End Tenure, Before It's Too Late
What if tenure is now more impediment than benefit for meeting our goals?
I am a little surprised I am about to say this, but I’ve come to believe it’s true:
Tenure has become a structural impediment to higher education institutions fulfilling their most important goals.
In higher education, I think we spend too much time putting policy ahead of goals, and when they come into conflict, falling back on policy itself as something worthy of protection, even when that policy may actually stand in the way of more important goals, and exist in contradiction to our bedrock values.
One of those policies is tenure.
I do not wish to assign blame for this state, but instead, I want to attempt to describe, as clearly and concisely as possible, why tenure works contrary to the goals it is supposed to embody. Tenure is supposed to empower faculty to teach and research without fear of capricious dismissal, a mechanism that allows for the institution to flourish.
It no longer fulfills this mission. Tenure, as policy, has become divorced from tenure in principle. This has probably been true for quite some time. I do not think I have wanted to admit it, even as I've experienced it.
Tenure, as policy, virtually guarantees the perpetuation of our two-tiered structure of academic labor. As long as tenure exists, but is also scarce, those who achieve tenure will benefit from what Kevin Birmingham calls the “great shame of our profession.” No matter how sympathetic tenured faculty may be to contingent faculty, and no matter how diligently they work to improve the lot of contingent faculty, the mere fact of the divide stands in contrast to the principles of tenure: academic freedom and security.
Tenure, as policy, guarantees a gradually diminishing capacity for research. As long as research is the exclusive province of tenureable faculty, less and less will completed over time.
Tenure, as policy, guarantees that a significant proportion of the instructional faculty work in positions that are, for all practical purposes, fungible. Every year, experienced, dedicated faculty leave the profession because, without tenure, it is economically unsustainable. A policy that is meant to provide security actually leads to the opposite for the faculty who make up a majority of our institutions.
Tenure, as policy, reduces the capacity for student mentoring. A fungible workforce, a workforce that may be dividing its time among multiple institutions, is not available for the time-consuming work of one-on-one mentoring of students.
Tenure, as policy, reduces the quality of instruction. A fungible workforce inhibits professional development, erodes institutional memory, and requires those with tenure to take on increasing burdens, which in turn compromises the quality of their instruction.
I could go on. As it works today, tenure, as policy, could be the most significant impediment to achieving our widely shared institutional goals of teaching, research, and mentorship. The only way we can continue to claim that tenure is working is to deny that those without tenure are actually faculty, and are instead something else, while still doing the work of faculty. How long will we continue to maintain this delusion?
The obvious solution to this problem is to rejoin tenure as principle with tenure as policy.
But tenure in this form is not coming back. The proportion of tenured faculty positions, particularly in the humanities, will continue to decline over time. If this weren’t a virtual certainty, I may feel differently, but I cannot see any evidence of tenure’s return.
The plans of legislatures in Iowa and Wisconsin and elsewhere to end tenure with the sudden stroke of the legislative pen are even worse than the status quo. You won’t find me endorsing them. I also do not wish to see tenure ended by administrative fiat, no matter how benevolent that administration may be.
The work of the faculty must be decided by the people in the best position to know that work. To me, that’s faculty themselves.
But maybe it’s time, or past time, to talk about our goals and our values, those things that are truly meaningful, the things tenure originally meant to embody, but now obscures.
Tenure is ending. Tenure should end. What’s next?
Note: Regular readers know that I try to respond to comments and criticisms, but I'm on the road this weekend, so please don't take my absence as disinterest. I'm hoping that people offer different, and differing, perspectives.
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