Tenure from a Wide Angle

So I see that the issue of tenure has come up again while I was away. No surprise: it will keep coming up until some stable new institutional norm for academic employment emerges.

What is much clearer now than when I first began to be involved in these debates is that tenure in higher education has already been abolished. That’s right: 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. If you had to ask me whether I’d prefer to triple my salary or have a very strong guarantee of continued employment, I’d choose the latter, particularly in this economy.

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. You can argue against it if you think it is more costly (in money or otherwise) than comparable incentives that would work equally well. But in these terms, it’s nothing particularly different than what other successful businesses and incentives do to retain workers. It’s only different in that much of the U.S. economy has moved to being a buyer’s market rather than a seller’s market as far as labor goes, and most workers don’t have incentives or perks or bonuses, rather instead they’re treated as disposable units who have no choices or options. Including, unfortunately, most of higher education. It seems to me that the problem here is the general evolution of work and the diminution of middle-class life in the United States, and tenure per se is something of a red herring in that discussion.

I’ve long voiced my skepticism about whether tenure protects academic freedom in terms of the subject matter and methodology of scholarly research. Even with tenure, both administrators and colleagues who are determined to make life difficult for a maverick (or nutcase) researcher can do so. Most scholars are disinclined to be mavericks anyway, both because consensus thinking in many disciplines is fairly reasonable, useful and truthful and because scholarship by its nature is inclined to be incremental and collective. When scholars want to break from consensus, they are often so strongly motivated by their ideas or insights that they would whether or not they had tenure. Tenure is also such a powerful incentive that acquiring it tends to suppress rather than reward iconoclastic thinking. I don’t feel that tenure makes me feel safer to have new ideas or explore new intellectual terrain. Incidentally, I don’t also feel that it protects me much in the classroom, and maybe that’s good thing: the classroom is not a space for me to just spout off about whatever impulsive thought has come to mind. (That’s what blogs are for!) Even with tenure, I should always think carefully about how I teach, because that’s what doing that job well involves.

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.

Contemporary American universities are decentralized by their very nature, and by and large that decentralization is what allows them to be as excellent and productive as they are. Individual faculty and groups of faculty share very significantly in the management and custodianship of their universities and colleges. When that managerial share declines and administration becomes more centralized and hierarchical, the quality of a university falls in proportion to that shift.

The thing is, this too is a wider issue than the university, because I think most workplaces and institutions have the same issues with excessive hierarchy and centralization, and we’re all paying the price of that development. In general, we need both businesses and civic institutions to have a flatter, more decentralized character, to use networks more effectively to accomplish their work, and to strongly protect the autonomy of skilled people to do what they do best and to speak out clearly about errors and failures where they see them.

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. Bradley Manning is a fucking hero, whatever his motivations: the citizens of the United States, Afghanistan and the world deserved to know all along what Wikileaks has now revealed. Sunlight really is the best disinfectant, and we need strong legal and institutional guarantees that sunlight will shine hard and long into every nook and cranny of our lives. So in this sense, let’s think less of tenure as a narrow privilege of intellectual freedom that belongs uniquely to a single profession and more as one possible way to produce organizations which are productively decentralized, generous in the autonomy they provide to motivated and skilled workers or contributors, and which strongly protect people on the inside who want to talk freely with the outside world about what works and doesn’t work in their organizations.

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4 Responses to Tenure from a Wide Angle

  1. In general, I think you’re right about the benefits of tenure for governance. However, from my standpoint at a research university, I’m not so pessimistic about the intellectual benefits of tenure.

    One crucial area where tenure protects academic freedom, at research intensive universities and selective liberal arts colleges, is in the case of subfields of scholarship that have become unfashionable. Think about intellectual history in the late 1970s and 1980s. If course enrollments and book sales had been used to determine whether intellectual historians’ contracts would be renewed, we would have lost a great deal. Tenure is inherently conservative on an institutional level, but from the standpoint of stewardship, that’s not a bad thing–quite the contrary. It ensures that trends, no matter what their merit, do not wholly prevail at those institutions where tenure still exists.

  2. dmerkow says:

    I pretty much agree wholeheartedly and I think this points to why folks like Megan McCardle @ the Atlantic and others in the recent flareup have come out of the MBA world, which drinks deep of a hierarchical corporate structure that runs heavily counter to the management philosophy that the best universities seek to have (cooperative governance).

  3. Tenure (as currently practiced in higher ed) is predicated on the model of the university instructor as a scholar-teacher (the exception seems to be some community colleges where tenure is entirely based on teaching and is vested after a fairly short probationary period), a model we were trained in and trained for. If we’re going to abandon it — and I agree that it seems to be decreasingly common, though I’m not yet convinced that it’s un-recoverable, plus I haven’t got it yet — then we’re going to need to entirely revisit the training and evaluation model of higher ed, with particular attention to finding ways to evaluate teachers that go beyond RMP/Customer Satisfaction Surveys.

  4. James_West says:

    I’m faculty at Vanderbilt, which is in the top five in research funding – and it doesn’t effectively have tenure any more. This has been true everywhere I’ve been: tenure means that they won’t take your title away, but they don’t have to continue to pay you.

    On the other hand, at most research universities, they’re effectively only renting you space, anyway, and title is just dependent on how much money you’re bringing in. This is almost, but not quite, explicit. I pay myself, all of my people, and for all of my operations, as well as 54% indirects to the university. This is how it works at every university I’ve worked at.

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