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.