Friday, November 18, 2005

Abolish the Tenure System

One of the hottest debates this week in academe--at least, academe as defined by Inside Higher Ed-- seems to be about whether or not the tenure system should be abolished. Inside Higher Ed features an article about David Horowitz's campaign to abolish tenure because he fears it discriminates against conservatives, and also links to Critical Mass, which points out that the growing number of adjuncts proves that the tenure system is already being phased out. I started to write a comment on the lively thread at Critical Mass, but it turned into a rant which felt more like a blog entry. So here goes.

I have maintained since the first day I was hired as an Assistant Professor that tenure should be abolished. It appeared to me even then that it was a system designed to weed out individuals who were smart enough and useful enough to hire and exploit for six years, but not "good enough" (i. e. "enough like us") to keep. When I said as much in one of my first faculty meetings in my first tenure-track job, my words were met with horror by a dean who remembered the Vietnam era and claimed that only tenure had allowed professors against the war to keep their jobs. Since the dean was raising the question of the relationship of adjunct professors to the tenure system, I thought I should say what I thought about a system I already had deep misgivings about. Having spent four years on the job market chasing a tenure-track job, it seemed to me then that the entire tenure-track system was unfair, biased, elitist, and ridiculous as a marker of intellectual "excellence." I sensed then that such a system would never tenure me, having barely allowed me in in the first place. I thought then that if the process was opened up to have some adjustment between the pathos of the grossly underpaid adjunct and the terror of the tight-lipped, head down tenure-track junior professor, we might eventually get a system of fair work for a fair wage not premised on the weeding-out processes of hiring and tenure.

The truth is--and my apologies to those adjuncts who feel as if their positions are tenuous--I never felt freer than when I was an adjunct. I knew I could be fired for my opinions, sure, but I also knew there were other jobs out there like the one I had, and that if I was a good teacher, I would either be retained where I was or find work elsewhere. I felt as if I could say what I thought, write or not write as I chose, pick projects that interested me, and lead my life. i would be poor--very poor--but my thoughts would be my own.

Not so in a tenure-track job. One of the first things my chair in my second job said to me was that I would have to write a literary book in the field in which I had been hired in order to be tenured. Immediately my horizons narrowed. I was not free to follow my inclinations, or even the trends in a publishing industry moving away from literature monographs. No, I had an assignment. If I wanted to keep my job, I had better write what they wanted me to write.

On the social front, the real story of tenure is that its process allows departments to blur the boundary between the personal and the professional, as fear of not getting tenure forces nontraditional academics (working-class people, single mothers, people of color, queer people) to desperately try to fit in in order to keep jobs they know are very rare. In smaller departments junior faculty are forced to socialize extensively with their colleagues. Is your family-oriented department going to like you if you are a single lesbian? Is your all-white department going to view you as a minority hire with a chip on their shoulder? Are the old men in your department going to read your feminism as strident if you are a woman, or your effeminacy as threatening if you are a man? Can you come out as transgender? When that one faculty member asks you to cover his classes AGAIN because of his trips to Italy, and "jokes" with you about how he'll be voting on your tenure, do you ever have the freedom to say no?

Now that I don't have a job, I feel my horizons expanding again. I find myself interested in more things, and projects suggest themselves to me all the time. Without the job to support the research, the research may never get done, which is one of the conundrums in this problem of academic freedom and the tenure system that supposedly supports it. I know my situation is far from ideal. But even though I could not be more different from him politically, I feel a certain sympathy with Horowitz on the question of the "star chamber" tenure system. Tenure cloaks the personal preferences of individual faculty members, and allows blatant discimination to go on in the name of, of all things, academic freedom. It's time it was abolished, its secret meetings suspended, its fagging practices dismantled, and all of its biases subject to the clear light of day. Only then, I truly believe, will we have some standard of fairness and something that resembles academic freedom.


jo(e) said...

Well said.

When I was up for tenure, my students were asking questions about it and they were incredulous when I explained the process. And the whole thing did sound ridiculous to me as I tried to explain it to these young idealistic students. In what other job could you work for SIX YEARS and then get fired for what are often petty departmental politics. (I did get tenure but I have seen people get turned down for such things as "not fitting in" -- which often means not being a white heterosexual male ....)

Tenure helps enforce the hierarchical nature of academia. Ugh.

What Now? said...

Amen, sister.

The funny thing in my case is that going up for tenure has given certain members of what I like to call the Orthodox Mafia the opportunity (and, in their eyes, the mandate) to speak up about my "deviant lifestyle" in a way that they never did while I was just an assistant professor getting my one-year contracts. So there's something about this it-all-boils-down-to-one-decision business that actually hightens the pressure. And in my case it's all coming down to my sexuality, with everyone admitting that I should clearly be getting tenure based on all of the criteria that we say we evaluate. So I've pretty much had it with the tenure system!

Anonymous said...

Although I adore my work, this evil vertical hierarchy is crushing the breath out of me.

The promise of tenure is around the next corner.

I can make it. I can MAKE it, damn it.

Camicao said...

I'm concerned that abolishing tenure will facilitate the stripping of departments that are seen as "service" oriented-- why hire a Ph.D. in comp/rhet to teach comp when so-and-so with an M.A. can teach writing "equally well"? Why bother with French literature profs when you can just hire French-speakers to teach French as well if not better than a French literature professor with a Ph.D.? Will abolishing tenure make all academic jobs in the humanities part-time jobs?

Sfrajett said...

But isn't this already the trend? The PhD is retained, along with the tenure track, as a marker of elite excellence. Parents who can pay get to demand that their children be taught by professors, not grad students or adjuncts. Parents who can't pay have less say. Tenure may operate as a carrot at all levels of school to attract candidates who might otherwise balk at the shitty pay and shitty attitudes found in the humanities, but wouldn't it be better to just pay people better and let them unionize? I believe unions--REAL unions--might safeguard academic freedom and faculty retention much better that does tenure's "gentlemen's agreement," where we all agree to participate in an exploitative system because we identify with the stars, not the adjuncts. The ideals of tenure, perhaps, could be retained, and the sham system that keeps the whole rickety machine lurching along on the backs of adjuncts, graduate students, and junior faculty can be dismantled permanently.

Winter said...

We don't have a tenure system in the UK. Basically you're either on a permanent contract or you're not. Most younger academics are "not," as you can imagine. As far as I can tell, they keep us on temporary (read conditional) contracts so they can throw us out if we don't produce enough publications. From what you've said, I don't think introducing the US model would help. The whole system needs a rethink.

Pronoia said...

Part of my dissatisfaction with academia was precisely the narrowing of my options, research-wise. I didn't like what I was being forced into writing about, and because of the way my contract was written, I didn't have the option to write about the things I found interesting and, more importantly, valuable to the larger world. For me, the tenure system served not only to perpetuate incredible inequality and status quo, it also served to perpetuate a research system that is, at least in the humanities, increasingly separate from anything anyone else cares about.

Worse, because I had an administrative position (on top of the usual assistant professor duties), I was "encouraged" to write about writing program administration "because it will be easier." Not only was it not what I wanted to write about, I found the diminished expectations for my research, which I can guarantee you would have bitten me in the ass come tenure time, offensive. (This is not to say WPA scholarship isn't scholarship. It's very much scholarship, but it isn't MY scholarship and the attitude of my department was that it was lesser.)

More even than a rethinking of tenure, I think we also need a rethinking of the research agenda.