Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Surrendering Tenure

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.


  1. Surrender, you are so right. This is a Brilliant Post and I would say so even if I did not agree and identify with every word, which I also do.

    H***, I wasn't even *really* hurt by not getting tenure the time I didn't!
    It's all the other sorts of things you mention that are really, and insidiously harmful.

  2. Granted LP: but what about my call to replace tenure with unionization? I have nothing against a sane system in which people are paid fairly and provided for, but why not a union, where the people who are already members don't get to do the gate keeping?

    I don't know why that piece of it isn't more persuasive to people.


  3. Certainly you'll find me at the front of the line to sign up for any union card on offer! But I imagine the reason that line of argument hasn't been persuasive is because tenure isn't itself a direct obstacle to unionization. In fact, one of the jobs I would expect of my union is to vigorously defend tenure.

    It did occur to me while reading your original post, that it might be interesting to think about what fighting FOR tenure for other university workers would look like rather than fighting against tenure for faculty.

    What would it change if food service, physical plant, and office staff had tenure? And how might that help shape and improve the mechanisms by which tenure is awarded if the status applied to all university employees? That would be a battle I think I could sink my teeth into.

  4. I'm for tenure + union. On unions:

    + as the T.A. who at age 20 held the first T.A. union organizing meeting ever at her large R1, in her very apartment ... (that union still exists by the way and is working, became an AUW local, but it took a lot of work that encompassed my entire time in graduate school, and even so the first steps were finished off by my successors, after my time), and

    + as one of the four people at her current large state university who regularly attends AAUP meetings, and as one of only two of those people willing to defy the administration and hold class off campus when janitors are picketing the building so as to honor their picket line, I see unionization as a loooong project.

    And on retention without tenure: they would have to pay more and cut
    the drama. If I had, at a non tenured job, to deal with all the drama I have to deal with, and be paid what I am paid, I'd be gone. And I don't see my state as being able to realistically pay anything like a union scale.

    Tenure allows me to know I'll at least be paid so long as we don't go into financial exigency, and frees me from having to be the client of someone who knows the President in order to keep my job.

    If we had a union here we would still need tenure because the union would be corruptible if not already corrupt. The governor, any governor we had, or his/her agents would be bribing the shop stewards, or something like that. Sorry, but it's true, I live in Louisiana, and we really do have to worry about these things.

    All power to the faculty, the library, and to some degree the students, is what I say. And that means tenure PLUS union, not fantasies of what unionization would do MINUS tenure.

  5. Nice post, LP. I'll link to it. I hope you saw my metaphors as at least partly tongue-in-cheek. I'll offer a more serious dichotomy in the update!

  6. Of course, some people defend the tenure system when they have tenure. What this whole debate misses is that many people who have tenure do not deserve it. Some of the people who come up for tenure do not get it. If you have failed to publish, then you should not be tenured, simple as that. These days publishing is all too easy, there is no excuse.

    What is sad is that the undeserving tenured tend to be the people who conspire to deny tenure to others, as they feel threatened by more youthful and more productive folks. These are the reasons why post-tenure review is a great idea. I am certain that this would be seen as a threat by all but the most productive, not least by the totally unproductive (N.B. blogs do not count). I say 'bring it on'!

  7. Ick. There are many different views on the role of tenure in academia that can reasonably be defended. However, the assertion that unpublished tenured faculty conspire together to only tenure other unpublished faculty isn't one of them.

  8. Actually, one of the ways in which I am probably too kind to the tenure system is because of the way I didn't get tenure and the way it was handled. It was very civilized, and was far from the worst thing that has happened to me in academia.

    I think where people younger than me are raising questions about the tenure system is (a) the number of tenure track jobs is shrinking visibly as standards rise almost unreasonably, so they need tenure where they are or the wolf will really be at the door and (b) the amount of obstruction and harrassment many getting, which destroys peace of mind, coupled with the huge rise in standards.

    I think those concerns are really legitimate and they (along with the plain old labor issue, because I am interested in that, and the nature-of-the-academy issue, because I am also interested in that) are the main reason why I am so interested in this.

    Post-tenure review does exist in various forms. The question is the whole system. LP and I both seem to think dumping it is like decapitating for a head cold, and in my case, it's because I don't see the tenure system as the root problem. What interests me is why untenured people are interested in dumping it; do I see things they don't, or do they see things I don't? Or, leaving the evaluation of the system in general behind, how does the experience and perspective of this generation differ from mine?

  9. Now that all seems very plausible to me. As the proportion of adjunct to tenure track labor increases, tenure track jobs become scarcer and standards can go up as there is increased competition for fewer tenure track jobs. The escalation of tenure standards would also have the effect of producing an apparent deadwood. That is, faculty who only produced as much has had previously been necessary for tenure will start to look like unqualified slackers by the new and improved tenure standards. That's just evil.

    As for post-tenure review, it's true that it's a fact of life now. But I think it should probably be understood as a means of applying the new standards of productivity to existing faculty. But as colleague once succinctly observed, "If it has to be reviewed, then it's not tenure."

  10. So here's my attempt to come up with a synthesis to our little thesis-antithesis thing going on in re: tenure. it's actually not all that dialectical, but it's a start.

  11. There's obviously a difference between the institution of tenure and the process that goes with it vs. the security that an individual has as part of tenure. Having tenure is good for an individual, but that doesn't mean the tenure process is good.

    I was hurt by the tenure process. Made me miserable for the time I went through it. For me, tenure denial would have meant either tearing apart my family or giving up my chosen career. I worked my tail off to excel in research, teaching and service. Then a professor in my department decided to exact tribute and things got ugly.

    I got tenure, but I lost faith in my university. The best thing about having tenure is that now I don't have to pretend to have faith in my university.

    I agree with tenured radical - job security is a great idea, but the problem is in the gatekeeping.

  12. I think drawing that distinction between tenure itself and the process that decides tenure is an important one. We can value one and deplore the other. Fixing the process then becomes the goal rather than eliminating tenure.

    Since this discussion has now been picked up both by the Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed, I thought I would note one of the comments made by Marc Bousqet on the Chronicle thread. He writes: "Nearly half of all tenure-track faculty are unionized. I think it’s fair to say that the unionism of the unionized half does a lot to protect the tenure rights of the non-unionized half."

    This makes giving up tenure as a prelude to unionization even more wrong-headed, since it will tend to undermine a large number of already existing unions of tenured faculties.

  13. I've now decided tenure should be extended at time of hire. !!!

  14. On Woody's comment - I was hurt by the tenure process when I got it, and seriously harrassed and hounded in my first job long before the question of tenure even came up / for unrelated reasons. I fail to see how getting rid of the tenure system would have stopped *that* ... the time I didn't get tenure it was a professional judgment call, period, no pushing around, no insults, it caused practical problems like tearing up my family, it meant seriously considering giving up my chosen career, etc., etc., but it was not nearly as deeply wounding as what happened (and continues to happen) in the jobs I had before ... way before tenure ... and since ... after tenure.