Comparing the tenure system to society, and the tenured to citizens (essay)
Tenure as Citizenship
A few weeks ago, I was having lunch with a friend who is a faculty member here at Penn State. I’d been reflecting on a question that had recently arisen in my administration and governance class about tenure and decided to pose it to him.
“Who is your boss?” I asked. His response was, “No one.”
I had heard this answer before, and it again struck me as either egotistical or a coy reinforcement of the stereotypical faculty worldview. But neither of my assumptions was true. By the end of our conversation, not only did I understand his point of view, I agreed with it.
The subject of my “interview” has been at Penn State for over a decade with the title of distinguished professor. As his honorary status would suggest, he is a well-established researcher and respected teacher. His interest in higher education goes beyond his field, however; he is also deeply interested in effective administration. He applied for department head this year with the hope of capitalizing on the multiple opportunities he sees within his department.
Our conversation was engaging and enlightening due to in large part to the time he had spent considering the issue of effective governance long before I asked him to chat. Thus, his quick answer was far from an off-the-cuff response. His thoughts were grounded in his understanding of tenured faculty as “citizens” of the university. Because of his enduring citizenship in the organization of Penn State, this professor basically reports to no one.
His metaphor of tenure as citizenship is simple enough. All citizens of the United States are entitled to some basic rights and services from the government. Unless that citizen violates established laws, he or she cannot have his or her citizenship revoked. Citizens are accountable to these basic laws but otherwise report to no one.
Even an elected official -- someone with seemingly higher citizenship standing -- has little direct power over another citizen. Were a state senator to approach one of his or her constituents and demand compliance with some personal agenda, the constituent may feel pressure to acquiesce but would not be legally forced to act. The senator’s only true power would come through passing legislation that created new laws to which citizens would have to abide.
Such is life as a tenured professor in the academy. Unless a professor violates established laws of the institution -- refusing to teach courses, or committing gross misconduct, for instance -- he or she can never be fired. Although he has to officially report to his department head on an annual basis -- something akin to a citizen filing taxes -- this accountability is minimal. Even discussions with this individual about which classes to teach are just that -- discussions.
Although this is not the case within every department, it does seem to be typical at this university. If the professor was unresponsive to these polite requests and the department head wished to force the issue, one of the few ways the administrator could require compliance would be by passing new policies in the Faculty Senate -- in a sense, creating new laws for all citizens. As a citizen of Penn State, his freedoms and privileges endure perpetually until he chooses to terminate his association with this “nation.”
This model holds up exceptionally well from certain perspectives. When discussing the possible consequences of an attempt to abolish tenure, the professor likened the move to a repression of citizens’ rights by an invasive government. The riots, political upheaval, and media onslaught that would occur in such a national situation would closely mirror the strife that would accompany such a policy decision by university administrators.
Adjunct faculty also fit into this schema, closely aligning with migrant workers in this analogy. Although they serve an important purpose in the country, they are also underpaid laborers with no citizenship rights who could be deported without warning. Additionally, his distinguished chair title is akin to minor celebrity status, drawing attention to him and his points of view but bringing no formal benefits such as salary increases or negotiating powers.
And as already indicated, administrators are the elected officials, serving an important symbolic and political role but yielding very little direct power over their constituents.
Beyond serving as an entertaining thought experiment, this model has utility for understanding the day-to-day dynamics of the organization. A few takeaways strike me as particularly meaningful, each of which deserve further elaboration:
- The discrepancy between citizens (tenured faculty) and non-citizens (adjunct faculty) is severe.
- Office holders (administrators) within the government (university) have significant indirect influence on citizens through policy but little direct influence.
- Revoking citizenship is virtually impossible if the citizen has not violated the law. Citizenship is perpetual.
First, citizenship is a highly valued commodity, taken for granted by those who have it and longed for by those who do not. Much of the debate around adjunct professors involves acquiring the basic rights of citizenship: fair pay, health insurance, and representation, to name a few. From this perspective, it seems that tenured professors are not the entitled ones; adjuncts are simply disadvantaged.
Yet even though companies are trafficking these workers into their country to meet a workforce need, they simultaneously abdicate responsibility for their disadvantaged status as aliens. This parallel between universities and profligate corporations is simply disturbing.
Second, the power of administration is diffuse. Politicians use multiple mediums of influence to shape their constituency, such as popular media, political appointments, and legislation. Likewise, a savvy college administrator rarely uses direct orders to elicit action but instead shapes the system toward his or her intended outcomes. Placing a like-minded faculty member as the head of an important committee dramatically increases the chances that the administrator’s agenda is carried out. Restructuring a research lab can radically change the level of production within the unit or even the focus of the work being done. Although the end results of system-shaping may not be apparent for some time, this work behind the scenes has the power to influence action broadly without drawing attention (and thus, without encountering organized resistance).
Lastly, a tenured professor is a tenured professor as long as he or she wants to be. Although this point immediately brings to mind the image of a radical, unproductive kook who simply will not retire, what may be more common is the immortal administrator.
If my interviewee, the tenured professor, transitions to administration but maintains his tenure during his appointment, he may return to the professoriate long after his administrative term is up. Although I cannot imagine becoming a CEO only to have my predecessor take up an office down the hall from me, in the academy, this is not completely out of the question. As a citizen, he or she has the right to do so. This is akin to a former president of the United States who still resides in the country and is still active in politics as a “normal” citizen.
So who does our professor, the citizen, actually report to? Well, formally, the department head… but practically? No one.
And herein lies the rub. As a free-thinking citizen, he now faces a terrific choice: Will he choose to embrace the responsibilities of citizenship and actively steward the university/democracy like only an engaged, educated citizen can?
Will he simply claim his rights as a citizen, fighting for his own freedoms while turning a blind eye to the marginalized peoples in his neighborhood who have none? Or thirdly, will he forsake both of these perspectives in favor of a citizenship that extends beyond his institutional borders -- the citizenship of his professional discipline?
Any choice he makes has significant implications for his own actions, the health of the university, and the advancement of his field of inquiry. Although I would advocate for the responsibility perspective, I cannot tell him what to do. After all, he reports to no one.
Josh Wymore is a research assistant in Pennsylvania State University's Center for the Study of Higher Education and a doctoral student in the university's higher education program.