A Few Scattered Thoughts on Tenure

The higher ed blogosphere, to which I’m addicted, has been abuzz this week about the future of tenure, a discussion spurred in large part by a Chronicle of Higher Ed article which cynically predicted the demise of the institution. In addition to a 173-comment-long discussion on that article itself, conversations have spun off onto the Chronicle blog, the NYT, and (of all places!) Megan McArdle’s blog, where she airs that dumb, tired argument that tenure is bad because it prevents the firing of ineffective professors with low output—which is not only wrong when it’s trotted out in the K-12 education reform debate, but even more so when mapped onto higher ed. The practices of scholarship and education cannot be discussed in the language one would use in the business world, in which “outcomes” and “output” and “results” can be easily measured in fiscal terms and used to evaluate the “effectiveness” and “efficiency” of employees. There is no viable way in which to calculate whether a scholar or a teacher is using her time in an efficient way, especially from outside the academic world. From an extramural standpoint, for example, a professor might not have published in ten years, but perhaps that’s just how long it’s taken to carry out the lab experiments necessary to prove her hypothesis so that she can publish; or perhaps she’s been on a decade-long scavenger hunt for primary sources. Perhaps she gets poor teaching evals because she’s a tough grader. The point is that those like McArdle who are inclined to oppose tenure because it would seem like a poor corporate practice have forgotten that universities do not, in fact, have to demonstrate profit to their shareholders, and that what looks like wasted time to anyone who isn’t part of the academic world may not necessarily be (the “summers-off” myth is another good example of that).

The Swarthmore history professor Timothy Burke has a great response to the tenure discussion on his blog, in which he both discusses how tenure has benefited him and raises some of the more legitimate concerns about the institution (it may not really help to protect academic freedom; although it protects tenured professors from having to constantly demonstrate that they’re producing knowledge, it puts intense pressure on junior faculty to have a book in the works straight away, which may not be too different from the “demonstrated outcomes” b.s.). However, Prof. Burke, like those with whom he disagrees, discusses tenure in business-like terms, comparing it to systems of incentives or traditions of institutional investment in the corporate sector and the government. And while I think I see the case he’s trying to make, that tenure isn’t so very different from the employment practices of other professional institutions, but to me this is not the way to make the case that the university is not, in fact, a business.

I’m stuck on this idea of anti-corporatism because I see it as vital to ensuring the survival of the university as institution, and also to securing what little is left of a culture of intellectualism in America. The more we treat education like a business, and advocate that those who work in education be treated like corporate employees or like commodities (witness the strategy the neoliberal/conservative ed reform movement advocates of bringing recent college graduates into the K-12 system, working them on a 14-hour-day schedule until they burn out, then bringing in new ones), the more we erode any sort of lingering cultural belief that knowledge is good for its own sake. The more we chip away at tenure, the more education will take place in for-profit, online institutions staffed by adjuncts, offering courses of vocational merit but not those which teach methods of humanistic inquiry and aesthetic appreciation. Tenure, despite its problems (publish-or-perish being the most significant one I can think of) is both a visible and a practical reminder that scholars and educators and intellectual culture are necessary to a well-functioning democracy, a bulwark against cuts in funding and skepticism about those weird people who write books no one can understand and get three-month vacations every year (haha! I say to myself as I think about the thesis I’m not writing right now).

As I write this, I am sitting in a coffeeshop at UC San Diego, the university I grew up in before I set out to become an academic on my own. UCSD is a top-ranked research university, struggling along despite its serious funding troubles, and most of its faculty are—for the moment—tenured. But plenty of programs are nevertheless staffed by lecturers and adjuncts who can be eliminated at the drop of a hat; should those serious funding troubles dictate that their programs be cut, they could wake up without jobs. They are second-class citizens, dispensable and disposable, and that means that their programs, their labs, their centers are too: should the State of California decide it no longer cared to support higher education, only those with tenure would have a prayer of holding onto their jobs as experts in their fields, as educators, and as the physical manifestation of the once-so-great, once-so-holy, American university.

Those who advocate the abolition of tenure from outside academia, I suppose, care too little about university culture for it to matter to them whether universities largely staffed by adjuncts can survive in today’s America, where there is little money to be found for education that is not immediately and obviously vocational. But I shudder to think what our country and our world will be like without people whose job it is to study it, its peoples, its cultures, its art; to publish that knowledge; and to teach the next generation—encouraging them to think about themselves, each other, and the world they inhabit. Maybe the Megan McArdles of this world see tenure as inefficient because, dazzled by the sparkling beauty of capitalism, they don’t see the need for humanistic inquiry. But as anyone who has ever read a novel, listened to a piece of music, seen the beautiful pattern of a mathematical algorithm, watched life begin in a petri dish, or observed her fellow humans be human can surely attest, we cannot allow these things to be lost to a culture of economic profitability and demonstrated efficient outcomes. Whatever it takes—whether it’s tenure as we know it today, or something else like it—we need to preserve a method of ensuring the safety of intellectual culture.

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