Saturday, July 31, 2010

Burke on tenure

Apropos our recent discussion of tenure, the estimable Timothy Burke captures a lot of my own views on the matter at Easily Distracted. Some select quotes:

... you can all stop talking now about whether it’s a good idea or a bad idea for higher education as a whole, because it is no longer a common institutional practice. It remains at top tier universities and colleges as a perk, as something that makes their jobs attractive to desirable employees. Like all the perks and features that make skilled people want to work for Google or the bonuses that make Goldman & Sachs the place to be for an investment banker. As such, I expect some version of it to remain at the institutions which can afford it.

You can argue against tenure in these terms if you’re against incentives in general. I don’t see too many critics of tenure with a consistent view along those lines. You can argue against it if you think it is a poor incentive for attracting the people that elite institutions should really want, but then you’ll have to tell me who they ought to want instead, why they should want them, and what alternative incentive would attract them.

Where I do feel protected by tenure is with regard to institutional policy and action, in the autonomy I have to shape my courses, participate in governance, enforce what I see as due diligence, have opinions about administrative policy. If you look at institutions without tenure, or with very weak tenure protections, it’s clear that this is the domain where faculty need strong security of some kind. When faculty blow the whistle on profligate presidents, refuse to cooperate with corrupt collegiate athletics, disagree strongly with the dictates of administrators or trustees, defend the integrity of their departments or curricula, they are often the targets of direct and sometimes strikingly crude retaliation. When those faculty are contract or adjunct faculty, they often get shown the exit. 

When it works, tenure doesn’t just protect faculty whistleblowers, but also motivates faculty to be good custodians of their institutional future. We could use that in every workplace. Both British Petroleum and the United States as a whole would be better off if the workers at Deepwater Horizon had been able to voice their concerns not just to the top of their corporate hierarchy but to all stakeholders and concerned parties, including the public.

Others' thoughts on Burke on tenure?


  1. Hi, Michael,
    I'm not sure that I have what rises to the level of "thoughts" about tenure (especially given the variety of forms that it takes). But Burke's piece is certainly helpful to me. Maybe tenure's best -- or anyway, most convincing -- defense will be framed in the sort of custodial terms that Burke uses, where we're thinking of college/universities as workplaces and less as, say, settings for the unfettered pursuit and transmission of truth.

    Burke seems to be suggesting that if THAT (i.e., worker "stakeholdership", rather than free inquiry) be the best rationale for something like tenure, then lots of other workplaces need it, too. Do you agree with him about that?

  2. Vance, let's call this the 'traditional argument' for tenure:

    1. Societies (democratic ones in particular) need a truth-seeking, risk-taking vanguard.
    2. Academic tenure provides the freedom, security, protection, and detachment from market forces necessary to create and sustain such a vanguard.
    SO societies should extend tenure to suitably qualified academic faculty.

    (Yes yes, that's very rough, but I think it captures the gist of a certain line of thinking.)

    The traditional argument is defended by many conscientious folks (the AAUP, e.g.), and I myself find it moderately convincing. But I have doubts. First, many (me included) have some reservations concerning premise 2: for instance, that (a) tenure is the *only* way to protect academic freedom, etc., so as to make possible the truth-seeking vanguard, and (b) tenure really does produce such a vanguard. So tenure doesn't seem obviously either necessary or sufficient for the vanguard.

    More than that, the argument is a rhetorical failure with the larger public. Frankly, a non-trivial segment of the American public has little interest in sustaining an intellectual vanguard. They think they know, via common sense, intuition, religious or cultural tradition, etc., everything worth knowing. Why on earth would they support a class of laborers whose job description includes challenging their conventional wisdom and values? (I'm lookin' at you Socrates!) So I suspect many people's support for premise 1 is weak at best.

    Second, and this is what I think you were picking up on in Burke's remarks, much of the antagonism toward tenure seems motivated by understandable resentment of academics' working conditions. Not only do the tenured have great job security, they have unusual levels of autonomy, flexibility in the organization of their work, and (under shared governance) at least the appearance of a say-so about those conditions and about the natures of the institutions that employ them. I can think of no other profession that has these features. Tenured faculty have, by contemporary American standards, incredible working conditions.

    And so to outsiders, many of whom are already suspicious of 'brain work' as not real work anyway, tenure is the central object of scorn and populist backlash. With unemployment high, employment opportunities for less educated people disappearing, etc., it's natural to resent 'haves', especially those (a) whose work you subsidize with your taxes, (b) who act as gatekeepers for your own children's futures, and (c) sometimes espouse values that are hostile to your own.

    So you ask, Vance: should tenure be reconceputalized as a kind of stakeholdership? I would describe myself as pro-tenure reform, rather than abolition, and in general, seeeing tenure as a way of establishing such stakeholdership might be more persuasive to some. But it would need to be accompanied by some significant rethinking about labor in the U.S. Again, tenured academics work under conditions that are almost completely exceptional in the American context. But rather than acting like we're special and deserve a special set of working conditions, maybe we need to advocate for those outside the academy to have some of the same conditions that we do.

  3. Vance/Michael,

    Micheal's argumentative construction is very helpful, I think.

    I agree that premise (2) is the crucial meat of the situation, though it is likely that it's a great deal more complication than it is as stated (Michael agrees - and the column here is small and so requires some simplification!).

    That said, what is involved in saying that tenure is a SC for the truth-seeking component in (1)? Does this mean that everyone with tenure uses it for such purposes? That 50% of tenured people do? 20%? I'm simply unsure what the percentage needs to be in order to say that tenure is "working" in the way it is intended as a SC for (1). Putting research freedom to the side for a second and focusing just on institutional freedom of speech, I know plenty of people who speak truth-to-power only now that they are tenured. I know some who don't. How many need to be on one side or the other? How many are needed to speak up to stop an institution from abusing its mission and/or its workers? I don't know. Clearly not all, and not even 50% or 20%.

    I don't know enough about the historical arguments for tenure to say that it is a NC for (1), or that it is argued to be such. Others would know better than me. I'm not sure it needs to be a NC, though - it just needs to be the arrangement that provides for (1) with the minimum unintended damage in other areas when compared with alternatives.

    So the argument here needs to show not that tenure isn't a NC (too strong a condition), but that there are other alternatives that can fulfill the job of (1) with less unintended damage.

    So I guess the question is: what are the counter alternatives? Where are the arguments for them? It seems to me sometimes that arguments against tenure in this way are made without suggesting credible alternatives.


    On premise (1), it could well be that the public does not value (1) as a stated goal. If so, tenure will disappear eventually because the vanguard will be seen as an irrelevant goal. The market will dictate conditions, schools will open without tenure, people will send their kids there, etc etc, and if they continue to disvalue (1) more will do so. That will be that, regardless of what we as professors think about it.

    I agree with Michael that in the public eye, academics have unreal working conditions. However this is part of a bargain - academics accept less money for more job security and greater autonomy and less say over where they live their lives (in many cases).

    Some jobs are very high in salary but very low in security but have tons of freedom of movement in living situation. Some jobs have low training requirements and pay little; other jobs require massive training and pay more and have more autonomy. What else is new? All jobs have trade offs.

    Still, academics have a terrible public reputation. Part of this can be fixed not so much by tenure reform (I'm not opposed to that) but rather by administrations actually using their often held power to fire tenured professors for poor performance (my school can do this, many can too but choose not to). Often it's not tenure that is in the way, but an administration unwilling to fire the professor for one reason or other (often I think when it is done it's done privately through some agreement, ex. early retirement or something).

    Still, in the end, I don't disagree with Micheal's general point that we need to do a better job explaining what we do, and why our jobs are structured the way that they are. This is true.

    At the same time, academics are also easy 'red-meat' targets for lots of politicians trying to score quick and easy points with their constituencies. So perhaps not all the fault lies with us?

  4. Sorry, please insert...

    "but that there are NO other alternatives that can fulfill the job of (1) with less unintended damage." the appropriate spot. As we all know, a forgotten negation changes everything!


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