Open Thread on Tenure

Aside from the talk of abolishing it, tenure remains important for all of the usual reasons (primarily academic freedom), but for others perhaps more important, especially faculty governance.

Without the job security of tenure, the professoriate is reduced to the role of a paid workforce serving at the whim of various bottom lines. More importantly, ending tenure would mean throwing the whole sadistic and ritualistic system into disarray: it means, oddly enough, removing the mystery, and replacing Christ on a Cross with a test tube, or worse, a torn glossy photo of the latest talentless starlet from Vanity Fair.

That guild model upon which tenure is based is dead as a doornail, yet we dwell in its ashes, rubbing them on our faces like barbarians, in the mistaken belief that they still connote magic. We still believe in tenure because it is linked to the mysteries of the profession, and like all dead systems, that faith is much more dangerous in decline, like a drowning swimmer.

Now various people, some, I discern, younger than me, are against the tenure system because it is too destructive. I agree that many things about the academic system are destructive, but I have trouble seeing how the abolition of tenure would do anything except worsen current problems.

I think the abolition of tenure would be an CEO-administrator’s dream. The entire workforce would be contingent, and certain research and development stars could be retained through very high salaries and the elimination, for them, of all but the most specialized teaching and all service except on projects which directly benefit them.

Otherwise, teaching and research would be conducted by casual laborers at the mercy of staff managers, who might not have actual training or experience resembling that of the people they were managing.

What do you think? I am more interested here in the creation of alternative systems, in imagining the model that might replace the tenure model, than in critiques of the tenure system tout court – although these are, of course, also welcome.


25 thoughts on “Open Thread on Tenure

  1. It seems to me that capitalism itself (if it could think) would realise that if it destroys all of its safe spaces, thus making thinking stressful and impossible, it will eventually create the internal explosion that will destroy itself.

  2. As usual, I’m not prepared to propose alternative systems because I am still learning about tenure itself. I also doubt that replacing tenure with something else will ease my anxieties about which kinds of knowledges and disciplines are rewarded at all.

    After reading Oso Raro’s rejoinder to many of the comments on his post, it interests me how stating ambivalence about Smith’s case has raised so many hackles. One of them, it seems, is the charge that tenure is a guild system that is outdated in this post-capitalist age. I sense that our colleagues do not like to think of themselves as anything but modern (or post-modern), and some of them defend the system as such and others see to reform it to make it more so.

  3. By the way, I’m losing track of where I should be responding to these issues but I just wanted to say that I appreciate your proposal to streamline promotion and tie it more closely to the third-year review. And I agree with your comment over at Servetus that abolishing tenure may be a position that’s easier to uphold when one is financially secure. Perhaps other commenters have made this point, too, and I just missed it.

  4. Prof. Zero–thanks for engaging this. I’m happy to play at your house!

    I should clarify: my posts on tenure last week were an effort to get us to reckon with the price that people pay in the tenure system, not an argument that we should do away with tenure. (In fact, over at Tenured Radical, I argued against this in her comments thread last week.) I’m increasingly struck, year after year, by the real damage that tenure does both to the people who don’t get it, and to the people who do.

    I’ve never urged summarily doing away with tenure, certainly not without a means of securing the same (and preferably better) protections, and even then I’d be extremely cautious. But, I’m very much in favor of talking about the abuses and distortions that the system often leads to.

  5. Jennifer – Safe spaces within capitalism, yes.

    Kiita – The thing is that the tenure system *is* a medieval guild system and we *are* now in this corporate university system and there *is* a very odd asymmetry there. I find it odd that people on the Tenured Radical’s site seem to think tenure was invented in the early 20th century (?) … there were forms of it in the Middle Ages and here’s a web page on it, found in 5 seconds.

    Key in that page is this sentence: “Guilds attempted, often successfully, to extract from university administrations the notion that scholars were governed by the guild and owed their allegiance to the university and not the administration.”

    I think that is REALLY important: allegiance to the university, the discipline, the profession, not to the administration.

    Historiann: Welcome! and I do get your point. That’s why I am interested in figuring it out: the tenure process does do damage, including, I think, damage to the profession / the disciplines, because each person who doesn’t get tenure loses time and energy to the decision about what to do next, the move, and so on (I lost a lot to that – which put me even *further* behind on my too slow research agenda!).

    I’m trying to figure out the answer, though. Best I can think of is to tenure people sooner, with standards reflecting that. I’d say all jobs should be tenured except that what if you hire someone who turns out to be terrible (I’ve done it myself)? But you can pretty much find out in the first year or two if they’re terrible. After that, I’d favor empowering everyone with tenure, raising research expectations at *that* point, and letting ’em rip … what do you think?

  6. Kiita – just found your second comment. Yes, the posts are hard to follow and I have trouble remembering where I said what. Good re third year review – so I’m not nuts! Everyone in IRL says no, give people lots of extra time to tenure, but I think that’s imperious and exclusionary and condescending. Every job file I’ve considered seriously this year had a publication record in it and everyone had taught courses above the freshman level. People aren’t coming in green any more.

    I’m also glad someone noticed my point about financial security. When I see the TR talk about abolishing tenure in one post and about going up to summer places in the next, I can definitely smell money and various other forms of establishment backing.

    As far as “feeling the sting” of not making Full on her first try – give me a break! At that point it’s just a question of ego, and I really do feel like saying “come on, reapply, suck it up.”

    And following up on that, if tenure is hurtful just because of the ego sting in the denial thereof, somebody needs to get some real backbone, not just bluster. The money a tenure denial costs is a far more real problem.

  7. I really cannot think of an alternative to tenure. And ending it would be a CEO/administrator’s dream. Teaching is challenging enough to begin with. Without it, one is 1) constantly subject to (in my experience at three institutions) meaner politics than those in the corporate world 2) given to overvalue student evaluations and 3) always more expensive and, therefore, to college and university administrators thinking only of the bottom line, as expendible as adjunct faculty.

    Though it doesn’t answer the question you posed here, I have to relate what I learned in Texas about a community college there: it nearly lost its accreditation because a president (who declared himself “CEO”) actually created a system, for god only knows what reason, that would not allow department chairs to assign classes to faculty. He feared partiality. So instead, he mandated that secretaries from unrelated departments staff classes. The result was that secretaries from the English department, for instance, assigned classes in economics or accounting to those with degrees outside those areas. I know this sounds nuts, but it’s true and I can go on about it for awhile.

    Other institution in Texas–an expensive liberal arts college that maintains itself on 60% adjunct faculty. Many graduate courses are taught by adjunct faculty as well (and I have NOTHING against adjunct faculty–they are often just as or more accomplished than full-time tenured faculty, but realistically, they must jump from one institution to the next to make ends meet and therefore just don’t have as much time for research and professional development. ) Incidentally, this institution’s graduate programs are so sorely lacking that I noticed several instances in which students were graduating with master’s degrees but without basic skills/knowledge that should be necessary for undergrads. End of rant.

  8. Disjointed remarks:

    -the medieval university is not a great comparison, as until the 13th c. in Italy and the 15th c. in the rest of Europe, most faculty and students at this setting were not economic free agents in the way we are now. Most were members of religious orders that were sponsoring their presence at the university. Had they not been at the university, they would have been in monasteries somewhere.

    -most universities until the mid-19th c. were really rather small institutions and there were few real professorships in the sense that we have them now. Particularly in the wake of the Reformation, there were many new university foundings with fewer than a dozen chairs.

    -when there were appeals for loyalty to the university as a corporation (rather than to its administrators, all of whom would have been faculty members rather than people brought on for the purpose of administering) in the medieval setting, this was because membership in the corporation granted political and legal rights. This is not the case today, when all humans are subjects of the Leviathan and their rights are derived from their status as humans if you believe the Enlightenment or their citizenship in nation-states if you believe Hannah Arendt.

    -I find that much of what TR writes is not very radical, and aspects of this post were no exception. It is probably easier to militate for the end of tenure when one has wealth as opposed to when one has debt (sarcastic laugh). At the same time, there might also be other reasons to militate for it.

    -If tenure ended, we would have to make our way through a long period in which the market determined the wages institutions were going to pay, and there is a huge surplus army of the poor waiting at the gates. (If you believe Bosquet et al., the tenured and tenure-track are already in the minority in the U.S. academiy anyway.) However (a) we have created that army ourselves by overproducing Ph.Ds and (b) maybe eventually we would see what our product is really worth.

  9. (b) maybe eventually we would see what our product is really worth.

    In terms of the value system of capitalism, the academic product is worth exactly $0. It would be precisely worth that amount in Yen, too. That is because capitalism does not value knowledge which has no directly instrumental value in producing capital. Sorry to say.

  10. I think that we do have direct instrumental value in producing capital. I just think that the tenure system obscures that fact.

  11. A.F. – my sentiments exactly. It is because of having seen the operations of schools such as those you describe, and places such as the public schools (I am assuming you’re at one of the publics in and around N.O.) we work at in a poor state, that I know that *this* is the kind of post-tenure landscape we’d be looking at. I’ve got supervisors managing my place who think they know more about *grammar,* for heaven’s sake, than I do because they are administrators and therefore “superior” to me.

    S & J – We do function to produce capital. But how does the tenure system obscure that?

    S – Thanks for historical clarifications … ! … One thing to check into, it occurs to me, is the abolition of tenure in England, in the late 80s. There was this influx of full professors from there trying to move here and get onto the tenure *track* … and I am talking about productive people. I don’t know what happened with that, what the upshot was.

    Here’s a blog with long discussions of tenure and it’s quite interesting:

    See other entries:

    The problem with this blog is that it and its commentators are convinced that tenure encourages sloth and creates dead wood. I have rarely seen this to be true. Now, the tenure system as implemented creates walking wounded … but when you become assoc. prof. you get *more* work not less because your service load gets bumped up and you have to teach a broader range so that the newer people can teach a narrower one and get used to things … and you have to keep producing research. People who make Full often take a back seat in service so as to dedicate themselves to research, but not necessarily; I don’t see them slacking.

    Poor producers – and I’ve been one – are the abused and terrorized; and it isn’t the tenure system that abused and terrorized me even though I didn’t make tenure the first time; a lot of the worst abuse and terror came after tenure; it wasn’t because of my position, it was and is because I’m capable and it’s scary to men, because if I speak people follow my recommendations not the chair’s, and that is not because I am imposing my views but because I don’t advocate for anything in a serious way unless I am very well informed, so if I say anything it flies.

    Then, of course, I get revenge. “We will hire in the field you recommend, but you will teach at 8 AM and 8 PM, both.” Things like that. It is most uncollegial.

  12. I agree with folks who said that abolishing the tenure system will simply accelerate the move toward more fully corporatized universities. And it will remove any remaining inclination for folks who believe they’re in charge to pay any attention to the opinions of the people who make up the actual university.

  13. It seems to me that capitalism itself (if it could think) would realise that if it destroys all of its safe spaces, thus making thinking stressful and impossible, it will eventually create the internal explosion that will destroy itself.

    Jennifer, unfortunately (and as you imply) I don’t think that’s how capitalist managers operate. They try to grab the best deal now. That’s it. Next year they may be in a different job.

  14. Tom – that’s why I think capitalism is so inefficient, at least for many things. All of these patchwork solutions, quick fixes now, do not necessarily lead to the creation of …anything worthwhile… ?

    I was thinking about this in relation to Iraq. It’s clear we’re not fighting for democracy, but are we getting oil? Or is there a secret military or political plan to keep us there, like attacks on Iran and then China? Or is it just that the arms manufacturers need to be propped up now that we’ve exported and downsized so many other jobs here? … So that we’re stuck killing people for food, essentially, because we didn’t make a coherent plan and just kept jumping at the markets for quick fixes?

    (I’m not really informed enough educated enough or up on the news enough to present the above as an actual theory – it’s just speculation, but I wonder.)

  15. On the “problem” of “Dead Wood:” I agree with Prof. Zero–she outlines it exactly correctly. This “problem” is inherent to the tenure system when it’s working correctly, in that older faculty, secure in their positions, can be open to hiring younger scholars who are more accomplished than they were at the same age and stage of career. Isn’t that what we want–to hire the best because we tenured folk have nothing to fear from excellence, and can embrace and learn from it?

    I would also ask people to pause and reflect before deeming someone “Dead Wood.” Many people hired in the 1960s and 1970s were hired in institutions whose focus was teaching a 3-3 or 4-4 load, with little if any expectations of research productivity. Now, we all know that even Universities like that expect more research than in the past, whether or not their teaching loads have decreased. My department until recently had a number of men from that 1960s generation of hires who agreed to higher teaching loads than us more junior faculty, and who chaired major committees and made the world go ’round while we wrote our books. Who, really, was the “Dead Wood”–the elder generation who protected us and allowed us to establish ourselves while we went to conferences and wrote? Or, we beneficiaries of the system, who were permitted to do minimal service and teaching to focus (perhaps selfishly?) on our research? It seems that “Dead Wood” is a rhetorical weapon used against people whose priorities as a scholar are not the same as one’s own. (And, if you or I want to be research superstars, doesn’t it work to our advantage that some of our colleagues may prefer to immerse themselves more in teaching or service?) Diversity is a wonderful thing, and one of the benefits of tenure is that it allows people after that point to arrange the emphasis of their work as it suits them. Let a thousand flowers bloom!

    Another thing Prof. Zero gets exactly right: Once we’re tenured and promoted, we definitely pay it back with service now, big-time! (But, I think you’re too hard on TR: from what I can gather, she was punished precisely for embracing the role of Associate Professor, and doing a lot of service for which she was punished, not rewarded.)

  16. Gracias Historiann and I applaud.

    You’re of course right about TR also … I deal with this problem daily and in I strongly suspect a worse version than TR, so I know what she’s dealing with and that it’s unfair.


    It’s just that I think that if that’s the *worst* that’s ever happened to you in academia you’re d***** lucky. This is uncharitable of me, I suppose, but then TR is the one militating for the end of tenure without having the faintest idea, it appears, of what it is like to work in and for a poor state.

    Right now, having tenure, I have recourse on certain things. Without it, I would not. The problem with having *only* a union (and no tenured faculty) running things is that union reps can be as uninformed and political and petty as other oppressive and uninformed administrator-CEOs.

    The tenure system is important because of GOVERNANCE; it is really important to have people in positions of power who actually know what research and teaching are, and don’t just imagine or speculate about what they might be.

  17. I think that we do have direct instrumental value in producing capital. I just think that the tenure system obscures that fact.

    Insofar as capitalism is convoluted and has developed little folds in its overall structure, there may be some people attracted to humanities courses in universities, because they want to improve themselves or whatever. But in terms of a more rigorous capitalism, such self-improvement is totally extraneous to the production of capital, and is therefore irrational.

  18. In terms of teaching, though, we are mostly producing things like engineers who can write coherent English. We produce majors and PhDs too, but still more students are from other disciplines and are in the more basic courses. Graduate students and M.A. instructors in particular produce enormous numbers of so called student credit hours, on the basis of which funding formulae are in large part calculated.

    In terms of research, it brings prestige to the university and that translates into funding, and also national rankings which again translate into funding. In terms of service, one of the obvious things is town and gown relations and that brings in direct donations as well as recruits students and other talent.

    In terms of grant making, that brings in external funding directly – I netted $65K for the university (not for me) in the last cycle, and $73K the cycle before that.

  19. Yes, but my point is that once you get rid of the medieval tradition of tenure, the self-perpetuating logic of the academy acquiring funding as a justification for its own existence is also in danger of being undermined. Because, you get rid of tenure and the ontological status of the academy is less secure. So it becomes more subject to the narrower logic of the capitalist economy and whether it is producing engineers or not.

  20. “Because, you get rid of tenure and the ontological status of the academy is less secure. So it becomes more subject to the narrower logic of the capitalist economy and whether it is producing engineers or not.”

    This is true, and so universities become research and development parks with trade schools attached. That is why tenure is essential to, I guess, the ontological status of the university, which as a community of scholars I favor preserving.

    Now, it appears that tenure isn’t exactly a medieval tradition but more something created for purposes of *having a real faculty* when universities became something more than extension of the Church or a type of private club.

    Acquiring funding as justification for existence, that’s because we’ve already sunk into the capitalist model. One could imagine *real* state funding for universities, for example. The Vatican seriously funds theirs, and that’s why those Pontifical Catholic Universities I keep dealing with in Latin America are so good!

  21. Yes, the capitalist model is the sea of logic in which we sink or swim. But by medieval I didn’t mean out of date or something like that. I just meant that everything has its historical origin and id scholasticism had not become a predominant value during the middle ages, we would probably not have any tendency to allow its presence to continue to this day.

    By the way, I wrote this thing yesterday about how merely descriptive words can take on a structuralist meaning and IDENTITY. This can cause communication glitches. Such, as when “medieval”, instead of being taken as a descriptive term, gets juxtaposed against the concept of “modern” and “up to date” (not my implied meaning at all), and so acquired a semantic determinism that had nothing to do with intention.

  22. By medieval I mean the actual middle ages where universities had their origin in a form different from now. This all started from Oso Raro’s post where he talks about the guild model. To really unpack the history of what it has meant from then forward to be a member of what came to be called the professions, professional, or the history of universities, university governance, etc., would take some doing. I think everyone in this thread means the actual middle ages, not as a foil to some idea of the modern.

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