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Plate of Shrimp
November 29, 2007 - 9:18am

"It's like when someone says plate. And then someone says shrimp. And then someone says plate of shrimp .... It's part of the cosmic web of coincidence."
--"Repo Man"

Every so often I stumble upon two articles back to back that seem like they were written to answer each other, even though they obviously weren't. It's part of the cosmic web of coincidence.

My fellow IHE blogumnist John Lombardi published an enigmatic, but thoughtful, piece on the "deconstruction" of the faculty role into its component parts. He argues that "the remarkable transformation of much academic commitment from an investment in a person who produces many products over a lifetime to the investment in specific products that ensure the competitive position of the employing institution" is the result of "the demand for high levels of student access, high productivity demonstrated through measurable output, and low cost," and the concurrent rise of "accountability metrics." He appears to lament the decline of "the norm of faculty life [that] revolved around a full-time tenured position in a college or university where we would become permanent and engaged members of the academic community, participating in teaching, research, public service, and governance responding to a holistic conception of faculty responsibilities." (emphasis added)

It's a fairly straightforward story of the gentleman's agreement giving way to the contract. Contracts lack the ease and flexibility of the gentleman's agreement even if, to any objective observer, they're far more inclusive than the old form. If you keep expecting the old form, you'll keep being disappointed in the costs of, well, modernity. People who intuitively understood the "holistic conception" will find any mere list of components somewhat underwhelming or reductionist.

Right after that, I found an unintentional rebuttal in a piece in the Chronicle. The piece, "As the Professoriate Ages, Will Colleges Face More Legal Landmines?," examines the ways that colleges and universities can run afoul of the Americans With Disabilities Act. (The conceit of the article is that the aging of the tenured faculty will lead to increased disability claims over time, and therefore to more opportunities for litigation.)

As the article correctly notes, the ADA requires employers, when confronted with a disability claim, to make reasonable accommodations. A college can deny an accommodation request if it can show that the request would "require the college to reduce, eliminate, or modify the essential functions of a job." How could it show that?

[T]o make such a case, an institution must be able to describe what, in
fact, the essential functions of a faculty member's job are. That is
why each college should identify and distribute a list of the
essential functions that a faculty member at the institution must
perform, preferably in some official policy document like a faculty
handbook, individual employment contract, or collective-bargaining
agreement. Establishing a clear set of essential functions will notify
faculty members of what they are expected to do, provide a guideline
for administrators who are asked to provide reasonable accommodations
for faculty members who can't perform certain parts of their jobs, and
justify a college's agreement or refusal to grant a particular
accommodation...If it is to hold up to scrutiny during litigation, the
essential-functions list should be prepared before a faculty member
discloses a disability and requests an accommodation.
(emphasis in original)

Exactly. That "essential functions" list that Lombardi considers reductive and shallow is the only thing keeping litigants from bleeding the college dry with legal judgments. The gentleman's agreement model of individual judgment on a case-by-case basis - with all the favoritism that entails - simply isn't sustainable in court. And for very good reason.

The tension between the ideals of contracts -- transparency, clarity, reciprocity -- and the holdover ideals of the gentleman scholar -- an apprentice system, a complete lack of accountability, and lifetime job security -- becomes obvious when younger faculty clamor for more transparency in the tenure process. They're trying to bring the logic of exchange to bear on a system premised on the denial of the logic of exchange. It's possible to do a little of that, but ultimately, giving someone tenure means exempting them from having to uphold their half of the deal. That's why colleges have been so slow to let go of the much-feared unwritten rules, even when the unwritten rules seem archaic or even silly. By necessity, they try to suss out motivation, as much as actual production, so they don't get stuck with someone who will collapse in exhaustion at the finish line of tenure and retire on the job, stirring only to file the occasional grievance.

As Lombardi correctly notes, higher ed has indirectly acknowledged the end of the "gentleman's agreement" era by constructing a parallel system of faculty hiring separate from the tenure track. That second system is clearly second-class - adjunct and temp positions that offer no security, lousy pay, and no signs of institutional respect. It's almost a parody of the worst of the corporate world, the profits from which subsidize the otherwise-unsustainable gentlemen with tenure. The landed aristocrats are bought off, and the proles too scared or shamed to organize.

Every so often I suggest moving to full-time renewable multi-year contracts with academic freedom stipulated as part of the contractual language. (That way, violations of academic freedom would be actionable as breach of contract. That's actually a stronger legal foundation than academic freedom has by itself.) Stop trying to psychoanalyze junior faculty; give up on the gentleman scholar; spell out the expectations on both sides; don't renew those who don't perform. Let's have the conversations about what the job actually entails, and write down the results of that conversation for future legal reference.

Lamenting the world that's lost is fine, but someone said plate of shrimp.

It's time to move on.


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