I had promised Professor Zero that I would write more on the constant ratcheting up of tenure requirements as itself a kind of attack on the tenure system. And now with another timely post from Tenured Radical, I want to make good on that promise. TR writes:
I was told by those speaking for the minority negative vote in the department and on the tenure and promotion committee that because my "pace" was off (the standard for "pace" was jacked up for no other reason than what was ambiguously called "high standards," but actually my pace had increased since tenure and I had also chaired a program and a major university committee) that service to the profession at large would not be considered at all as part of the case. Collegial scholarly obligations had become regarded, more or less, as the equivalent of housework, as had administrative work at my own university.The notion of "high standards" has become a kind of wedge issue within the academy. It can't be countered by championing some notion of "low standards" in opposition. That will never persuade. So a kind of bidding war has set in with everyone vying to have the highest standards. Of course, this war of ever escalating standards is fought out over the lives and careers of an increasingly beleaguered junior faculty. A standard that constantly moves, however, isn't a standard at all. It is something else entirely. It is a lever used to speed up the assembly line in the academy, to increase the amount and intensity of faculty work, and to decrease faculty wages. The fatigue caused by these constantly escalating standards also helps create the conditions where the faculty themselves become willing to relinquish the tenure system. Let me explain.
The issue of "standards" has become the current rubric under which faculty workload gets debated, although covertly. Faculty are notoriously reticent to think about themselves as workers, as folks who do a job for a wage. We prefer to see ourselves as intellectuals and not as laborers. This squeamishness means that very important discussions about wages and workloads take place in other less appropriate venues. The real issue being discussed and camouflaged by the rhetoric of "standards" is how much work for how much pay. That is, exactly how many classes will be taught, how much committee work will be done, and how many publications will be written in exchange for what wage. It is helpful to keep in mind that the most important measure of wages is lifetime earnings. Policies that work to lengthen time to tenure and lengthen time in graduate school are also policies that reduce lifetime earnings. They are policies that reduce faculty wages. Increasing the intensity of faculty work (more books, more articles, more students, more committee work, more administrative duties) also tends to reduce the wage in that more work is now being given in exchange for the same money. This increase in the intensity of faculty workload is accomplished most dramatically and successfully at the level of junior, untenured faculty who are most vulnerable to these demands. Getting rid of tenure will not solve this. It will simply make every faculty member as vulnerable as junior faculty are currently.
On TR's remark that service and committee work has become the equivalent of academic housework, let me just add that this is exactly right. As more women in the academy take on a larger share of this academic service work, the results are just as predictable as they are in any other profession. Every increase in women's participation in a profession has lead to a fall of wages in that profession. Work being done by women becomes viewed as less valuable and less important and the wage attached to it falls. In this case, the wage is simply its weight in promotion and tenure. That there are no returns to service in academia is almost universally recognized. It's very difficult to cajole senior colleagues to serve on committees when service work has become nothing but a net loss to their careers, and it's just plain wrong to further exploit junior faculty by forcing them to serve on committees when the fate of their careers still hang in the balance.
TR also writes:
The proliferation of post-docs (which are full-time contingent labor in drag, most of them) mean that more untenured people are being hired with a book either finished or in press, and several published articles.This too is exactly right, and it is one of the primary ways in which the escalation of standards for tenure decreases faculty wages. By instituting a system where faculty work more years in lower paid probationary ranks, the lifetime earnings of faculty are curtailed. This works in tandem with the lengthening of graduate school requirements too where future faculty must now also serve longer. The effect is that instead of tenure before age 30 as in past academic generations, tenure after age 45 is now closer to the norm. This means that many years of one's working life have been shifted from the relatively high wage scales of full and associate professor to the much lower wage scales of assistant professor, lecturer, and graduate assistant. It means that faculty are working more and getting paid less. This shouldn't be news to anyone.
I have two specific suggestions to help combat these insidious trends. The first is work to incorporate the following language from the AAUP into the tenure and promotion documents at individual institutions. This shouldn't be such a hard sell, since many faculty and administrators see the AAUP's role as promulgating a set of professional best practices. The AAUP writes:
The total period of full-time service prior to the acquisition of continuous tenure will not exceed 7 years, including all previous full-time service with the rank of instructor or higher in other institutions of higher learning.This would help stop the creation of a two-tiered career system where in effect one must go through two probationary periods rather than one. I'm one of those academics who have taken 13 years to tenure with numerous adjunct and visiting appointments. My vita is quite impressive these days. Sadly, my accomplishments are likely to be used against my more junior colleagues who are going up for tenure with a mere 6 years of post-Ph.D. teaching and research experience. The committee will talk of creating high standards, though, not of creating low wages.
Coupled with adopting this clear language on the length of probationary service, there also needs to be active resistance to the escalation of tenure standards. I suggest that rather than starting from first principles every time and asking, "How much should we require for tenure?" we ought to approach the question historically and materially and ask, "How much have we required for tenure?" Tenure and promotion committees should be made to look at past tenure files from the last decade and see what have actually been the requirements for tenure. I think this would help committees see themselves in their proper role of applying standards, rather than as creating them. It would also help highlight the appropriate weights of teaching and service and help prevent them from being completely discounted in favor of research.
Whatever we do to confront this problem, it is very important to resist despair. The system of tenure may be grievously ill, but it would be an even more grievous mistake to shoot it just to put it out of our present misery.