Still More Tenure

My complaint about being tenured is that it puts one in a position to be so exploited by the university. The new people, the instructors and the adjuncts must be protected, mentored, developed and maintained; the full professors and administrators have rights; the plain old tenured faculty has to serve them all.

I think part of the reason I am or believe myself to be so staunchly pro tenure, and can say I was not hurt by the tenure system itself despite having had, from what I can gather, a significantly rockier path in academia than have many of those who discuss the rockiness of their own paths, is that I never cared about tenure the way many people do.

There were people in my graduate program who were already discussing tenure jitters before they had even taken their comprehensive examinations. They were already watching all of their words and actions in case someone at our school, now, might end up voting on their tenure case somewhere else, later. I knew assistant professors who would not wear jeans to campus even on Saturdays, on the theory that it would cause them to be voted down for tenure. I knew other assistant professors who did not feel free to eat lunch with whom they liked. I was told in one of my own assistant professor jobs that to get tenure I must buy a certain kind of house.

I was never able to become that paranoid, compromise that far, or believe that by the magical act of never being seen in jeans I could conjure up a positive tenure vote from a person negatively disposed. I have always spoken my mind and never voted in a bloc. These actions have never caused me greater harm than being quiet would have done. So when people say tenure, or the tenure process per se “hurts people,” I also have to wonder to what extent they have through paranoia hurt themselves.

I also notice that the senior people who say these things tend to be (although they are not always) at really privileged schools and to have feelings of entitlement I do not really relate to or understand. And the junior people often do not know what the job description of a senior faculty member includes, or that they may have good reason to do and not do the things they do and not do.

It is my experience that mistreatment does not end with tenure. I have learned that if a you are an untenured person and you are being bullied by a tenured person, who is being enabled and protected by another tenured person, you can bet that that tenured person is bullying tenured people, too.

Also, before tenure universities have to be marginally professional because they know that shenanigans too obvious are actionable. If they deny tenure they also know that they must do it in a diplomatic way. But if they grant tenure, they can grant it in an abusive way, and they feel they can then start the real abuse against which you need the protection of tenure. In this scenario perhaps the Tenured Radical is right, in her way. I still think the answer is more tenure track jobs and more professional behavior.

I also still believe in early tenure – much earlier tenure – for as many people as possible. I still even favor tenure at hiring: if everyone were tenured then they would all be able to trade places more easily, nicht wahr? And job candidates now are so much more “professionalized” than they were only a few years ago. Now we interview people who, as T.A.’s, are teaching two upper division courses of their own design and publishing regularly. I am not entirely sure how much more practice time they need, or how much more they should be expected to prove.

But the other reason I believe in tenure is that I have swallowed the academic freedom argument, and the idea that the faculty, not the president or the CEO, was the university. I am not sure that I am living in the present, however, not sure I am not imagining we can conserve things which no longer exist, anyway.


8 thoughts on “Still More Tenure

  1. “It is my experience that mistreatment does not end with tenure. I have learned that if a you are an untenured person and you are being bullied by a tenured person, who is being enabled and protected by another tenured person, you can bet that that tenured person is bullying tenured people, too.”

    This has certainly been my experience.

  2. Congratulations, James! Maybe you won’t have to go through too much post-tenure c*** – maybe after tenure they let up on men? Although I am aware of one counterexample.

  3. Good points again on tenure. While many junior faculty may have a chip on their shoulders (or be too timid), many others learn only through bullying that they should worry about tenure, no matter how successful they appear to be in their jobs. I also agree that bullying can happen to tenured people as well.

    I admire your imperviousness to internalizing the judgment of others (fair, unfair, or otherwise.) But, you’ve written before about your father’s career as an academic, so you may have been better prepared for it than I was. (I’m the first woman in my family to get a four-year college degree, and the first person, male or female, to get an advanced degree.) I wasn’t tough enough not to take other people’s negative comments seriously or not to internalize them–not because I assumed I was a victim from the first, but because I assumed I was good enough, only to be told that I was too big for my britches and had better watch out. That knocks even normally confident, competent people off their game. Furthermore, if you’ve admired professors enough to spend 6 or 7 or 10 years of your life becoming one yourself, you tend to take the things your senior colleagues say seriously, even if you don’t like what they’re saying, and even if it feels abusive.

    I agree that tenure is still important, and I agree that moving people to tenure faster may shortcut some of these abuses.

  4. Gracias, Historiann! Some notes:

    1. I wonder if I am really that impervious. I think I’m actually not impervious enough – but what I am not, it appears, compared to many others, is paranoid!

    2. What mistreatment is for is to destablize people, make them “pervious” (to coin a word) and thus malleable – or to destroy their power.

    3. I’m always being told I’m too big for my britches.

    4. It doesn’t help to be from an academic family – it makes it worse – my father has been paranoid about my academic career since graduate school. Professors will always tell you everything is impossible and scary and they have already been so terrorized themselves that they have lost perspective.

    When my father realized he was just terrifying me by talking about anything, he decided that all discussion of the university, intellectual life, etc. was off limits. That means there are huge parts of our lives we cannot discuss except to mention in passing. Since we are both obsessed with books and things intellectual, it is very difficult to have anything but a superficial relationship in this situation.

    5. What did help me in graduate school and assistant professordom was to have gone as an undergraduate to the same R1 where I then went to graduate school. Already living in town, already familiar with the university, already having friends, I was not nearly as vulnerable to being pulled into a hotbed of paranoia as people who had parachuted in from the East and only knew other people in their graduate programs were.

  5. Prof. Zero–interesting perspective on having an academic parent. Among friends of mine whose parents (fathers, actually) were academics, I know of at least one case that is like yours. However, it seems to me to be a distinct advantage to have the “name brand” already, at least when sons go into the same field as their fathers are in. But, as you point out, it’s different for different families.

    You make a great point about being already established and having a supportive group of friends and a life outside of school. The people I knew in grad school who were the unhappiest and most paranoid only hung out with other grad students in their program. I had the advantage of having friends and roots too, and it was a life (or at least sanity) saver.

  6. The name brand has its virtues. To some extent. My great great grandfather had PhD from the Sorbonne and his correspondence with Marx is archived in the Kremlin. We missed a generation due to immigration but my grandmother, a farm girl from Montana, has (had, in pace requiescat) a graduate degree from Berkeley. My father got a PhD from it and so did I, and when I saw my T.A. card in the card file my father’s was just before it, because they had forgotten to take his out.

    I, like some people in former generations, have had problems in life and I do not work at the fancy university I should perhaps have worked at, and I am not a famous scholar. Nevertheless, when my department chairs have problems, I am able to draw upon the family experience and expertise and say, “Well, if you want X, you must do Y. It worked in 1920 and 1965, and since our institution is in about 1950, it should work here. I am of course no one to care or opine, but if you want objective, experience based advice, there it is.” This makes me very irritating but also very useful, in my small way.

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