patronage, Ruth acknowledges that the system of casual hiring and evaluation “is by no means the contingent faculty member’s fault” but rather the fault of “the TT faculty and administrators who let the academy grow dependent on casual hiring and low wages instead of investing in the kinds of processes and that confer professional legitimacy” (117). We agree, and are arguing simply that punishing contingent faculty for what we all agree is a systemic flaw doesn’t make sense, especially when there are ways to address the systemic flaw without the punishment.
We are glad Bérubé and Ruth acknowledge that contingent faculty often prove themselves to be competent, even excellent instructors in spite of how they were hired and what their working conditions are, and that TT faculty and administrators must be held accountable for their role in creating and perpetuating this system.
At the risk of being provocative, we would suggest that these two acknowledgments perhaps indicate that the systemic and structural problem with the patronage/ad hoc system is not the absence of terminal degrees, but has arisen within the ostensibly “rigorous process of peer review” that has allowed tenured faculty to keep perpetuating such an obviously flawed system (this is not a blanket critique of tenure, by the way). This process has, after all, allowed the emergence of tenured faculty who become the patrons and the managers who leave the hiring to others—who implement or tolerate the patronage system and don’t take a stand against other exploitative contingent faculty employment practices, as Bérubé and Ruth do. Many of these tenured faculty “let” contingent hiring practices persist because they misunderstand, as we argued by invoking Gaff and Hamilton, that tenure was not intended to protect individual career advancement at the expense of colleagues but rather to protect and promulgate the principles of collegiality, academic freedom, due process and shared governance that should protect all faculty.
Punishing contingent faculty for how they are hired (by continuing to deny them access to essential tools of the profession including professional compensation, academic freedom, due process, and shared governance) is, we hope Bérubé and Ruth agree, an egregious extension of blaming the victim. Fixing it by giving only terminal degree-holders access to tenure may also be illegal, as we explain further down in this post.
Next, we have to register our surprise that Bérubé and Ruth have characterized us as anti-tenure and anti-terminal degree. As directly as we can put it, nowhere in our review do we argue for totally ignoring the terminal degree or abolishing tenure. The statement that seems to have triggered Bérubé and Ruth’s impassioned attack on our alleged anti-terminal degree proclivities is our questioning of whether terminal degrees are currently a prerequisite for “high quality teaching and research.” Because they agree that terminal degrees are not evidence of teaching ability, we surmise from their discussion that it was the inclusion of “research” that caused them to conclude we are opposed to terminal degrees.
Maybe it would help clarify our position to put it this way: what we know from decades of evidence is that many faculty without terminal degrees are fine teachers; therefore, requiring terminal degrees for teaching-intensive positions seems superfluous (and possibly illegal). We aren’t contending that terminal-degree holders are worse teachers, but that imposing a requirement when that requirement doesn’t speak to the actual work of the position doesn’t make sense—or certainly isn’t necessary. While we would agree that being able to do research can enhance teaching, we think it’s important to distinguish research that any thoughtful teacher might do (which many people without terminal degrees are already doing) from research currently required for tenure (which many faculty without terminal degrees are also doing, but sometimes without the same level of training).
Truth be told, we would find the proposal less problematic if they didn’t distinguish between teaching and research-intensive positions at all. We appreciate that Bérubé and Ruth make clear that their proposal is motivated as much or more by concern for graduate education and the value of the PhD as by the situation of current contingent faculty, and that they are trying to address all of these issues in one proposal. “[T]hat is our bias,” they say, their “own skin in the game– we want to preserve (with modifications) some semblance of the current system of graduate education. Yes, we do.” While we aren’t inclined to take a yes/no position on the question of preserving graduate education, we aren’t convinced that protecting graduate programs at the expense of current contingent faculty is the right thing to do. Their “skin in the game” is different from ours. In our positions as faculty and activists, on committees and task forces within our professional organizations, we work every day with the people who would pay the price for this proposal. And just like Bérubé and Ruth don’t apologize for prioritizing graduate education (nor do they need to), we don’t apologize for prioritizing the well-being of our colleagues.
Nor do we see any reason that these are mutually exclusive choices. We would like to know more about what “modifications” Bérubé and Ruth would advocate for graduate education. We posit at least two, for the sake of conversation.
First, as we’ve seen people arguing recently, doctoral programs need to do more to prepare students for teaching-intensive careers. Not only does that require more actual training/support in pedagogy and curriculum, but it also requires some change in the culture that discourages candidates from applying for teaching-heavy jobs (like Seth’s, which is a 4/4 teaching load, plus 35% scholarship and 15% service requirements). In other words, if there’s going to be a connection between PhDs and teaching-intensiveness, that needs to be woven into PhD programs explicitly. In the meantime, holding people responsible for not having training that most people don’t have doesn’t seem to solve anything.
Second, graduate programs need to offer access to current contingent faculty so that the contingent faculty can reap the benefits. We made this point in our review. At no point did we say, or imply, that there’s nothing to be gained from more graduate education. But demanding it entails some responsibility across the profession to help the people who apparently need or want it the most to get it. We can hear some readers saying that if non-PhD-holding faculty want PhDs, they should just go get them. That position ignores the reality of many contingent faculty lives: the severe financial stresses that casualized, part-time employees face across all economic sectors, amplified by the debt that many contingent faculty carry from the graduate training they already do have, and by the demographics of gender, particularly, and age and race that we raised in our review. (This point is far from being “muddled,” by the way; there is plenty of research documenting the feminization of contingency as well as the increased likelihood that contingent faculty who are women are less likely to have terminal degrees. This is why the New Faculty Majority has a project on Women and Contingency.) If the lack of PhDs has enabled higher education to systematically exploit contingent faculty as a class, then helping contingent faculty get PhDs seems much more a fair response to current contingent faculty than simply to replace them with newly hired PhDs. Otherwise, as we’ve been contending all along, people who deserve better because of their commitments and work they’ve already done simply get left behind.
Our critique, therefore, is not of tenure, nor of terminal degrees, in themselves, as good. We clearly agree that tenure-eligible positions are better—in terms of shared governance and due process and academic freedom—than non-tenure-track contingent positions. We also agree that PhDs are valuable. We just do not agree that PhDs are necessary for quality teaching, or that requiring PhDs for teaching-intensive positions follows. Again, we would agree more readily with their position if they didn’t specify teaching-intensive as the frame for more tenure-track positions. That specification simultaneously puts prospective new hires into unnecessary competition (about which we’ll say more below) with current contingent faculty, and concedes the most concrete rationale for the PhD—its necessity to job performance.
Interestingly, we have recently discovered (in support of our argument that we need to pay attention to labor law in proposing any solutions to the contingent faculty crisis), that instituting a requirement such as the terminal degree for tenure-line teaching jobs may well be illegal, according to the EEOC’s Compliance Manual on Compensation Discrimination. The EEOC explains that superior compensation cannot be justified on the basis of pre-hire qualifications that are inconsistently applied and that have proven inconsequential, including through longstanding satisfactory performance without them. In other words, where the responsibilities of teaching-intensive tenure line positions are essentially identical to those of teaching-intensive contingent positions, if the terminal degree is not required for the contingent positions, then it cannot suddenly be required for access to the tenure line positions either. As the EEOC states, “continued reliance on pre-hire qualifications is less reasonable the longer the lower paid employee has performed at a level substantially equal to, or greater than, his or her counterpart.” We expect that the EEOC would find this definition applies pretty accurately to faculty without terminal degrees re-hired year after year—sometimes for decades.
The absurdity of what Marc Bousquet famously calls “permatemping” is why we are glad that Bérubé and Ruth acknowledge our point about “our profession’s obligations to currently-serving contingent faculty members.” We disagree with their characterization of our position as “overrid[ing] any concern about the current system of graduate education,” though we acknowledge we didn’t discuss graduate education in the short space of our review of their book. In fact we see the recent attention to “alt-ac” careers and the stronger alliances between graduate students and contingent faculty advocating for the profession as a welcome development in graduate education—it gives us hope that the new generation of tenure-line faculty will understand, better than previous generations have, that advocacy for contingent faculty is service to the profession and an integral component of their professional development.
Happily, we all seem to agree that academic freedom and due process are essential to good teaching. Thus we are baffled by Bérubé and Ruth’s contention that we are anti-tenure. Our fundamental objection to their proposal is not tenure, to the extent that tenure protects due process and academic freedom for all faculty, but instead to construing it as a reward to some faculty for individual merit. We object to their insistence on tying tenure exclusively to the terminal degree, whether people apply for tenure-line positions fresh out of graduate school or through some kind of conversion path from contingency.
We agree that due process and academic freedom, which are supposed to be secured by tenure, are essential components of the profession and protect research and teaching; that’s why we do not understand why Bérubé and Ruth would propose a solution that continues to deny access to these rights and protections to the majority of faculty, who sometimes happen not to have terminal degrees. Bérubé and Ruth put a great deal of faith in the notion that departments will opt to respect current contingent faculty under AAUP guidelines concerning longevity, tenure, and academic freedom. We’re less optimistic, largely on the grounds that if units were going to respect contingent faculty that way, they already would. Out of respect for students, the protections traditionally provided by tenure should not have to be a reward for faculty with or without terminal degrees but rather the final step in a reasonable hiring and evaluation process that includes appropriate support for faculty throughout.
Finally, a note about Bérubé and Ruth’s clarification of their controversial statement indicting the “curious anti-elitism of the left.” The explanation is welcome because it illuminates a subtle but important difference in how we conceive of the relationship of tenure to labor. We would suggest that they misunderstand the argument of at least some of those whom they call the “anti-elitist left.” These folks do not oppose tenure (due process and academic freedom) as being in itself a special privilege that no faculty member should have because people in other industries don’t have it; the argument included in that passage is not one either of us has ever heard any self-professed “leftist” make. Instead, these folks (who may or may not be “leftists”) understand tenure (due process and academic freedom) as labor rights particular and necessary to the profession of college teaching, in the same way that air quality protection is a labor right particular and necessary to mining, or to working in a nail salon.
What we think these anti-elitist folks object to is the notion that only (tenure-line) college faculty, not miners or nail salon workers, have any sort of labor right particular and necessary to their profession. That’s the anti-elitist piece that we affirm—college professors aren’t the only workers who need rights particular to their work. In this way, college teaching really isn’t any different from any other kind of labor, nor should it be. Finally, we think that most people would agree that it is wrong, whether or not it is elitist, to reserve this labor right—access to due process and academic freedom, which is particular and necessary to all college teaching—for an arbitrarily defined group of workers in the industry (those on tenure lines) rather than for everyone who teaches college.
To put it more succinctly, Bérubé and Ruth seem to construe tenure as an individual reward that should be “earned,” traditionally on the basis of terminal degree status and research productivity, which they would like to see extended to terminal-degree holders who teach and are hired properly. Our notion of tenure, following Gaff and Hamilton’s excellent explanation of the way that contemporary faculty have misunderstood the history and purpose of tenure, is that tenure represents a social contract and should therefore be tied primarily to the fact of employment as a college teacher, not to terminal-degree status.
In the end, our question to Bérubé and Ruth (and others who are concerned about the issues) is: if it is inevitable that any solution to the adjunct faculty crisis is going to cause harm to some people, why is it OK that the people who will be harmed are the adjunct faculty who applied for and took teaching positions in good faith, many of them naively or with the encouragement of both well-intentioned and cynical faculty and administrators, rather than tenured faculty, departments, and institutions who implemented what they knew were unethical, exploitative practices? Is that the kind of professional ethics we really want to practice? We simply disagree that “not changing the condition of” faculty without terminal degrees does not translate into harming them. Bérubé and Ruth’s concession to current contingent faculty to is allow them to keep their jobs—the very same jobs that are bad enough to have provided the exigency for their argument in the first place. That’s not good enough. At the very least, we could work toward establishing funding for the dignified retirements and for PhD study we recommended. In short, why should any adjuncts be required to lose their jobs in order to save the profession when they are not the ones who created the crisis?
What we object to, based on our understanding of professionalism and professional ethics, is inconsistency, injustice, and inequality, which we think their proposal as currently constructed restructures rather than redresses. We obviously disagree on the relative weight that research, teaching, terminal degree status, and teaching experience should have in determining whether a faculty member should move from precarity to a status guaranteeing due process and academic freedom in higher education. If they want to make entry into the profession different/better than it has been up to this point, we have no quarrel with that plan. However, we simply cannot agree with a plan that punishes current adjuncts for the mistakes of those who hired them and those who have benefited from their work.
We hope we can persuade Bérubé and Ruth that the social contract at the heart of higher education and faculty work demands that this work must be protected by due process and academic freedom no matter who is doing the work or what their pre-hire qualifications might have been (remember, we argued earlier for evaluations that are fair, rigorous and systematic—so we’re not arguing that the simple fact of having been hired is enough to justify keeping it; there must be evidence that people are doing well enough). But by continually re-hiring contingent faculty, institutions profess to the public that these faculty are qualified to teach, and if these institutions don’t provide all of these faculty with due process and safeguarded academic freedom whether through tenure, collective bargaining, or some other yet-to-be discovered method, then they have betrayed the public as much as they have betrayed the faculty members and students these faculty teach.