A Modest Proposal

It is the weekend, and I am in New Orleans singing with WWOZ. I have been hanging out at an excellent conference wherein smart professors and graduate students spoke. It has been very refreshing. I feel as though I am beginning to right my sails.

While driving back and forth I considered everyone’s posts on tenure and decided what we should do: eliminate the tenure track by tenuring everyone when hired. Then as their careers developed and changed, it could be flexibly determined what their jobs would actually be in a given year – more research, more teaching, more administration, and so on.

I had not thought seriously of this because: what if you make a disastrous hire? But looking back, I have been on more hiring committees than I can count, and we’ve done well. It is quite arguable that all of the less good hires would have been better had it not been for the insidious way they were corroded by the tenure track. This plan has a great advantage: everyone would be free to start the struggle for unionization right away. What do you think? 🙂

I also notice, by the way, that those who say the tenure system is fair tend to be men, and I notice that the many problems I have had in academia are traceable not to the tenure system, but to misogyny.

I notice as well that, in the comments threads of the IHE and Chronicle pieces that picked up this discussion, some of those who advocate for long temporary contracts rather than the tenure system do not consider who would do service or anything creative with curriculum and programs.

After I didn’t get tenure, I had a visiting job at an R-2, and once as a vacation from where I am, I had another visiting job at an R-1. In both situations I did not think a whit about issues such as long term program goals. These were not my concern. I would just be there a little while, so all I needed to do was make sure my own classes went well and concentrate on research. This was lovely for me, but my colleagues in these places were putting serious time and effort into program building, for good reason.

This kind of service could, I suppose, be outsourced to para-academics with bachelor’s or master’s degrees, but it really takes faculty to do that work effectively. Another alternative would be to have nobody do it. This would have been a poor idea in both the institutions I observed, for reasons having to do inter alia with recruitment and retention of both students and faculty.


23 thoughts on “A Modest Proposal

  1. Totally OT: re the conference, I do notice, I must say, how much money Privileged Professors spend on a normal day – at least, compared to me. It is as though they had good jobs in business. I mean six figure jobs. This is not a criticism – it is what it costs to have access to interesting cultural information. All of these professors are about to fly off to Brazil, and I am not due to lack of funds.

    Anyway, nobody comments on this post so I keep moving it up. WHAT ABOUT JUST TENURING EVERYONE FROM THE GET-GO?

  2. And note: although I do *not* favor rejecting the tenure system this posting fervor on it shows I am seriously concerned about the whole thing. My silly X would likely say, I had a hard time getting tenure and now I want to hold onto it (i.e. this is all about me). I say it is not all about me, it is political: I see the number of tenurable jobs shrinking, and this has bad practical effects on the university. I see people suffering too much for tenure, and this has bad effects generally. It is just, as I have said elsewhere, that I don’t think the suffering is caused by the tenure system.

    I like Reassigned Time’s post on tenure:

  3. I’m not commenting to much because I don’t really know what it means emotionally psychologically and so on or to what degree this treatment relates specifically to the US.

    I think your idea about immediate tenure for all academic staff would be great, but you have to know the reason why you do not have it is because the system does not want to give academics too much confidence or power. Also, as you pointed out there is the unionisation issue.

    So I guess (and reading between the lines) that the tenure track is supposed to instil fear and obeisance. Thus the eventual hiree has learned how to jump when the whip is cracked and how not to get too uppity.

  4. Thanks for your comment on my blog. I think you pose an interesting idea. I can think of practical reasons why institutions might not agree (cost, I guess), but then again, I still come back to, well, they hire someone as tenure-track with the idea of supporting them through a career, so I’m not sure that’s ultimately the deal breaker. I think Jennifer’s comments above about instill fear and obedience contain some truth. Maybe the biggest danger without the mystique of tenure is that it’s less prestigious to become a professor? Or professors stop publishing as much as they do? I think the curricular concerns would actually more easily be addressed by your system, because people crafting the curriculum are invested in the long term.

  5. Jennifer – Yes. That’s why this proposal is so … modest. My question is whether abolition of tenure wouldn’t just increase the fear and obeisance. People seem to want to move to these 5 year renewable contracts but in practice that means everyone would be permanently on the tenure track, and judged by … whom … ? And they seem to think it’s tenure OR unionization, rather than tenure AND.

    Heather – welcome! I really wonder about this idea that people stop publishing after tenure. Most people I know, haven’t … and there are institutional sanctions on that, anyway. The ones who stop after tenure tend to be people who forced it out in the first place. The aspect of the 5 year contracts I like (I’d have them but also have tenure) is: every 5 years you and your institution could renegotiate what percentage of time you spent / were to spend on research, teaching, service / administration. So those non publishers, if they are non publishers by nature and not just because they are too tired / disgusted, could negotiate low percentages of time to be spent on research. Do you think?

  6. My question is whether abolition of tenure wouldn’t just increase the fear and obeisance

    In the most general sense, I think that almost any social system can be given a poisonous flavour, depending on who the players are and how they see their interests.

  7. Prof. Zero–thanks for this brilliant idea! I think it’s a good one, although I would suggest perhaps a probationary period of only 2 years, instead of 5-6 years. That way, academic departments could avoid getting stuck with a “disastrous hire.” Two years is enough to determine whether or not someone is a disaster in the classroom, and whether they’re taking steps to improve their teaching or research. That way, if someone doesn’t get tenure after 2 years, they’re still relatively fresh for hitting the job market, and other schools may be more willing to take a chance at hiring someone who might be a good fit for them, even if they weren’t a good fit for their previous institution.

    Perhaps we could look at academic jobs the way our students look at classes. During the first week and a half, they’re “shopping” to see which ones interest them and are taught in a way that works for their learning styles. We could look at Assistant Professorships as “shopping” for a good fit between departments and individuals, rather than an ultimate judgment on their worth as human beings.

  8. J – true.

    Historiann – OK, 2 years of shopping, that’s good, we have the plan. I’ll bet Lumpenprofessoriat will go with this, too. Should we write a joint manifesto under our real names? … or make our blogs famous by doing it under our blog names? I’m serious!!!


    Side note 1: Let’s see, how would my life have gone under this plan: in my first job I’d have not made tenure, because I hated them and they hated me, and my father, and my dissertation director. In my second job I’d have gotten tenure, and would therefore have produced more. By now, therefore, I’d have a job I *really* liked. And I’d have published much much more and taught much much more interesting classes, so everyone would have benefited from all of this.


    Side note 2: Where do people get this idea that tenure causes people to stop publishing? Rewards make me work and punishments make me lazy, contrary to what the rest of the world seems to think. Also, the rest of the world seems to be religious and to believe they need the fear of Hell so as not to commit crimes. And yet they still commit crimes. I do not commit crimes and I am not religious. My question is, why is the majority of the population so heavily into punishment and so convinced everyone is lazy and into getting away with crimes?]

  9. Tenure at hire sounds good to me. I think one would be hard pressed to demonstrate that it would create more, or more serious, personnel issues than the current system does.

    An even more modest proposal, though, might be to start by taking seriously the current AAUP policy on six years to tenure — which is intended to include all post-Ph.d. work. This would mean that many, many hires would in fact be hires to tenure since many, many of us wind up with six years of post-Ph.D. teaching experience in non-tenure track positions.

    If a search committee wishes to hire that very attractive candidate with great teaching evaluations, six articles and a book contract for their position, that would be fine — just notice that they have those credentials because they have been a Lecturer for four years and a Visiting Assistant Professor for two years already and so should be hired with tenure.

    If a committee doesn’t want to take that plunge, fine — there are lots of recent Ph.D. they can hire without any teaching experience or publications that can be hired into a tenure track job for the whole six year probationary time. Or they can find someone in between and let them go up for tenure after two or three years instead. But no one would ever be expected to work for more than six in any combination of jobs without being able to go up for tenure.

    I think this would also do a lot to combat escalating tenure requirements as well. There actually is a physical limit to the number of publications that can be produced in six years. If the line is actually held at six years, then there is a point past which additional escalation simply can not happen.

  10. Lumpenprof – OK, that’s a good plan and indeed, even more modest since it follows the AAUP suggestion. My only reservation is: what about people who have been in high teaching load jobs or something like that, or had kids, and haven’t gotten a lot of stuff out – should they get more time? Or does this plan make provisions for that – am I unnecessarily worried?

  11. LumpenProf and Prof. Zero–there’s an article on this over at Inside Higher Ed. (I’ve just posted on it at Historiann.com–check it all out.)

    Prof. Zero–yes, let’s think about a manifesto on 2-years to tenure. LumpenProf raises a good issue with the 6 years to tenure, in order to recognize and reward work not done in tenure-track jobs, and to perhaps dampen the rising expectations of what it takes to get a tenure-track job in the first place. (My department has been hiring people with the credentials to be Associate Professors as new Assistant Profs!) My only concern about LP’s and the AAUP’s “six years” plan is, what happens when one’s 6-year alarm clock rings, and one hasn’t landed a TT job? Does that mean that time’s up, you’re superannuated, it’s too late? Where does someone go from there?

  12. “My only concern about LP’s and the AAUP’s “six years” plan is, what happens when one’s 6-year alarm clock rings, and one hasn’t landed a TT job? Does that mean that time’s up, you’re superannuated, it’s too late? Where does someone go from there?”

    That’s my concern, too. I’ll go over to your blog / IHE and then get to grading !!! I think we should *at least* put a manifesto in IHE. Here, everyone, is the IHE link, a very informative article which bears study I cannot undertake at this very moment because I need to make grades!!! http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2008/03/31/tenure … and here is a live link to Historiann’s post, which has useful links in it. http://www.historiann.com/2008/03/31/tenure-again-oh-noes/

    Historiann – we’re hiring now and several of the candidates have credentials for tenure, others for advanced asst. prof. A couple we like really are traditional finishing grad students but they have more and better teaching experience than such students used to have, and I have no reason at all to believe they won’t hit the ground running with publications as long as we don’t torture/depress them. The reason I want tenurable / tenured candidates is that there is so much program building and such to do. Our longtime nontenurables just don’t have the kind of commitment to the profession and the institution to undertake that kind of service … we need some collegial cooperation and for that we need empowered colleagues, not just employees who ultimately think more in terms of hourly wage than anything else, even though they are nice people, dedicated, good teachers, and so on – and in some cases, also good publishers.

  13. The six year time clock doesn’t mean you can’t keep working Lecturer gigs and keep publishing and applying for tenure track jobs for as long as you like. All that it means is that when you are finally hired into a tenure track job, you get full credit for time served. If you have eight or nine years of full-time teaching experience already and you land a tenure-track job, then tenure should come at the time of the hire. There is no reason to tack on another six years of probationary time. It’s already abundantly clear what that person can accomplish in six years. It’s on their vita.

  14. And on the question of punishment and reward… let me just add this: Rewards certainly work to motivate me to do more and better work. Even cheesy rewards, like letters of commendation, acknowledgment in the college news letter, or a lunch in recognition of service — these all work on me even though I know those aren’t real rewards like raises or promotion. And similarly, punishment makes me withdraw and slow down. I’ve gone through nearly five years of punishments at my current institution and it certainly shows in my productivity, campus involvement, and general attitude.

    These results shouldn’t come as any surprise to administrators. I’m sure there are well know studies on the behavior of rats in mazes given electrical shocks versus versus food rewards that exactly mirror the responses of faculty members to strife and praise.

  15. Rats in mazes, yes. So they’re handing out punishments because they actually want disempowered people around them more than they want achievement from their institution. I can believe it.

    Six years as a limit, not for the candidate to keep working but for the institution to hold them back, got it.

  16. I have hesitated to weigh in on this, because my own experience has been that tenure is vitally necessary to ensure academic freedom and all that good stuff, but what is often broken is not tenure itself, but whether or not a particular institutional process and accountability systems do what they are supposed to do (if they even exist at all) to protect both the rights of the “probationary” faculty member and the needs of the department. In my department, it was necessary for the college to protect us from an out-of-control set of full professors for years. but we also had a case where a very bad colleague who was a bad teacher did not get tenure because he did not meet the standards, and it was a relief. My university has a very carefully structured process with lots of transparency and oversight (because of past lawsuits brought by women over discrimination, in fact) and it mostly works, but that doesn’t mean there still aren’t struggles and pain. But when the Regents threatened to do away with tenure, the faculty revolted and started unionizing. Too bad we fell 7 votes short, but we headed off the plan and got rid of those particular Regents.

  17. “…we also had a case where a very bad colleague who was a bad teacher did not get tenure because he did not meet the standards, and it was a relief.”

    So did we, but (a) we knew we were taking a major risk when we hired this person and we should have been more careful, and (b) the problems became evident here in the first year, so Historiann’s plan (2 year probationary period) would have actually shortened all of our suffering.

    “…it was necessary for the college to protect us from an out-of-control set of full professors for years.”

    It is my contention that they’d have been bullies whether they were tenured / full or not … and since I know where you are, I deduce who they are, and I know they were publishing, so they don’t fall into the ‘dead wood’ category so many people seem to assume tenured faculty do. As you say, it’s not a tenure problem but “whether or not a particular institutional process and accountability systems do what they are supposed to do (if they even exist at all) to protect both the rights of the ‘probationary’ faculty member and the needs of the department.”

    “tenure is vitally necessary to ensure academic freedom and all that good stuff”

    I think so too, and I keep coming back to the question of governance (which includes ‘service’).
    If professors are untenured, those who run the joint won’t be professors, won’t have that kind of training, etc. … and these institutions are supposed to be universities!!! I say the people in charge need to be professors. It is why I always say administrators should have a research degree and successful experience as professors. That way they know what it is they are managing.

  18. One quick observation: your proposal seems to be the system in Japan, at least for Japanese professors, but things are a whole lot less defined there and they are in major flux in the past decade. So you might want to see if you can find out more about how it’s working for professors, students, and institutions there. BTW, the faculty at the national universities at least are all unionized there….

  19. P.S. Lumpenprof’s commentator insists that there are good reasons to deny tenure and I do not disagree but I think that is because since we can deny it we do not always hire well, and that then the tenure track makes people less productive not more.

    That is why I have this radical “modest” proposal – to counterbalance all those who want more time to tenure, or to abolish the tenure system. Meanwhile check out this video on No Child Left Behind – I think a version of it could be made for the tenure track: http://servetus.wordpress.com/2008/04/09/for-the-purpose-of-figuring-out-how-to-imbed-a-video-a-bitter-snort/

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