The Veil

Oso Raro and Tenured Radical underline one of the biggest problems with the tenure system in academia: its mystery.

They’re both trying to write about a controversial tenure case at the University of Michigan, to understand the seeming mismatch between the public transcript of the candidate’s accomplishments and the private decisions of the candidate’s colleagues. The problem is that there is no way to know about the second. A person who is denied tenure can go public with his or her reading, but the people involved in the denial can’t, regardless of whether they acted in good faith or not. Maybe there’s something we don’t know. Maybe there isn’t, and the public reading is all that we need to know that something went wrong. The uncertainty drives both outsiders and insiders mad with distraction. It makes it hard on the people being tenured or denied tenure: you want to go public, reveal, to say, “There is nothing unknown here, no private secret”.

The more you know about how tenure works as a system at your own institution, and at others, the less you can speak about its workings. I don’t feel I can talk in even heavily redacted terms about cases I’ve known directly (here and elsewhere) because that violates an essential commitment to confidentiality. The more cases you’ve seen in your own institution and throughout your discipline, the more you can imagine that there is something important about a given case that no outsider knows, but also the more you can imagine that something unfair happened in any given case.

The problem isn’t just mystery, though. It’s also mystification, the extent to which the parochial imagination of many academics leads them to believe that there is something different about the professoriate. In some ways, there is absolutely nothing unique about the confidentiality of the tenure system. When middle managers and professionals in other workplaces are fired, the same asymmetry of information applies. The person who is fired can choose to make a public stink about it, and that will circulate to the extent that the person is well-known in their profession or their community. The organization doing the firing often can’t say much about it for legal and professional reasons. By comparison, the tenure system is typically less arbitrary, more procedural, more knowable. If I were a vice-president at a bank–or even a senior administrator or adjunct faculty at a university–I could be terminated in much more unexpected, unfair or capricious fashion. You can object to the practice of firing people for anything but serious, documentable non-performance of their duties, but at that point, you’re really objecting philosophically to any labor market, objecting to termination as the whip hand of any kind of labor.

What makes tenure more fraught is not its secrecy, but its proceduralism. If I’m the bank vice-president, I can tell friends, colleagues and future employers that I was fired over a matter of principle, or by a boss whose ego was threatened, or because my bank was downsizing, or for other arbitrary reasons, and have all those narratives be perfectly credible. The existence of a lengthy dossier with evaluations from local colleagues, outside experts and students, a dossier evaluated in two or three or four separate confidential processes, seems to make the decision less arbitrary.

What makes tenure more fraught is also its consequences. There are a lot of banks and a lot of bank vice-presidencies, and a lot of other jobs that a bank vice-presidency might lead to. In some fields of academic study, there are perhaps no more than fifty to one hundred jobs total worldwide for which one might be qualified, many of them occupied by tenured faculty who can be expected to teach in those positions for the next two decades or more. For each open position, there will be many candidates, and anyone with a tenure denial on their record is at a disadvantage. Academics train for six or seven years, search for jobs for three or four years, teach for another six or seven, and then face the possibility of having to start over, in some cases with a near-total loss of the time invested in between. And that’s if you get lucky enough to get a tenure-track position in the first place, since the conditions of academic labor outside the tenure-track are exceptionally poor.

With or without tenure, however, confidentiality is still going to be an issue in academic life, as it is in all modern institutions. How do you document processes and decisions which by their nature cannot be documented? Motivations which remain unspoken, choices that happen by passive assent to an implicit narrative, secrets and silences: all institutions work by these processes as well as by public transcripts, transparent deliberations, honest actors.

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3 Responses to The Veil

  1. withywindle says:

    There’s something very meta about a post on how tenured professors can’t comment which has attracted no comments.

    I’m just glad Iron Dragon’s Daughter isn’t a how-to on how to get tenure.

    I hope.

  2. Craig Smith and I have been starting from the ground up on tenure. Here’s my most recent post, which allows interested to work backwards (along the way, we’ve kind of gotten Lumpenprofessoriat and profacero into the mix). It’s less on process than on structure….

  3. Jerry White says:

    At my institution (U of Alberta), tenure decisions are made by the same (faculty-elected) committee that evaluates our files for annual salary increases. Tenure still has to go to the Provost and the Board of Governors, but they almost never overturn those committee decisions. The process still has some veil of secrecy, but the fact is that it??s almost impossible for that committee to give a faculty member his or her yearly increase and then after six or seven years deny them tenure; that would make the committee look impossibly foolish, to say nothing of opening the case wide open to appeal. Thus there is some accountability there, in that there is an annual (and by tenure time pretty extensive) paper trail of the committee??s sense of the candidate. That sense can be radically altered by something specific to the tenure process itself (most especially external reviews, by far the most unpredictable part of said process if you ask me), but in my limited experience that??s mercifully unusual. Maybe it??s because I moved through the process pretty smoothly, but that annual evaluation really strikes me as in everyone??s best interest, most especially the faculty member??s. It means it??s a lot harder to be surprised.

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