Monday, June 22, 2015

The end of tenure?

Once again, I find myself agreeing with Rebecca Schuman:
But here’s the thing that Walker, and Vos—and probably the general public—just doesn’t seem to get: To the majority of American faculty, quibbling about tenure is irrelevant, because they are ineligible for it and always will be. “How do you prove that tenure is necessary when a majority of your colleagues have been working without it?” asks long-term “visiting” professor John Warner in Inside Higher Ed. “Where will tenure be in 10 years?” asks Josh Boldt on Vitae. “No adjunct professor should care.” . . . .
Instead of fighting about tenure, perhaps we should decide what the post-tenure university should look like. Out of extreme cynicism comes extreme pragmatism, and now is the best time (possibly the only time) for professors to maintain the approximation of an intellectual vision rather than the gleeful strip mall–ification of some pandering governor or executive slumming it as an administrator. . . .
Yes, there are problems with tenure, but they are not the largely fictitious ones championed by right-wing jerks. The problem with tenure is not that it allows “elites” (who make $50,000 a year) a “job for life” (nope). It’s that too few people have it so there’s nobody left to fight for it, and for the academic freedom it promises. What few tenured academics remain are handed just enough disproportionate power to maintain just enough acrimony that everybody is too busy being at each other’s throats to mind the store.
I'm still convinced that a system where the great majority of faculty are tenured or tenurable is the best option, but, as an almost-certainly-permanent (if relatively privileged) member of the contingent class, I'm finding it harder and harder to get excited about threats to tenure per se (as opposed to, say, broader threats to faculty governance, which at this point start with the fact that, at many institutions, the great majority of the faculty have neither opportunity nor time to be involved in governance at all).  At the very least, having a conversation about what a functional system without tenure would look like might give us a chance to identify more clearly what's wrong with the current system.

Full article here


  1. I'm working my way through the article and its multiple linked articles; just finished with Boldt's, which is thought-provoking indeed.

    I find myself thinking that a pure free-market, businesslike approach that concentrates power in the hands of the few (trustees, provost, etc.) without the check and balance that faculty governance provides will lead to attempts to garner customer satisfaction at the expense of standards, which is not in the public's best interest. I've expressed a few other thoughts about this in this comment.

    1. So I should state for the record that I'm in favor of converting contingent positions into tenure line, with salary and role in governance to match.

    2. That would be my ideal solution as well -- some variation on a teaching tenure line in research-oriented universities (with due care to keep such positions from being second-class ones), and the creation of more of the existing sort of tenure-line position in institutions where faculty are already primarily teaching-oriented. I'm just not sure if we have any hope of getting there -- and if not, I'm not sure that tenure in its present form is doing anybody (even the tenured) much good.

    3. I'm with you, OPH, on the dangers of letting the market decide what we should be teaching or researching.

  2. In the comment section of this article, which is linked to Shuman's piece, is a follow-up by the author:

    "In the case of Wisconsin, tenure is necessary in the service of institutional governance, a protection for faculty to speak out against policies that they believe harm any part of the mission of the institution."

    This articulates an important point for which I'd been struggling to find the words. Without tenure, faculty governance turns into a puppet show, and the bullshit alluded to in this conversation would become the norm. (I indeed began an article about the bullshit; perhaps someday I'll finish and post it?)