Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Waving Bye Bye to Tenure

This article from the Chronicle, "Tenure, RIP" is just chock full of stuff to talk about and discuss, so I'll just post the link here without comment and let you all have at it. Something tells me this thread might be a doozy.
Type the rest of your post here.


  1. Not a doozy yet, Chris, so let me have a crack at it.

    Let's assume that tenure will continue to be in decline for the near future; that the relative number of TT positions will diminish. I would predict that, outside of a few elite institutions that essentially have their pick of job candidates, tenure will be one path to more-or-less permanent academic employment, but will coexist with other options.

    Question: Would most of you trade tenure, or the opportunity for tenure, for some other option that provides relatively stable employment? Would you trade tenure for higher salary, etc.? For better support for research? Do we care about tenure only because it is, even now, the only way to imagine a long-term academic career?

  2. In reply to Michael's question - interesting as they are, none of these are relevant to what is motivating the decline in TT or tenured positions. As academia has begun to utilize the business modal as the method to use in managing the institution the problem has become how can the Administration fill its available positions at the lowest cost while providing a stable base of longer term employees? The answer, as the graph shows, is with adjunct professors. I say this having earned my living in academia mostly as an adjunct (labor would refer to us a 'scabs'). This is creating at least a two, if not multi, tiered set of institutional relationships that view each other as enemies, not colleagues. Adjuncts have no real political power even though in some institutions they constitute the majority of instructors. Right now it is a matter or profitability.

    There is another, related issue that I would like to bring up - why don't institutions hire their own graduates? As far as I can tell, academia is the only institution that trains people to perform to high standards and then sends to off to their competitors. Sending off good scholars/teachers to competitors should improve the competitors position against the institution that educates them. Secondly; if the combined institutions are creating more graduates then can be hired then collectively we are creating the environment that makes it possible to hire lower cost employees. People will take the jobs that are available. How does this make sense?evildemon

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  4. Ugh. I just typed a long reply and then lost it. Aaargh.

    The short version:

    Me personally, no, I wouldn't take the deal. Would you? I'm curious how many folks would take it (I honestly have no idea, it's an interesting question, though).

    Mainly, my reasoning is that I think the benefits of tenure stretch far out beyond alleviating my own worries about losing my job. For one, I see it as a plus for the institution, if the institution cares about cultivating quality educational programs and missions. It also helps to create a sense of community ownership and dedication to the institution. I think tenure benefits me, the institution, the way in which my colleagues interact with each other and the school, and in the end the students. A salary raise would not speak to such issues.

    That said, I have no doubt tenure should be restructured so that it protects people if they wish to speak out, be controversial, and so on. I don't think tenure should protect a person in such a way that they can simply stop doing their job.

  5. Chris, one motivation for my original question is that right now we have a dramatically two-tier system: tenure with excellent job security, research support, etc. and contract work with little job security or stability, little support for research, etc. (I'm aware that there are exceptions in public systems that have long-term lectureships.) So I'm wondering if there being a greater diversity of academic appointment types might be welcome. I'm imagining that some positions would be tenured or its equivalent, others would have some combination of the security and protections of tenure, and so on.

    So suppose you had an option between a TT position as currently conceived and a position based on a 6-year contract, but with a salary $10,000 per year greater than the equivalent TT position. Let's say your contract could only be cancelled for institutional financial exigency or negligent job performance, but was in other respects a TT position. (I'm assuming a 6-year tenure clock, so the contract expiration would coincide with the granting or withholding of tenure.)

    I'm assuming almost everyone would prefer the 6-year deal over the current year-to-year appointment. Would anyone opt for the 6-year deal over the TT? I'm not sure I see it as crazy. At the end of the 6-year deal, you might be offered another such deal. Your institution (or another) might be so impressed as to offer you a tenured position. You might secure a similar deal at another school. Or you might decide that academic life isn't for you and you can pursue something else. You also have an additional $60,000 as a down payment on a house or a retirement nest egg.

    Now this is obviously an idealization and perhaps the alternatives that emerge won't be as attractive as this. But it suggests that it's at least possible to have something attractive in between outright tenure and contingent annual appointments.

    Now, three worries:
    1. STUDENT LEARNING. This is a teaching blog, so an obvious question for us to raise is the impact of tenure (or its absence) on student learning. The Chronicle suggests that the decline of tenure has had a detrimental impact on the learning climate at universities. I'd like to see more research on this question.

    2. ACADEMIC FREEDOM: Organizations such as the AAUP defend tenure mostly on academic freedom grounds. That tenure is the instrument that protects academic freedom at American universities is a historical contingency, so there's no reason academic freedom couldn't be protected by contractual means as well. Tenure is a way to get academic freedom, but not the only way.

    3. SHARED GOVERNANCE: The real bite of the loss of tenure, as I see it, is that it moves faculty away from their traditional role as co-governors of their institutions, at least with respect to curriculum and academic policies. If practically all the faculty are contingent, then they aren't likely to have much a voice vis-a-vis the administration. (Not that I'd subscribe to the theory that getting faculty out of the way may be one force driving the decline in tenure...) In any case, serious shared governance in the absence of tenure strikes me as unlikely.

  6. M:

    Good reply, much to think about!

    Some musing on your post - if I had a 6 year contract where I could only be fired for the reasons you lay out, then other than negligence (which of course would need to be explained in quite a bit of detail under a new system of tenure), why would the administration want to go this route? I make 10K more a year - so what are they getting? Surely this money is not coming for free -- what's the giveback? Is it merely the chance to dump me at the end of the 6 year cycle for whatever reasons they want? As I said, personally I'm not motivated by the money, so I would not bite (the ability to pick up and leave is of no value as well, I could do that now). [As well, and to be honest, I seriously doubt that salaries would really move upward in the absence of tenure, but that's a different issue.]

    But I'd be more interested to know why the administration would be interested in such an arrangement. What are they getting out of it that a modification of tenure (to remove deadwood) wouldn't solve, exactly? I'm also curious (perhaps the two questions are linked) why a diversity of types of appointments would make things any better overall in the first place.

    As to your three questions, I agree they are important. On #2, however, just to point out one thing, I'm not sure how academic freedom would be protected in the end without tenure. If at the end of the 6 year term the university simply decides they'd like to "freshen the place up" and hire someone else, they'd be within their rights to do so since we are no longer contractually tied. Of course, that doesn't mean that would be why they'd be moving to a new person. Could be I "caused too much fuss" on a number of occasions. Maybe they dislike that I teach X in my class. On #3, of course I agree as I stated above. This (#3) itself, by the way, should lead to evidence of a negative impact on #1. Shared governance has as an essential component the continual rethinking and redesigning of the university as a quality institution of learning. In fact, in my experience it tends to take up the majority of faculty shared governance.

    I also agree that data would be nice. But should faculty provide it? Or would the administrations be under the burden of showing why a change in the tenure system would not affect pedagogical quality? (Just sayin'!)

    What do you think?

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  9. I think there's a bug in this platform (reproduced my reply three times).

  10. I don't think tenure does anything to protect shared governance. In my experience in academe
    1) faculty who are truly committed to shared governance get involved right off the bat (long before they are tenured) and
    2) faculty who are not so committed never get involved even long after they have tenure and supposedly enjoy the protection of being able to challenge the administration without fear of reprisal.
    So, the tenure system protects the selfish and irresponsible from doing the hard work of managing an institution (while they whine about the poor decisions made by administrators), and exploits the community minded. To add insult to injury, faculty in class (2) often deny tenure to those in (1) because they have been "too busy messing around in university politics rather than doing their real jobs."

    Universities became corporatized because a generation of academics literally sold the store. Too lazy to do anything but pursue their private research and teach whatever they wanted, they handed over governance of their institutions to an administrative class that either does not share any commitment to educating the citizenry or does not have any idea what that means (they think it means getting everyone's thinking "on the same page" through standardized courses, assessments, etc., and they treat students like widgets and faculty like replaceable parts).

  11. I feel like I'm in a Parmenadian Paradox. My name is Socrates, and I'm now following in my own wake. I must be experiencing an anomaly in the space/time continuum. Oh, well. How about some more wine, and where did that young Greek boy go?

  12. Anon:

    I don't disagree that what you cite above in (1) and (2) happens (I said so about (2) above). I agree that tenure does protect those who don't want to participate in governance and allows them to check out. As well, I agree with your (1): some non-tenured faculty participate before being tenured.

    But these things being true doesn't detract from my general point.

    On (2): if you remove tenure, let's say you get the lazy people to show up to governance meetings. As far as I would guess, fear of losing their jobs isn't going to lead them to make meaningful contributions, but it will lead them to warm a chair for the hour or two the meeting lasts.

    In a non-tenured system, will some people speak up anyway? Sure. But in the end you'll have less willing to do it overall because some will see the risk as too great -- not only to annoying administration, but even to annoying their own colleagues. Whether - as in (1) -- some non-tenured faculty will speak up anyway is also different from the truth that some of those people in that set will find their butts on the sidewalk when their contracts expire because of their mouths. That's not right, and it's not good for the school.

    Speaking of the non-tenured, at my own school (just to use an anecdotal case), a survey was done and one of the questions asked whether non-tenured faculty keep silent due to fear or reprisal. The number of people saying "yes" was somewhere in the 60s, percentage wise. And I should add that I work at a school where inter-faculty and faculty to administration relationships are actually pretty good.

    In the end, on the governance issue, the issue should not be whether some will speak up regardless, but rather what would the overall benefits and costs be in both models. I don't doubt the untenured model has some benefits, but I can't see where it is better than the tenured model.

  13. I'm arriving late at this very thought-provoking conversation, but I wanted to ask about actual alternative models that are already in place, not just ones that we can imagine. For instance, I believe that tenure was largely abolished in the UK during Thatcher's leadership. Well, what do scholars and teachers in UK universities report about their ability or willingness to take unpopular stances; to have a hand in university governance; to stand up to administrators (and/or to other faculty colleagues)? Do we have any UK readers who can weigh in with relevant experience?

  14. For those interested in more perspectives on tenure, the NYT just ran a debate on the topic yesterday. Google "New York Times what if college tenure dies"


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