Citizen of Somewhere Else and Professor Zero as well as others have recent posts on the politics of tenure in response to Tenured Radical's recurring call to end the inhumane system of tenure on the ethical grounds that it does harm to its participants. I have posted on this issue several times, both on its larger issues and on my own more personal damage, and Citizen of Somewhere Else links to one of these. Since this topic has come up again, I thought I would take the time to add in my own two cents worth.
The punch line from Tenured Radical's post is: "But here is another reason that tenure is wrong: It hurts people."
There are lots of things that have hurt me in academia, but tenure is NOT one of them.
I have been hurt by the lack of health care from my years as an adjunct. I have been hurt by the uncertainties of working as migrant, contingent labor in academia for more than a decade. I have been hurt by Deans, Provosts, and by some of my colleagues who put time and effort into delaying my start in a tenure track line and in further delaying my final tenure decision for another decade. I have been hurt by decades of debts and low wages that I may never recover from. I have grudges, depression, anger, rage, and issues aplenty from my sojourn through the academic labor market. But the one thing that has NOT hurt me is tenure.
Tenure has put an end to these predations.
There are certainly problems with work in academia. But getting rid of tenure is not the solution. It's like telling someone with a headache that decapitation will help. It may be brutally effective, but it's not advice you want to take.
We have a very clear picture of what academic work without tenure looks like: contingent labor. I believe it is naive to think that getting rid of the current inequities of the two-tier job market will result in a single tier of high-wage, full-time jobs with benefits. The much more likely scenario is that we will all be adjuncts together. As Professor Zero writes:
I think the abolition of tenure would be an CEO-administrator’s dream. The entire workforce would be contingent, and certain research and development stars could be retained through very high salaries and the elimination, for them, of all but the most specialized teaching and all service except on projects which directly benefit them.
Otherwise, teaching and research would be conducted by casual laborers at the mercy of staff managers, who might not have actual training or experience resembling that of the people they were managing.
In fact, I would argue that one of the reasons the tenure process has been made harder, longer, and more acrimonious is precisely to make it something that faculty will cease to defend. Sadly, this is a strategy that may be working.
Elsewhere, Professor Zero comments on the argument that revolutions are made when everyone shares in the worst oppression.
ONE OF THE MAIN THINGS I learned in graduate school was by chance, from a historian. His dissertation argued contra Marx that you don't get positive progressive developments as a result of terrible situations, but as a result of good times. I don't know if that's always right but it has always seemed to me to be a useful corrective to the idea that it takes really bad times to get people to wake up and do something (they may wake up and do something, sure, but it won't necessarily be progressive).
This seems to me to be the strategy of abolishing the tenure system. It is a wager that as the salaries and benefits of the professoriat sink, they will be spurred to collective action. The particular action, though, may not be the progressive one we would wish for. In the lifeboat, we may instead rashly throw overboard some of our most vulnerable and most recent additions to the profession as we seek to save our livelihood. For instance, it is unlikely to be an environment where issues such as race, gender, and sexual orientation will be addressed in thoughtful and deliberate ways by the profession.
Although I'm not entirely comfortable with Citizen of Somewhere Else's "reform" label, I'm willing to tolerate it. But the position that seeks to abolish tenure shouldn't be seen as any kind of "revolution." It is simply a surrender.