• Just Visiting

    A blog by John Warner, author of the story collection Tough Day for the Army, and a novel, The Funny Man, on teaching, writing and never knowing when you're going to be asked to leave.


Do Nots and Dos When Defending Tenure

Defending tenure means a campaign for hearts and minds.

January 15, 2017

I am worried about the future of tenure.

No duh, right?

State representatives in Missouri and Iowa have proposed legislation that will end tenure at their public institutions.[1] 

In many ways this is a sequel to last year’s events in Wisconsin, which did not explicitly remove tenure, but weakened its protections significantly. 

I am also worried about the responses of those who are interested in preserving tenure that I’ve been seeing. I am worried because they are largely a repeat of the failed pushback in Wisconsin, and seem to betray a less than full understanding of what is happening here.

Maybe it’s the bubble.

I kid, I kid…because I love.

And because I love, and believe in the preservation and even expansion of tenure, here’s some do’s and do not’s that may be useful in winning the necessary hearts and minds.

1. Do not say that legislators (or the public) are “ignorant” about what tenure means.

Even if you believe this is true (and all signs point to yes), do not use this word.

2. Do not argue that tenure is necessary for faculty to conduct “cutting-edge research.”

Because no one is against cutting-edge research, those who wish to undo tenure can and do claim that cutting-edge research will be retained with other, “free-market” incentives. As Missouri Representative Rick Bratin says, it would be “ludicrous to get rid of” those researchers.

This argument implies that tenure is for the “exceptional.”

The definition of “exceptional” will almost certainly be reserved for those whose research is supported by external funding or wins a prize that non-academics have heard of.

Everyone else, not exceptional. Publishing in the leading journal in your field, not exceptional. Keynote speaker at an important academic conference, even that, not exceptional in the context we’re talking about here.

It also fights the battle on the “education as marketplace/business” turf. Once you’ve granted that a or even the primary purpose of tenure is to retain “talent,” the ability to argue for tenure as a broad based necessity to do the work of faculty is gone.

3. Do not say things like: “What people fail to understand is that tenure is one of the important fortifications of American democracy, in that in the areas of arts and sciences and literature, universities are a bastion for intellectual freedom. … When tenure ends, the politically powerful or economic elite can control what goes on in universities.”

This is a quote from Northern Iowa professor of criminology Joe Gorton, reacting to the proposed legislation in his state.

This is the “speak truths to power” argument, and I happen to agree 100% with Prof. Gorton that this role is an important one that can be fulfilled by tenured academics.

I also implore those interested in preserving tenure to never ever never make this argument to the broader public in this way, ever never never.

Any argument that has even a whiff of tenure being necessary because faculty are somehow “special” is doomed, doomed, doomed.

Prof. Gorton unfortunately dug the hole even deeper, saying of college faculty, “We’re not delivering the mail here,” apparently suggesting that professors are worthy of job protections where mail carriers are not.


Here is another unfortunate truth: In states like Missouri and Iowa, and many other places I can name, the broader public is not interested in faculty speaking these “truths” because faculty are the out-of-touch, elitists, who look down on regular folks such as mail carriers, who, when they speak truth to power, have to fear for their jobs.

Americans managed to just elect a man who craps on a gold toilet inside his gold bathroom inside his golden apartment in the sky.

There is apparent comfort with the economic elite running things provided they are not also aligned with the liberal cultural elite, aka, college professors.

Now, on to the “do’s.”

1. Do: Educate and inform the broader public about how tenure works and the nature of the contemporary public university.

While we are not going to use the “ignorant” word, it is useful to attempt to remedy some of the, truthfully highly explicable, misunderstandings the general public may have about tenure. People should know that tenure does not mean one has a job “for life.” They should know that earning tenure requires one to clear numerous hurdles for teaching, scholarship, and service. They should know that even when one has tenure, faculty are subject to periodic review.

People should also be informed that in many (if not most) cases, public institutions are receiving less than 20% (and even less than 10%) of their funding from state money. Point out, correctly, that the legislators are minority stakeholders in the institution and yet they’re acting as though they’re paying all the bills.

Point out that the bills are actually being paid by student tuition.

2. Do: Argue the concrete harms to the institutional reputation eliminating tenure may bring.

Rather than saying it may prevent “cutting-edge research” by individuals, discuss how Wisconsin dropped out of the top five for the National Science Foundation’s ranking of research institutions after redefining tenure. 

You can also claim that eliminating tenure will make the institution less competitive with its peer institutions that retain tenure. As long as they’re going to make public institutions compete on prestige, we may as well use it to our advantage.

3. Do: Point out that these regulations are a bureaucratic nightmare.

Tell people that every dollar spent tracking “productivity” in order to ferret out a small handful of bad actors is one fewer dollar available to go to actual instruction. Point out how the administrative university has already grown by leaps and bounds and this only furthers that growth.

Dispositional conservatives who are not outright ideologues and therefore hate faculty because they seem them as the enemy, will be especially amenable to this argument.

4. Do: Tell people how tenure is important not for faculty, but for students and the public at large.

Too much of the defense of tenure is couched in faculty needs and concepts that are largely abstract to those outside the institution (“academic freedom”) without also explaining how those faculty needs ultimately impact students or the public.

Be specific and be concrete: Without tenure, my students couldn’t do X. Don’t even mention yourself. Tenure is designed to allow faculty to do important service for the public. Focus on the public. Remind people that it was researchers at Virginia Tech who first alerted the nation to the problems of lead in the Flint, MI water supply.

For example, in my own case, I would argue that the protections of tenure have allowed me to pursue a program of pedagogical experimentation which has led me to develop new methods and approaches to teaching which have ultimately paid off in improved quality of student learning. I now hope to gather these experiences into a book that may prove valuable to other writing instructors.

Wait a second…I’ve never had tenure, and yet I’ve still done this/am doing this.[2]

This brings me to my final recommendation for acting for the preservation of tenure.

5. Do: Use your tenure by embracing your status as a laborer.

As I wrote previously, faculty want to think of themselves as “knowledge workers,” but for most of us, this is an illusion. Like the vast majority of our fellow citizens, we are laborers, and the labor the public is prepared to support is teaching.[3] 

Use your tenure. Use your tenure as a lance in support of all laborers, rather than a shield protecting professorial privilege.

Use your tenure for people other than yourself and just maybe, others will come around to support faculty in turn. For example, try supporting, I don’t know…postal workers, by speaking out in favor of public civil service unions. Argue that more people should have job security appropriate to their work, not fewer.

Use your tenure on issues that benefit students. Imagine a world in which faculty have spent years leading the fight against tuition increases made necessary by public divestment and how different public support for faculty may look.

Use your tenure on issues that benefit the institution and therefore the students. Imagine a world where a majority of instructors were not contingent, and were therefore invested in preserving tenure, rather than being indifferent to its continuation. 

This moment of crisis has been years in coming. Even if this challenge is pushed back, it’s only a matter of time before it comes back. Perhaps in the past it has made sense to turtle up, stay quiet, and hope the legislature doesn’t hurt you too badly. Eve

That time is gone. This is a fight for life and whether or not the profession has a future that looks anything like the past.

If faculty are going to be on the winning side, they need to start gathering allies, because they’re well behind.


[1] In Missouri it applies to new faculty hires starting in 2018. In Iowa it removes tenure for all existing faculty.

[2] Though, if I had tenure, I believe I already would’ve done this as the reduced teaching load and actual synergy between my teaching job and this pedagogical research would’ve freed me to spend more time on a project that needs a longer period of gestation to pay off. It’s taking me longer because I have to spend more of my time writing things that help bring in steady income made necessary because of my lower pay as contingent faculty.

[3] This doesn’t mean one must abandon their research, it just means framing that research around the work of instruction. We often hear faculty claim that their research fuels their teaching. Prove it, with concrete examples, and focus on the teaching, not the research itself.


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