BY DON ERON
As someone who has long agitated for tenure-eligibility for all faculty members (after the successful completion of a probationary period), I have heard many counterarguments. Some of these—particularly coming from tenured faculty, who, as a cohort, tend toward opposition—are so obviously spurious, to say nothing of sanctimonious, that they dissipate of their own accord. Or perhaps I’m the one who’s sanctimonious; I really believe the AAUP line—that university teachers, as the pursuers and transmitters of knowledge, have unique responsibilities to the survival of democracy and therefore require unique protections. When I discuss this with people outside of academia they usually “get it,” or at least don’t visibly chafe at the idea. It’s mostly other academics who balk, or feign offense, or who dismiss my ideas as naive or elitist.
At least according to the latest marketplace data, these other academics are winning the argument. A 2016 survey from the Bureau of Labor Statistics of the Department of Labor shows that the academic workplace is over twice as dependent on part-time labor as any other industry, and about four times the average of all industries (18%). The manufacturing, construction, financial, information, and transportation industries are many times less reliant on part-time labor than is higher education. In the retail industry, about 1/3 of the workforce is part-time. You don’t walk into a jewelry or sporting goods store and expect that 60% to three-quarters of the employees are part-timers, or you might question the quality of advice. Unique? By this metric, the academic profession would do well to achieve the norms of the next worst industry.
Neoliberalism, market forces, corporate values, administrators with outsized salaries and authority, are often justly cited as corrosive factors in the decline of the academic profession. But to make an obvious point, these factors apply to other industries also. There is something unique about the academic profession that subjugates the majority of workers out of all proportion to other professions.
In 2006, when Suzanne Hudson and I began the Instructor Tenure Project at the University of Colorado (CU), we weren’t aware that our campus was the setting of one of the AAUP’s five original academic freedom investigations—and one that I would argue is among the most consequential in AAUP history. In 1915, shortly after testifying before a congressional commission, James Brewster was fired from his temporary position on CU’s law faculty, ostensibly due to reorganization within the law school. Brewster published an open letter demanding that the CU Board of Regents admit the true reason for his ouster. In response, CU President Livingston Farrand wrote to the AAUP, asking that the newly established organization clear the university’s reputation. Arthur Lovejoy, the AAUP’s first general secretary, was reluctant to authorize an investigation—the case hinged entirely upon differing recollections of a conversation between Brewster and Farrand—but was eventually persuaded to do so as, in the interest of establishing tenure as the sine qua non of the academic profession, “a distinction must be made between temporary appointments and regular professorships.” That distinction was academic freedom. Soon thereafter, the AAUP’s 1915 Statement on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure sanctified the academic profession as two distinct tiers, divisible by rights and privileges.
As I argue in “An Evolution of Principled Futility: The AAUP and Original Sin,” published in the Journal of Academic Freedom, Volume 8, there was a plausible rationale for this division—the selling of tenure to a skeptical public. However, the AAUP concept of tenure—academic freedom, protected by numerous levels of due process—peaked in 1975. Today tenure has “all but collapsed,” a decline set into motion when the 1915 Declaration (reiterated and refined by the 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure) sanctified the profession as two distinct tiers, with one disposable as collateral damage to enable the rights of the other.
The conflicted 1915 and 1940 statements have incentivized institutions to hire part-time rather than full-time faculty, and, as I demonstrate, have stymied a succession of AAUP reports on contingency that, with increasing degrees of alarm, seek to reconcile the original contradiction—that while all faculty members have unique responsibilities, only some warrant unique protections—by providing part-time faculty with academic freedom provisions that are also second-rate, substandard and self-defeating.
One thing I love about the AAUP is that it is—we are—a set of principles and policies grounded in a frequently inspiring body of literature. It is also a literature that is supple, sometimes contradictory, often slowly evolving. It is not divinely inspired. Some of the many injuries to academic freedom that are all too evident today are self-inflicted. I believe that if academic freedom is to endure, all proven faculty must have access to the same fundamental rights.
Guest blogger Don Eron is a long-time contingent activist and a member of the AAUP’s Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure. He is the primary author of the Colorado Conference’s “Report on the Termination of Ward Churchill” and the author of “Professor Salaita’s Intramural Speech.” His writing on academic freedom has been cited in petitions before the US Supreme Court, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States, and the National Labor Relations Board, among other venues.
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