Tenure for the Common Good

BY CAROLYN BETENSKY

Activists have been fighting for years for decent working conditions and pay for adjuncts and graduate student instructors.  The majority of these activists are adjuncts and graduate students themselves.  They have formed collective bargaining units under the auspices of the AAUP and other unions, and they have created organizations such as the New Faculty Majority and Faculty Forward (which grew out of the SEIU).  While some tenured and tenure-stream faculty have supported their adjunct colleagues and graduate students in their attempts to unionize and to secure a living wage and benefits— and I’ll single out the University of Illinois Chicago and Portland State University here—many have not.  The AAUP has certainly been out in front of this problem, and individual tenured scholars such as Michael Bérubé, Jennifer Ruth, and Marc Bousquet, to name a few, have written extensively and passionately about adjunctification.  But until now, tenured faculty have not come together as a group, as tenured faculty, to pool our ideas and strategies.  Those with the least job security in our institutions have shown the most bravery in facing a phenomenon that has for quite some time been a threat to all of us—while those of us with the most job security have, as a group, been the least courageous. 

What I want to consider here is not why that is but what can be done about it.  Here’s my modest proposal:  let’s transform our notion of tenure from being one associated principally with the professional achievements and privileges of the individual scholar into a concept associated, in addition, with the common good.   Tenured faculty need to come together, as tenured faculty, locally and nationally, to make more assertive and community-minded use of the power we still have.  If tenured faculty, with the protections many of us still have, organize ourselves to advocate for labor justice in our own midst with a fraction of the energy and courage of our contingent colleagues, we might be able to make some real and desperately needed changes on our campuses.

When I propose that tenured faculty come together, I mean either under the umbrella of the AAUP or outside of it.  As I mentioned above, the AAUP has been in the vanguard in addressing adjunctification, but the AAUP fights many different kinds of battles and represents all ranks of university professors.  I acknowledge that the notion of an advocacy group that militates from a particular rank, especially from a rank that is rapidly coming to look like the academic version of the infamous one percent, might smell bad.  Yet it’s important for tenured faculty to identify themselves and each other as tenured faculty— not for the prestige tenure confers but for the cover it provides.  There are things tenured faculty can do that non-tenure-track and untenured faculty simply cannot.

Tenured allies need to rally ourselves together nationally and locally, on public and private campuses, at institutions with or without faculty unions and with or without existing models of shared governance.  Each campus has its own culture and poses its own challenges to any attempt to change the status quo.

I would love to say that unions are the answer here, but there are too many institutions that don’t or can’t have full-time faculty unions.  Not to get lost in the weeds here, but there are also real structural problems at campuses where the same collective bargaining unit represents tenure-stream and contingent faculty, and other structural problems when different collective bargaining units represent them.  Not every institution can implement the ultimate strategy of solidarity that the full-time faculty at the University of Illinois Chicago did when they went on strike with and on behalf of their adjunct colleagues—not right away, at any rate.  But there are other strategies that can be adopted and shared in the near term to awaken and embolden the most powerful and secure members of our profession.

The first and most obvious strategy is to get people talking about the problem on a regular basis instead of treating it as if the disappearance of tenure lines were just God’s will. As I explain in my article  in the September/October issue of Academe, “’Tenured Allies’ and the Normalization of Contingent Labor,” tenured allies must talk about the erosion of tenure lines as if it were a problem of the gravest urgency—because it is one.  And the only way we can do this is to talk to each other, privately and in public forums, about what has happened, what is happening, and what is yet to happen to labor conditions under which many of our colleagues struggle on our own campuses.  It’s not that merely talking about the casualization of academic labor will eliminate the problem, but talking about it frequently is a precondition for the organized efforts that will.

I’m well aware how quixotic and unsexy it sounds to try to get tenured professors together to fight for the common good, but this is an approach that to my knowledge has not been tried.  And we just don’t have time to waste feeling powerless when we haven’t exercised the power we have.

Folks interested in joining me to strategize, lead, or participate in any fashion should email me at carojabete@gmail.com or visit the Facebook page and group I’ve started (Tenure for the Common Good).  A website is pending.

Guest blogger Carolyn Betensky is professor of English at the University of Rhode Island.

Articles from the current and past issues of Academe are available online. AAUP members receive a subscription to the magazine, available both by mail and as a downloadable PDF, as a benefit of membership.

 


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2 thoughts on “Tenure for the Common Good

  1. I whole-heartedly agree that all faculty should come together in support of each other, with the tenured faculty having a special obligation to speak out due to there protected status. However, permit me to make two observations: 1. My own experience suggests that in some cases the contingent faculty bear some of the blame for the current state of affairs. As a tenured faculty member involved in shared governance, I, and many of my tenured cohorts, made strengthening the rights of contingent faculty one of our major aims. In fighting for better protections for the non-tenure eligible faculty, however, we faced a major obstacle: The administration had successfully co-opted many contingent faculty in its effort to weaken tenure protections with the argument that removing power from tenured faculty would strengthen the contingent faculty. The result was that we got very little support from the contingent faculty, who chose to instead rely on the administration to do right by them (big mistake). 2. Tenure no longer offers the protections it once did as evidenced by attacks on tenure rights at many colleges and universities, including the out right dismissal of tenured faculty in the absence of cause or financial exigency. With the power of tenured faculty in free-fall, it will become increasingly more difficult for us to fight for anyone’s rights, including our own.

  2. Hi, Marie —

    Thanks for your comments. To your first point: unfortunately, our non-TT colleagues have been treated so badly by so many parties for so long that bitterness, warped perceptions, and skewed loyalties are a legacy we have to expect. It won’t be easy to fix this mess, but we must — and folks with tenure need to remember why adjunct anger is there without getting all bent out of shape over it. (I’m not suggesting that you, yourself, are!)

    To your second point: it’s a question of relative, not absolute security. Right now the people fighting most energetically for the survival of decent working conditions in higher education are those with the least security. While some of us still have relative security, it’s time we used it, with greater bravery, for the common good. (Again, I’m generalizing here. There are some brave and energetic tenured activists out there!)

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