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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.

Title

19 Theses on Tenure

Only because I don't have space for 95.

February 21, 2017
 
 

 

 

Well, I created a little bigger stir than I intended with last week’s post on “ending” tenure.

Mea culpa on the title. My original thought was “Repeal and Replace Tenure, Before It’s Too Late,” but that seemed a little too cute. Maybe it would’ve been better, I dunno.

I wanted the emphasis to be more on the “before it’s too late” part of the message than what resulted. And I don't even want to repeal tenure, but I would like tenured folks to better understand the ways tenure acts as a structural impediment to improving the teaching conditions of contingent faculty. (And therefore the learning conditions of students.)

The responses were interesting, frustrating, enlightening, enervating, which is the price of doing businesses in this forum. I’m not complaining here. Whenever I feel I’m not understood, I look first to my own messaging. What I regret is that my provocation played a role in creating an atmosphere that induced people of good will[1] to talk past each other.

That’s never my goal.

I care deeply about education. Teaching has been a vocation for me. It is devastating to leave it behind. Because I have spent my career in instructional positions, I am particularly concerned with the well-being of students. My seventeen years across four different institutions has revealed to me the many ways institutional policies and practices work against student well-being.

I want us to do better. I have no wish to destroy the tenured. I want a system that actually reflects the values we claim for it. But the system I’ve been working in doesn’t reflect those values. Since I believe this to be the case, I need to look past the system as is, question policy, and interrogate the history to find a viable future.

I realize now that I failed to lay the groundwork for my argument in that other post; I jumped to conclusions without showing my work. I’m trying to remedy that here. I’m certain even this will be imperfect, but it’s the best I can do for now.

I have more questions than answers, but these things I believe to be true, at least until I’m persuaded otherwise, which can and does happen.

1. I’m a strong believer in the principles of tenure and the values tenure is meant to embody as a mechanism to ensure the atmosphere necessary to teach and research in a way that allows for the production of knowledge. Shorter version: Academic freedom[2] matters to everyone who does work inside the institution related to the production of knowledge.

2. However, I believe there is a disconnect between “tenure as principle” and “tenure as policy.” Over time, “tenure as policy”  has become something to be doled out to the elect, and has allowed for the establishment of a multi-tiered faculty, where only the top tier has access to the protections of “tenure as principle.”

3. Put another way: We all agree tenure is important, maybe even necessary, except that somewhere around half of all faculty now don’t have access to tenure, and therefore do not have those protections. Academic freedom matters…except maybe only for those who do teaching and research and shared governance, even though some of the jobs that don’t meet all of that criteria also seem to benefit from the rights of academic freedom, but still, maybe they don’t need it as much? (Here I would insert a shruggie emoticon, except my word processing program won’t support those characters.)

4. “Tenure as principle” was conceived without knowledge or foresight of a future of “tenure as policy.” “Tenure as policy” has emerged gradually over time as a consequence of the corporatized university. It is not the fault of currently tenured faculty. Currently tenured faculty should also not feel any personal guilt over the establishment of this system over which they had no control.

5. I believe “tenure as policy” has become an instrument of administrative control – by making sure it is scarce – which creates a system where tenure has become a protection or perk for a privileged class, as opposed to a baseline requirement to do the “work” of faculty as it was originally envisioned.

6. “Tenure as policy” harms tenured faculty by increasing their responsibilities and workload. By making those eligible for the status increasingly scarce, over time, more burdens fall on those who remain. “Tenure as policy” also weakens the strength of “tenure as principle” for those who do still have it, as that scarcity creates an atmosphere where “using” one’s tenure appears risky.[3] Indeed, I hear from many tenured faculty that even with tenure they are “powerless” to do anything for the status of contingent faculty.

7. “Tenure as policy” harms non-tenurable faculty to a much greater degree, both in economic and non-economic terms. They both receive less compensation for the same work,[4] and labor without the protections for their academic freedom, which again are believed to be necessary for the full expression of our values.

8. Tenure for all, or even most, is not coming back. In fact, the trend is the opposite. I wish it were different. If tenured faculty would like to support a mass uprising against this trend, I’m right there marching. I’ll even bring the donuts and coffee. Unfortunately, a far more common response is to urge contingent faculty to either maintain solidarity with tenured faculty without any consideration in return, or to quit their jobs and do something else.

9. Urging adjuncts to quit does nothing to address the systemic issues that “tenure as policy” raises.

10. It is unfair, unjust, or any other “un-word” you care to name to place the burden of undoing this system, which harms both faculty (of all stripes) and students, on the backs of contingent faculty who do not have the academic freedom or job security or economic standing of tenured faculty. This is a moral and ethical argument, not necessarily a practical one, though I also think it’s practical.

11. If we believe in “tenure as principle,” but agree that tenured positions will continue to erode – or suddenly disappear in the case of legislative fiat – something must be done to preserve those values, and indeed, extend those values to the faculty who currently labor without those protections.

12. Even if the status quo can be maintained, we must seek to extend the values of tenure to those who don’t have access to them. They should have tenure (or something like it) in principle, if not in name.

13. I don’t have an answer in terms of a different specific policy, but it looks a lot like “tenure as principle,” only perhaps in a different form, something that acknowledges the needs and work of contingent faculty as faculty, as well as the needs of students who are taught by contingent faculty.

14. In other words, there must be a floor of rights for all faculty positions. Too many positions don’t come close to that floor, whatever it looks like.

15. This may not mean or require the “end of tenure,” but it does require a new approach that seeks to bring “tenure as principle” to the currently untenurable. Unions have allowed for some progress. Unions also aren’t an option for many.

16. That said, by creating a privileged class relative to others, “tenure as policy” is a barrier to establishing the kind of solidarity of laborers that would allow for collective response. Tenured faculty and untenurable faculty will never have perfectly aligned interests as long as “tenure as policy” is in effect.

17. Eliminating “tenure as policy” even for all its problems without having something that preserves “tenure as principle” would indeed be even worse than the status quo. Nonetheless, if it allows for genuine, collective action that reestablishes “tenure as principle” or something like it for all faculty, it may be worth doing.

18. Right now, this is the trajectory we are on. The existential threats to tenure in any form are increasing. I would be thrilled to see someone argue with evidence suggesting otherwise.

19. The sooner this is tackled by tenured faculty, the better. It will be better to figure this out while some faculty still have tenure and some of the power that goes with it, than to wait until it diminishes further or is wiped away entirely, and there is no reason for legislatures or administrations to listen or act on faculty desires, and suddenly all faculty know what it is to be contingent.

 

Maybe this seems radical to some. To me, it’s only sensible to try to see what’s coming and prepare for it.

I don’t want us to be too late.

 

 

 

 

 

[1] If people not of good will talk past each other, I’m not too bothered, to be honest.

[2] I also believe academic freedom extends to students and isn’t reserved for faculty, and part of that freedom is to have an instructor who is empowered to do their best work in collaboration with the student, but maybe that’s a topic for another post.

[3] “Tenure as policy” also emboldens legislatures to challenge the necessity of tenure. If some can do the work without it (and they do), why does anyone need it?

[4] Even when you factor TT salary only for the portions of their jobs dedicated to teaching, the per course wage in most institutions is significantly lower for contingent and adjunct faculty. As a full-time visitor at the institution where I now adjunct I made $1500/credit hour. Tenured faculty make at least $2000/credit hour. As an adjunct, I now make $830/credit hour. Same course, same instructor, same place, different status.

 

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