SHARE

Tenure as a Tarnished Brass Ring

March 31, 2008

Claire B. Potter has a level of academic success many young Ph.D.'s these days can only dream about. A professor of history and chair of American studies at Wesleyan University, she has tenure at an elite college. Tenure provides her not only with job security, but with part of her identity as the blogger Tenured Radical, where she shares views on a range of topics, writing with the freedom that tenure is supposed to protect.

So why would Potter recently have approached her provost to inquire about the possibility of trading in tenure for a renewable contract? It turns out that there are lots of obstacles to doing so, Potter said, in that Wesleyan doesn't have a model in which someone off the tenure track could fully participate in campus governance, and this isn't a question the university is used to being asked. So she's not sure it will happen. But why even explore it?

Potter's question was a natural outgrowth of a blog posting she made this month that questioned the value of tenure.

Wrote Potter: "I have argued against tenure for several reasons: that it destroys mobility in the job market. That we would do better financially, and in terms of job security and freedom of speech, in unions. That it creates sinecures which are, in some cases, undeserved. That it is an endless waste of time, for the candidate and for the evaluators, that could be better spent writing and editing other people's work. That it creates a kind of power that is responsible and accountable to no one. That it is hypocritical, in that the secrecy is designed to protect our enemies' desire to speak freely -- but in fact we know who our enemies are, and in the end, someone tells us what they said. But here is another reason that tenure is wrong: It hurts people."

The posting and similar online comments from others have prompted considerable discussion -- pro and con -- in the academic blogosphere. And out of the blogosphere, experts on tenure say that the frustration Potter and others are expressing with tenure reflects the changing nature of how academics see their careers and how they are treated. Even many tenure experts who say that tenure skeptics fail to appreciate the full value of tenure say that the frustrations being expressed are real and may represent a turning point of sorts. What does it mean when tenure isn't just being attacked by bean counters or critics who want to rid the academy of tenured radicals, but by some tenured radicals (not to mention tenured and untenured professors of a variety of views)?

To be sure, provosts are not being overrun with questions from professors who want to get off the tenure track, and the recent Web discussion has brought out strong defenders of tenure.

"There are lots of things that have hurt me in academia, but tenure is NOT one of them," wrote the blogger Lumpenprofessoriat. "I have been hurt by the lack of health care from my years as an adjunct. I have been hurt by the uncertainties of working as migrant, contingent labor in academia for more than a decade. I have been hurt by deans, provosts, and by some of my colleagues who put time and effort into delaying my start in a tenure track line and in further delaying my final tenure decision for another decade. I have been hurt by decades of debts and low wages that I may never recover from. I have grudges, depression, anger, rage, and issues aplenty from my sojourn through the academic labor market. But the one thing that has NOT hurt me is tenure."

But in online postings and elsewhere, the questioning of tenure has drawn considerable support (even if much of that support isn't necessarily calling for its abolition, but pointing to tensions in the system). See Easily Distracted on the impact of proceduralism and mystery, Uncertain Principles on the different disciplinary standards and the impact of a "make or break" moment on careers, or Confessions of a Community College Dean (whose blog appears on Inside Higher Ed) on the conflict between transparency and the tenure system. Citizen of Somewhere Else is calling for a cease-fire in the discussions. All of these postings have drawn comments from readers -- tenured or not -- some of them saying that they see abuses of the system with regularly, others dreading going through it, and others vowing not to.

One anonymous academic commented on Tenured Radical this way: "I am completely freaked out by the mysteries of the tenure process and have decided not to pursue a t-t job, but instead to work toward getting either a permanent lectureship or a split admn/lectshp position, many of which are held by people at my institution. I don't think I want to deal with the pressure and anxiety of not knowing how to court all the right people into my camp. I am currently benefiting from the fact that someone else did not get tenure, as I hold a visiting position to replace someone who elected to take their 'terminal' year as a leave year. I have 'replaced,' due to overlapping scholarly interests, a very brilliant teacher, a dedicated colleague in all the fields of expertise with which hir work crossed, and a highly respected scholar with numerous prestigious publications. Why this person did not get tenure has never been explained to me. It was very controversial, inspiring student protests. (I have no idea if the department waged any sort of protest. It's all part of the secrecy.) I sincerely hope this person is using this year to find a job where s/he will be appreciated. I don't think I could measure up. If s/he couldn't get tenure here, what must it take?"

Many factors are at play in the debate, experts say. The majority of faculty members who work in public higher education, many say, are better protected on free speech issues by the Constitution than by tenure, and the Constitution doesn't just kick in after one gets tenure. Another factor is a growing sense that earning tenure isn't entirely a matter of merit, but in many ways can be a fluke. In an era when those who earn tenure can think of people they view as equally talented who never made it off the adjunct track, or when at many universities, people who never published a scholarly book are judging the quality of tenure portfolios that must contain two books, respect for the process has diminished.

The Mysteries of Tenure

Comparisons to other (generally criticized) processes in society come up a lot. In the blog Slave of Academe, Oso Raro compared the tenure process to hazing (a common comparison, with many noting that it's easier to imagine getting in to a fraternity or sorority after hazing than earning tenure). The blog posting was inspired by the tenure case of Andrea Smith, whose future at the University of Michigan is in danger because of a negative vote by the women's studies department.

Wrote Oso Raro: "All of which is to say that in spite of all the efforts to empiricize, measure, and delineate tenure, to 'understand' the process, a large part of it will always be mysterious, the final hazing, the culminating movement of neophyte to acolyte. I feel ambivalent about such an interpretation, obviously, only insofar as such belief systems can blind us to the real inequities in tenuring processes. Similar to other rigorous, mystical institutions, like the military, Roman Catholicism, Hollywood, Broadway, and the dark arts of Wall Street and the City, the university also has its blood sacraments, which include ritualistic purging. Part of the problem with tenure being wrapped in mystery, ceremony, and hocus-pocus worthy of a Skull and Bones initiation, is that in the dark all cats are gray, and it becomes hard to discern legitimate concern (and yes, indeed, outrage) from hucksterism and carpet bagger self-aggrandizement. This has led a sizable portion of the profession to shrug their shoulders when tenure scandals emerge, or worse, reach for the easy answer of dismissal ('activist-scholar')."

The issue of mystery is one that comes up again and again in the new critiques of tenure. While tradition has it that only a secret process allows evaluators to speak freely, that argument isn't selling with the current generation -- for whom tenure is more rare and whose value systems don't accept the same premises their elders did. Cathy A. Trower, co-principal investigator of the Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education, at Harvard University, supports the idea of tenure, but said that the criticisms reflect demands for real change.

"Tenure is an employment system," she said. "People carry out tenure processes and inflict -- or not -- the pain on others that these people describe. I say: Fix the perpetrators/abusers, not throw out tenure." Trower noted that even with more people being hired off the tenure track, most colleges do have tenure, so it is important to look for ways to make the system work so that "the people in charge put young scholars through a humane and dare I say nurturing process that leaves them polished, poised, and excited fully vested, productive, and tenured members of the campus community who will treat those coming up behind them equally well and equitably."

Of course, Trower acknowledged that today's concept of "humane" is different from yesterday's. In an article on faculty diversity in Harvard Magazine that she wrote with Richard P. Chait, co-principal director of COACHE, they noted the frustrations of many with the tenure system, which is largely based on standards adopted by the American Association of University Professors in 1940.

"We do not contend that the abolition of tenure will somehow solve the problem of faculty diversity. The issue is less one of tenure as an institution and more one of tenure in its implementation. That is, do the policies and practices of yesteryear best serve contemporary faculty? The proposition might be posed as follows: If a representative random sample of faculty, selected to mirror the diversity the academy presumably desires, were to assemble as a 'constitutional convention' to rethink tenure policy, would the document that emerged essentially paraphrase or materially depart from the 1940 AAUP statement? We do not know. We think, however, that the idea merits philanthropic support and deserves to be tested."

They go on to suggest ways -- very consistent with the current critique of tenure -- that their surveys of young faculty members suggest that today's assistant professors are likely to differ from their more senior colleagues when it comes to tenure evaluations. Where the traditional model held that "secrecy assures quality," younger academics think that "transparency of the review process assures equity." While the traditional view was that merit was "empirically determined" and that "competition improves performance," the new view is that merit is ""socially constructed" and that "cooperation is better than competition."

In an interview, Potter said that secrecy is central to the flaws of the tenure system. While she blogs about all sorts of university matters, she said that when she writes about tenure, she gets the most grief on campus, with people telling her that even writing about tenure issues in general ways is inappropriate. "A private institution is like an allegory for the WASP family when it comes to talking about tenure -- it's like you're not supposed to say that Mommy's drinking. Whatever happens, the real crime is talking about it."

The Limits of Academic Freedom

Potter said it is very clear -- from cases in the public record -- that talented people are turned down for tenure because their colleagues don't much like them, regardless of issues of quality. She cited the case of KC Johnson, the Brooklyn College historian who was nearly denied tenure despite an impressive publishing record and evaluations that demonstrated his commitment to teaching. His department "voted against him because they didn't like him," but his professional accomplishments should have made the case an easy one to resolve in his favor, Potter said. (Johnson eventually won tenure, but not before columnists and others took up his case and it became something of a cause célèbre.)

Johnson's political views tend to anger Potter, but she said it is hard to imagine how people could have justifiably voted against him, except that secrecy protects any vote and can cover up personal dislike. And similar votes, she said, hurt many female and minority candidates.

As Johnson's case illustrates, she said, there are better protections for academic freedom than tenure. She cited faculty unions (although Johnson did not feel supported by his), renewable contracts stating acceptable reasons to be dismissed or not renewed, and the public pressure on colleges to respect certain standards and ideals.

She also said that what Johnson did in his pre-tenure period (show a willingness to challenge his senior colleagues) demonstrates the great failing of the tenure system. Not only does it not protect adjuncts, she said, but it may actively limit the academic freedom of those on the tenure track, but not yet up for review. "Tenure does not protect the academic freedom of people who are not tenured. It works in the opposite direction," she said. "If you take the first six to eight years of someone's career, people are urged to be cautious, not to publish things in nontraditional media, not to offend anyone.... You take people coming out of graduate school when they have fertile or radical imaginations and you tell them to play it safe."

In an e-mail interview from Israel, where he is currently teaching on a Fulbright at Tel Aviv University, Johnson said he agreed with part of Potter's critique of tenure. He said she was absolutely correct to focus attention on the secrecy issue. "More sunlight in the personnel process will help eliminate some of the abuses," he said.

And Johnson agreed that tenure was designed for a different period -- when professors faced a constant threat of dismissal for views opposed by the government. "In the last seven years, despite the AAUP's overblown rhetoric, how many professors have been denied employment because of speaking out against government policies?" he asked. "So in this sense tenure can now be used a club to deny academic freedom to untenured faculty -- if they teach in humanities and most social science departments, unless they want to risk their jobs, they can't challenge the personnel preferences of a majority of their tenured colleagues, they have to be careful about the kind of topics they research, and they need to be silent on non-academic issues unless their opinions correspond to the race/class/gender world view."

But despite that skepticism, Johnson said that tenure -- once he won it -- has protected him. In his blog and book on the Duke University lacrosse scandal, Johnson has been unrelenting in criticizing Duke professors -- some of them academic stars -- whom he believes made irresponsible statements about the lacrosse players and have refused to apologize, even after evidence cleared the athletes. "I could never have spoken out on the Duke case if I didn't have tenure at Brooklyn, since I would have been subject to retribution from local ideological allies" of the Duke professors, he said.

So what might work better? Johnson said he would favor tenure followed by five-year post-tenure reviews, but in ways that couldn't be manipulated by personal likes or dislikes of a department's members. He would like to see "a review process that's quantifiable (requiring, for instance, tenured profs to show that they've developed new courses, or published new articles, or done research for new books) rather than having subjective reviews."

The Value of Tenure

Some of those who study tenure issues or work to expand tenure are less than impressed with the logic of those arguing to move beyond it.

Gregory Saltzman, a professor of economics and management at Albion College, writes for the National Education Association about how to protect faculty members from unjustified dismissals. In an interview, he said that while he believes unions strengthen tenure, he dismissed the idea that they could replace tenure. He gave the example of "just cause" provisions, in which unions specify that dismissal is only allowed for legitimate reasons.

He offered this example. A tenured professor shows up at a city council meeting and argues against granting the university a building permit for some project and criticizes the university administration. Such behavior wouldn't endear a professor to his or her superiors, but it wouldn't get a tenured professor fired, Saltzman said. But move away from the tenure construct, and that situation is one of insubordination for which someone could be fired.

"Tenure provides more extensive rights," he said. "Deans and presidents put up with a lot of behavior that a non-academic employer would call insubordination and act on."

Cary Nelson, president of the American Association of University Professors and author of Manifesto of a Tenured Radical, went further. "Giving up tenure would actually be insane," he said.

Nelson said that higher education indeed is weaker because so many professors without tenure do not enjoy full academic freedom. But he said that the solutions to that problem are to heighten protection for them while also pushing for the creation of more tenure-track positions. He also said that the continued strength of tenure at elite institutions has a power that goes beyond them. "Tenure there establishes standards for academic freedom that anchor the professoriate as a whole," Nelson said. "I don't think the professoriate can survive in its present form without a significant number of anchor institutions with tenure."

Further, Nelson rejected the idea that all of those votes behind closed doors are full of inappropriate or unfair deliberations. "I've been behind the closed doors in my own institution, and by and large, I think our tenure system is fair and the overwhelming majority of our decisions are the right decisions." And in "a significant number" of the decisions that don't go the right way, Nelson said, errors were made by the person coming up for tenure that contributed to the outcome.

While many have responded to the recent discussion with shock that professors themselves would put this topic on the agenda, there are a few examples of some who have done so previously.

David J. Helfand started as an assistant professor of astronomy at Columbia University in 1978, and when he came up for tenure, he decided he didn't want it, believing that it wasn't necessary for academic freedom, that lifetime employment was inherently flawed, and that tenure didn't encourage the sort of career path and creativity to which he aspired. It took two years to negotiate, but he won the right to five-year renewable contracts instead of tenure and he is currently in his fifth such contract.

Helfand said that at the end of the fourth year of each contract, he writes up his accomplishments in teaching, service and research and provides "a few pages" of his plans for the next five years. In a process similar to tenure reviews, senior members of his department review the proposal, which they send with a recommendation to the provost, who has another committee review the plans before deciding whether to renew.

"One of the more salutary aspects of this procedure is that I get to see the divergence of reality from my plans, and have occasion to reflect on where I have been and where I am going," he said.

While Helfand said he hasn't noticed a groundswell of others following his lead, he said that he has been involved in the planning of Quest University, in British Columbia, a new institution without tenure that is the first private, nonprofit university in Canada. Helfand said that faculty members have individual contracts that cover six, one-month teaching blocks, with the remaining time designated based on faculty strengths. Some contracts outline research expectations, others focus on public outreach or student recruiting. "This allows each faculty member to play to his or her strengths," he said.

What about academic freedom without tenure? Helfand noted that he has been active in many campus debates and that during the end of the presidency of Michael Sovern at Columbia, Helfand was publicly identified with a group of faculty members who believed it was time for a leadership change. Noting that he was even quoted to that effect in The New York Times in an article Columbia administrators couldn't have liked, Helfand said, "I have not felt this arrangement has shackled me in the least."

The president Helfand criticized has been gone from office for years. Helfand remains, but is now -- still without tenure -- his department's chair.

 

Most:

  • Viewed
  • Commented
  • Past:
  • Day
  • Week
  • Month
  • Year
Loading results...
Back to Top