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December 16, 2008 [feather]
So you want to defend tenure ...

I'm always getting into disagreements on this blog when I post about tenure. I don't think it works. It encourages cowardice, laziness, and intellectual conformity where it ought to do the opposite; it does not protect academic freedom, particularly in an era where the bulk of college teaching is done by the untenured; and it paralyzes the academic job market in ways that are debilitating for institutions and individuals. I also think tenure is over, that by replacing retired tenured professors with armies of cheap, contingent faculty members who can be hired and fired at will, colleges and universities have, in the aggregate, effectively dismantled the tenure system without ever having to declare (and thus debate) their intentions.

In this respect, defenders of tenure often strike me as strangely anachronistic--in trying to preserve a tradition that is now the exception to a new rule, and is therefore no longer a tradition, they are years out of date. They are also powerfully beside the point. It seems to me sometimes that what is really happening in these attempts is displaced self-justification. The tenured have survivor's guilt--not to mention a great deal of unacknowledged responsibility--for what has happened on their watch. In belatedly defending the tenure system, they attempt to justify themselves, and their exceptional professional privilege, through a seemingly principled argument about what is fair for all. Along the way, they overlook the fact that we can't go back in time, and that, to borrow a phrase, tenure has left the building.

Those are just my compressed thoughts on a Tuesday morning after a long weekend of travel and conference-going.

But they dovetail with something Mark Bauerlein writes in this morning's Minding the Campus:


Faculty members and professional organizations protest strenuously the loss of tenure, and they cite two reasons. First, they say that any university dropping tenure won't attract superior talents, and second, they maintain that the loss of tenure entails the loss of academic freedom. Once again, however, instructional needs dispel the criterion of best and brightest, for there is little evidence that full-time faculty are better teachers than part-timers are. And as for academic freedom, sad to say, tenure has devolved from a system that encourages independence into a system that ensures conformity. Tenure is supposed to protect against-the-grain thinking so long as it observes academic norms, but after five years of graduate training, a year or two as post-doc or adjunct, then six years as an assistant professor, individuals fortunate enough to win tenure have other ambitions than challenging reigning ideas and practices. They've spent too many years adapting to professional etiquette and internalizing protocols to change at age 40. Those things got them hired, published, and promoted, and the acculturation is set.

This is to say that faculty members and professional organizations need other arguments against "adjunctization." It is also to recognize that administrators cannot withstand financial pressures to cut tenure bit by bit, especially in the current moment. Teachers do need and deserve some form of job security. We can't reasonably ask them to complete five to eight years as doctoral students and post-docs and not provide some stability once they've finished. We also can't make them directly subject to forces as volatile as student enrollments, endowment fluctuation, and annual budgeting.

But however appealing the tenure system might appear to them, it is too rigid and costly to last. To fend off adjunctization, then, individuals and professional organizations need to craft and defend a different model. They need to develop employment schemes less absolute but still protective and meritocratic. One possibility might be to grant teachers some form of tenure, but on the basis of teaching duties, not research expertise. That is, they would be hired to handle undergraduate student demands more than to fulfill a disciplinary field. So, as the burdens shift in the undergraduate student body---for instance, fewer students in Romance languages, more in freshman composition---professors would shift as well, in this case, with Romance language professors reducing their language courses and assuming freshman comp duties (after some re-training). That would require, of course, that professors lighten their research identities and raise their teaching profiles---a welcome adjustment in all humanities and "softer" social science fields. Agreeable or not, however, some adjustment is necessary. Administrators and trustees already have a system in place, and they're not going to change it unless a viable alternative comes along.


I agree about shifting the measure of professional excellence and the corresponding reward of job security onto teaching, especially for the humanities. And as I have noted here many times, academe needs to find a third way, a model for job security that represents a compromise between the two unworkable poles of tenure and comprehensive adjunctification. Fixed term contracts, anyone?

posted on December 16, 2008 9:45 AM




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Comments:

I wonder if maybe one reason that professors often lack enthusiasm for teaching, especially undergraduate teaching, is that so many students are there only because they feel they *have* to be there...ie, they have been driven by the slogan "get a college degreee (or, increasingly, a graduate degree) so you can get a good job" rather than by any desire or perceived need to learn anything in particular. It has to be demotivating to go in day after day and face classes full of uninterested people--yeah, for a supersalesman it could be an exciting challenge, but supersalesmen are rare even among salesmen.

Indeed, teaching in an environment where college is viewed as mandatory probably bears some resemblance to being a military officer in an army of conscripts--something most of today's officers are not at all eager to see restored.

Posted by: david foster at December 16, 2008 1:31 PM



We can't reasonably ask them to complete five to eight years as doctoral students and post-docs and not provide some stability once they've finished.

Perhaps it's the requiring of a doctorate and a post-doctorate and junior faculty time that's the problem, not the lack of job stability?

Posted by: Annoying Old Guy at December 16, 2008 1:49 PM



Erin,
I think you’re right about tenure having quietly left the building. In the social science department where I work, adjuncts and graduate assistants teach the bulk of the freshmen and sophomores, and I sometimes wonder how tenure-track faculty members can defend this practice, or for that matter, their own positions. (Their teaching loads are light by our own university and national standards.)

Regarding the need to find a “third way,” I would opine that the global market and international higher ed. competition will change the way our colleges and universities function whether or not plans are soon made to alter course. The change we can believe in is that the number of students in the humanities and social sciences will shrink – in some departments dramatically. The days of going to college to find oneself or to hide out from the job market are coming to an end. Language departments will once again be primarily concerned with teaching language and not having faculty do “cutting edge” research, which often means writing specious cultural studies articles. Most foreign students arrive on our campuses with the ability to speak in several languages. We must train our young people in a similar manner and produce better qualified graduates in every field. The way to do that is to reward teaching to a greater degree than we do now. The 21st-century American research university, based on a 19th-century German model, should not apply the same rules to the soft sciences and the humanities. A teaching outcomes model should be used instead.

I don’t want to give the impression that all social science or literary theory is bad, but I do question the need for so much of it. (And I realize that there are schools, large and small, that are doing a great job of educating students.) But there simply is no economic need for the large number of majors in, say, Sociology or Communication Studies. Many of these students would be better served by obtaining trade or technology certificates than by partying and sleepwalking through four or five years of studying subjects they don’t really like, will never use, and for which they will accrue significant debt. (Of course, the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake is of intrinsic value to our culture. We need deep philosophical thinkers, square peg geniuses, great, crazy poets, and intellectual social critics. Higher Ed. should make a place for them. But most of us just need to be literate, numerate and have an ability to thrive in the world.) Anyway, the change to come is going to be painful. After half a century of being so far ahead of other countries economically, we face daunting competition from India, South America, China, Europe and elsewhere that is going to force big, common sense changes in American higher education, and even those of us who are critics of the current system are not going to be happy about those changes.

Posted by: TG at December 16, 2008 8:32 PM



TG, thank you for the "economy is Providence" argument. Next time I hear a crypto-con whinging about the postmodern "death of the author," I'll think of this moment and smile. I mean, the most doctrinaire Marxist couldn't have given more agency to the market than to the humans who create the market and who should be served by it.

This whole discussion assumes that administrators *want* a Third Way. But there's no sign of that. Adjunctification is not happening because of some reasoned critique of tenure. It began in the midst of economic plenty, and it'll only snowball in the face of want. It's more about saving money and gaining wholesale control over labor from the top down.

Any Third Way revision of tenure should begin with the unionization of all academic labor.

Posted by: Luther Blissett at December 17, 2008 5:53 AM



Tell it, Luther.

We're dealing here with several dubious claims:

Tenure doesn't protect academic freedom. Well, it sure as hell does for me. Thanks to tenure, I've actually fought battles with my administration effectively enough to win occasionally. Thanks to tenure, I'm introducing the Book of Mormon and other Mormon scriptures into the study of early American lit--over the objections of many LDS students and faculty here on campus and in the local community.

I wonder sometimes if people misinterpret the comparative paucity of publicized cases in which tenure does protect someone's academic freedom. Isn't it possible that this paucity indicates tenure's effectiveness in preventing abrogations of academic freedom from occurring in the first place?

Tenure has produced disciplinary groupthink. Because, you know, New Criticism and feminist criticism and Marxist criticism and deconstruction and reader-response criticism and New Historicism are all identical ways of thinking. Because, you know, everyone in academia thinks the same way about the cross-disciplinary implications of cognitive science or about the arguments of Peter Singer or Catherine MacKinnon or John Rawls or Helene Cixous. No sir, we all think alike.

Now, it's true that, in English at least, these things tend to run in cycles, with periods of relative conformity (e.g., the heyday of the New Criticism that conservatives, lovers of groupthink that they are, remember so fondly) followed by bursts of intellectual diversity and contention (and conservative complaint). But the idea that tenure explains the periods of relative conformity, yet has no relation to the diversity, strikes me as bunk. It's also true that much academic disputation takes place below the public radar. Joe the Plumber doesn't know about most of the disagreements, but he does know that most of us think alike concerning intelligent design, market fundamentalism, and exorcisms. And this creates a certain leverage for people like David Horowitz. But hey, what are you gonna do?

Tenure creates deadwood. Maybe in Erin's experience, but not where I work. I wonder if there isn't a certain kind of mindset susceptible to this idea because it can't conceive of anyone pulling their weight because they like their job, or because they believe in the social mission of public higher ed. If so, how sad.

Posted by: Eveningsun at December 17, 2008 10:49 AM



You’re welcome, LB.

Maybe unionization should be considered. I’m not against it in principle. To respond to the points you made – the adjunctification to which you refer did not happen in the midst of economic plenty at public universities. States have been decreasing the budgets of their higher ed. institutions for thirty years or more. I think it is the norm for the typical public university to get only between 25 and 35 percent of its budget from the state. At the highly ranked U. of Michigan, it is less than 15 percent. About administrations gaining control -- OK, sure, they’re often bloated. I’m all for decreasing the size of them. But if this really is about a conspiracy to gain “wholesale control over (academic) labor from the top down,” I know you will join me in calling on all tenured professors from around the country to march on their campuses, to take their grievances loudly and in person to their state legislatures, and to plan and carry out a massive Three Thousand Tenured Academics March on Washington, DC.

On a lighter note, I am glad that my “crypto-con whining” had something of a therapeutic effect on you. What the world needs now is more smiling, especially in academe.

May you have a joyous holiday season, and a prosperous new year!

Posted by: TG at December 17, 2008 7:48 PM



"They need to develop employment schemes less absolute but still protective and meritocratic. One possibility might be to grant teachers some form of tenure, but on the basis of teaching duties, not research expertise."

Two problems here, one with each sentence. First, any employment scheme that is less absolute will not, by definition, be protective (nor, in all likelihood, will it be meritocratic). Either they can fire you or they can't; there's really not much middle ground here, and fixed-term contracts would only delay the purge of gadflies, lefties, and expensive senior professors. (I am assuming, of course, that this is not the actual goal of tenure's critics.)

Second, Bauerlein's notion of granting tenure based on teaching rather than research betrays a misunderstanding of the academic marketplace. Why, for example, do parents pay tens of thousands of dollars a year to send their offspring to Bauerlein's own Emory University instead of shipping them across town to Georgia State for a fraction of the cost? The answer is obvious: because Emory is a far more prestigious institution, highly ranked by U.S. News, and guaranteed to impress future employers. And why is Emory a more prestigious institution? Because of the research exploits of its faculty. Truth be told, the classroom teachers at Emory are probably no better than the ones at GSU. But the books and articles they publish are far more influential and visible. In short, any well-ranked institution that took up Bauerlein's suggestion would damage itself immediately and probably irreparably.

Posted by: ScottF at December 20, 2008 6:21 AM



"And why is Emory a more prestigious institution? Because of the research exploits of its faculty"...this may be true of the Emory medical school, but I don't think it's the primary reason for Emory's prestige in general. The reason Emory is more prestigious than Georgia State is that it's harder to get into; hence, its degrees have scarcity value and signaling power.

I doubt if the typical corporate marketing manager who is hiring a junior marketing analyst has any clue about the quality of the research done at Emory's business school, and I feel pretty confident he has no clue at all about the quality of the research done by the Philosophy and History faculties.

Posted by: david foster at December 20, 2008 7:44 AM



"The reason Emory is more prestigious than Georgia State is that it's harder to get into; hence, its degrees have scarcity value and signaling power."

True, but it still comes down to the scholarly reputation of the faculty. If Georgia State decided to start rejecting all but the most highly qualified applicants, its enrollments would plummet irrespective of the newfound scarcity value of its degrees. Emory can afford to do this because there is high demand among top-notch students to attend Emory. And the reason for this demand is because of Emory's superior academic prestige.

"I doubt if the typical corporate marketing manager who is hiring a junior marketing analyst has any clue about the quality of the research done at Emory's business school, and I feel pretty confident he has no clue at all about the quality of the research done by the Philosophy and History faculties"

Again, true, but somewhat beside the point. The marketing manager only needs to know that Emory is a prestigious institution. S/he doesn't need to know about the quality of the research done by the school's historians and philosophers. The important point is that the people who rank schools in terms of prestige DO know these things, and take them very seriously.

Think of the schools that have raised their visibility and prestige profile in recent decades. They invariably did so by hiring the most prolific and distinguished scholars, not by looking for Mr. Chips. UC-San Diego is an excellent example. Today, it is almost as difficult to get into UCSD as it is to get into Cal or UCLA. That wasn't true 25 years ago.

We may wish it were otherwise, but that's the reality.

Posted by: ScottF at December 20, 2008 9:23 AM



Emory and Georgia State could probably swap faculties and student bodies and it would still take 5 years for the change to be fully reflected in their reputations. Brand perceptions have a lot of intertia.

A very quick look at the US News & World Report ranking criteria didn't show much in terms of emphasis on research...25% of the rating is based on "peer rankings," but the rankers are supposed to be doing the evaluation based on teaching. There is probably some halo effect for resarch, though. I personally think much of the USN&WR approach is pretty silly, but a lot of people seem to take it seriously.

A university's research emphasis may have an indirect effect on teaching quality to the extent that the professors who are the best teachers are also very committed to research...but is this really true? The answer, I would guess, varies from field to field.

Posted by: david foster at December 20, 2008 2:16 PM



"A very quick look at the US News & World Report ranking criteria didn't show much in terms of emphasis on research...25% of the rating is based on "peer rankings," but the rankers are supposed to be doing the evaluation based on teaching."

Not only is 25% a huge proportion, but the peer rating is probably one of the indicators in the study with the greatest variance. As such, it presumably has a disproportionate influence on where the various schools actually rank.

I'll take your word for the fact that the peer ratings are supposed to be based on evaluations of teaching, but it probably doesn't matter. Most peer evaluators have no idea how good, in general, the teachers are at any institution other than their own. Thus, the default peer rating will almost certainly be based nearly 100% on the scholarly visibility and reputation of the faculty (the halo effect, as you call it).

Posted by: ScottF at December 22, 2008 6:45 AM



ScottF...just for fun, here's an analogy:

Suppose there were hundreds of different airlines, instead of a relatively small number. And suppose there were no FAA/NTSB to regulate safety and report on safety records...instead, passengers select airlines based on "peer review." Pilots, executives, and other employees publish their opinions of all the other airlines. However, these evaluations are only partly based on safety...they also include things like the quality of the retirement program, the proportion of PhDs in the operations research department, the size of the stock option grants for senior executives, and the availability of company-sponsored golf courses for the baggage handlers.

To the extent that consumers were led to believe they were getting a safety rating, when the ratings were really based on things mainly of interest to airine employees themselves, the industry would be behaving dishonestly.

Isn't this a little bit like universities evauating each other primarily on research while underemphasizing the criterion (teaching) that is of most direct interest to students, parents, and employers?

Posted by: david foster at December 22, 2008 9:16 AM