Tenure-Round 1: The Issues

David Parry bio photo By David Parry

To be honest I was only half serious when I started this rant on Twitter yesterday. You see my Thursday’s are really long, my first class starts at 10:00am and my last class ends at 10:00pm, so I try to keep myself entertained and mentally active. Twitter I discovered is a perfect tool for this. So, given a confluence of events, conversations I have had with faculty and grad students and spurred on by a few tweets by @briancroxall I decided it would be a good time to poke at one of the “sacred cows” of academia: tenure. Now I should admit that one of the things that I appreciate about Twitter is that it can serve as a mechanism for provoking discussion, sort of throwing out provocative statements, over stating the case and seeing what happens (the 140 characters doesn’t lead to deep discussion and debate, but it can provoke). So, while I was serious about my position against tenure I was being overly quippy and reductive about the issue, hence this blog post which will attempt a more nuanced approach, I am on balance anti-tenure. And as I said on Twitter yesterday, It is important to have someone running around saying the emperor has no clothes, even when in fact said emperor is fully clothed (and in this case I think, to carry this metaphor too far, the emperor is at the very least stripped down to his undies).

But I want to be clear, despite my overstated Twitter rhetoric I think on the whole tenure is an outmoded bankrupt system which needs to end. Tenure ain’t what it never was. To be sure at least recently tenure has come under fire, especially from forces external to academic institutions, so my proposal to end tenure, as some observed was neither radical nor new. But on the whole most of these calls have come from a neo-liberal ideology, a sense that faculty members should be subject to the same market forces that most labor is, “produce now, be productive now, or be fired,” a precarious and damaging economic model which does not protect workers. And as @afamiglietti repeatedly pointed out yesterday one of the serious problems with doing away with tenure is that it would turn all academic workers into a large pool of “adjunct labor” at the mercy of administrators who eager to cut cost would bid out classes to the cheapest teachers they could find. I think most of us can agree that we don’t want “academic share-cropping.” I am not eager to introduce more market forces to academia. I agree with many others (see for example Bill Readings) that the corporitization of the institution has seriously harmed academia, and I have no desire to increase said corporitization. This is indeed the danger in eliminating tenure. Furthermore despite @cscan’s claim (he was joking of course) that I am a neocon because I think doing away with tenure will save the University, I am not a neocon. I don’t think academia’s problem is crazy tenured professors producing irrelevant and socially meaningless leftist ideology and that the University would be better off without them. (In fact I wouldn’t even rank tenure in the top five ways to reform higher ed., might not even make the top ten.) Indeed precisely the opposite, tenure is a problem because it is a conservative/conserving force which results in the suppression of intellectually creative and provocative thought. That is, tenures claim to promote academic freedom is actually a lie, it does precisely the opposite.<

One other point that is worth raising here before I launch my assault on tenure: my own position. If we are going to seriously address these issues I think we would do well to admit our own positions within the University structure, for we are discussing power relations and it would be irresponsible for me to discuss said power relations without first admitting to my position within this structure (as many of my Twitter critics pointed out). So, I have a tenure-track job. (I am one of the lucky few.) But, I am not tenured. I do not have any particular angst about this process though, that is I am not particularly nervous about meeting those requirements, this might change in a few years, but for now my position against tenure is not self-serving. Indeed my position against tenure is arguing against my own personal selfish interests. Would I accept tenure if offered? Yes, but hopefully I would then use said power to change the rules, for as I will argue below one of the problems with tenure is that it disproportionally collects power in a few who then use it to reproduce the same. We need people with tenure who will vote to eliminate it. (I am also for what it is worth willing to admit that this is perhaps a self-serving rationalization for my future choices . . .)


It seems to me that there are two central issues with tenure:

    1. It collects power in a minority of the stake holders in an institution, which results in an unequal distribution of not only power to affect change, but also all of the things that go with this.
    1. Tenure actually fosters conservative scholarship not diversity (i.e. that is, it does exactly the opposite of what is intended).

I’ll take these one at a time. First the issue of power relations. No need for me to fully rehash here, it should be fairly obvious to anyone in the institution that this is true. Tenure faculty are paid better, teach fewer classes, frequently are the only ones with voting power, receive better research budgets, have the better offices . . . What shocks me about this distribution though is that the very people who have made a career of analyzing power relations in society (humanities professors) are often the last to recognize what is a fairly obvious inequity. Sure they will suggest that their department should offer more tenure track positions theoretically sharing their power, but ultimately my experience is that most tenure track faculty believe that they have earned the right to tenure, that their tenured position is a result of a meritocracy. I think we should be honest that the system is not a meritocracy but rather a rather standard system of power reproducing and conserving itself, where the few maintain their power by demanding that others participate and achieve within the system that benefits them, rather than questioning the system as a whole. This creates a system, which as several people pointed out yesterday on Twitter, whereby large groups of people are afraid to voice their opinions, speak up, or otherwise question the institution for fear of not being allowed into the “elite,” club. And what is more this “elite club” of Tenure-Track jobs, or tenured faculty creates a false hope, the sense for all the masses of disenfranchised intellectuals that if they just work hard enough, play by the rules and do as they are told, then they to will be admitted to the “in-group.” To be sure some are admitted into the group, but larger numbers are denied access. The tenure-track job serves as the false hope and promise which disciplines “the masses.” Like American Idol it offers the false hope that if you are good enough you might rise to the top, allowing a few to succeed in order to continue the myth that our society is a meritocracy. (And if you think my comparison to reality television is a bit unwarranted, sit in on tenure discussions, ones where “collegiality” is raised as an issue, producing a Survivor-esque atmosphere where people are voted off the island just cause some don’t like them.)

Finally as I think most of us recognize, again to paint a broad picture and not to single out any institutions or faculty in particular, the tenure system places an unequal distribution of work within tenured or tenure track faculty. Assistant Professors yet to get tenure are pressured to say yes to everything, while full professors have the option to decline, to pick and choose, displacing the workload onto the junior faculty. Again this is not true of all full professors, but I think it is true of more than we would like to admit. As a simple test just clock the number of hours a junior faculty member is on campus, versus the number of hours senior faculty are on campus . . .And I think we all know a few cases of the full professor teaching a 1-1 who refuses to work with grad students, and who also has a side job, as say a real-estate agent, making twice the amount of the junior faculty member teaching a 3-3, and six times the amount of the adjunct faculty teaching a 5-5. And before all the full professor faculty members out there leave a comment saying “but I earned that pay, and teaching load” I refer you to all of the CEOs of large companies who say the same thing about their pay and bonuses. . .okay they don’t say that about “teaching load,” but you get the point.

But as far as I am concerned the second issue is the really damaging one, that is tenure actually does the reverse of what it purports. The justification for tenure (and ultimately I am with @@foundhistory on this, that the intellectual freedom argument is sort of a fig leaf, a thin justification for other motives), the only justification as I see it, is academic freedom, that we want to protect faculty from politically/ideological motivated hirings and firings, for perhaps the worst thing that can happen to an academic institution is homogeneity of thought (and I would defend this position independent of political position, as much as I find him annoying and ultimately intellectually shallow I would not want to be at an institution which would not hire David Horowitz solely because of his conservative thinking . . .there are limits to how far I would take this . . .but more on this later). So, despite all the above shortcomings tenure would be defensible if it was the best way to produce diversity of thought. But alas, it does not. In fact and here is the crucial point, tenure doesn’t enable academic freedom, there is no such thing as academic freedom, what tenure does is farm the decision of academic freedom out to other bodies. A majority of institutions make tenure decisions based on publishing record, in other words forces outside the institution which are making market decisions based on what can be profitably sold as an intellectual commodity (usually in book form) are deciding what academics can and cannot say. If you have a standard rather typical academic argument which fits within the narrative of what is acceptable as scholarship you can get published, ideas which do not deviate too far from the norm are acceptable, but truly radical thinking is not. In other words to get tenure you have to produce the same, be conservative make your work fit within the current intellectual frameworks. Only that which can be assimilated within the system is tolerated, that which questions the entirety of the intellectual discourse, that which is truly radical and new, does not count. As I said on Twitter, Tenure is a fundamentally conservative and conserving institution. You think Karl Marx would have ever got tenure by writing Capital?

So indeed, when academics are young and should be producing exciting thought provoking material they are engaged in producing the most conservative of scholarship, that which will be recognized by a body of older “peers” invested in preserving their own ways of thinking, and filtered through a range of market informed forces, literally will this idea sell—the infamous tenure book. Now you might protest that once you have tenure you can publish, produce whatever you want. But seriously folks how often does this happen. It strikes me that these cases are few and far between that more often than not when academics get tenure they continue to produce the same type of scholarship which got them tenure in the first place. I am sure Foucault would have something to say about discipline and disciplining . . .

To be sure there are other issues with Tenure, not the least of which is the job market but I think the two above crystalize my opposition.

Okay that’s enough for now, later I will continue this post and argue for some possible solutions, and more radically perhaps, purpose that the age of digital information renders tenure useless, and provides us with better options. (Teaser: the digital makes transparency possible, which is the very antithesis of the opaque tenure system. . .)