Administrators and non-tenure-track faculty have at least one thing in common: Both groups appear comfortable with the elimination of tenure.
As reported by Inside Higher Ed, this is according to data collected for Envisioning the Faculty for the 21st Century by Adrianna Kezar and Daniel Maxey, a new-ish book that seeks to further the conversation about what shape faculty roles will take in our changing universities.
I’ve never been an administrator, but I imagine the explanation for their comfort with eliminating tenure is about power, namely, without tenure, administrators have much more freedom to operate.
I don’t attribute nefarious motives here, however. Lack of tenure means administrations could remake faculty to meet the demands of a changing higher education arena. If one sincerely believes that it’s “adapt or die,” it makes sense to desire the maximum freedom to adapt. I'm sure many administrators confronting these challenges believe that eliminating tenure would be a net good for their institutions. It doesn't mean they're right (or wrong), but it's entirely explicable.
For those who are confused by non-tenure-track faculty’s ambivalence when it comes to tenure, maybe I can be of help.
While I’m in my 16th year as a non-tenure-track instructor, I don’t want to speak for all contingent faculty, but in short, it’s hard to value something that not only are you never going to have, but has also been used as an instrument of your own oppression.
I have been criticized in the past for describing the role of contingent faculty as “human shields” protecting the privileged position of tenured faculty, but possibly excessive rhetoric aside, the lived experience of most contingent faculty – particularly in humanities departments – is such that tenure begins to look like a structural impediment to their own advancement.
I was moved to use this language because that's how it felt.
When one works in a system where you teach many sections of gen ed courses that run at a surplus of tuition while tenured faculty man small upper division or graduate courses that run at a deficit, it’s hard not to get a little resentful.
Couple this with the fact that many contingent faculty know very well that they’re unlikely to ever secure work that includes tenure and it’s not a stretch to get to a point where non-tenure-track faculty are ambivalent about its continuation.
I anticipate that some tenured faculty may like to explain how important tenure is not just to the overall functioning of the institution, but that contingent faculty also benefit from tenure, that without tenured faculty, administrations will squeeze the non-tenured even harder.
There’s obviously merit to these arguments, but again, these entirely reasonable, rational arguments don’t mean much next to the emotional reality of contingent/adjunct life. Too few contingent faculty have experienced anything more than lip service when it comes to solidarity from tenured colleagues.
This is especially true at the public R1 schools that have the greatest reliance on contingent faculty, the most significant gaps in relative privilege.
No amount of ‘splaining the “realities” of our current higher education system, and enumerating all the reasons why tenured faculty are powerless or there’s nothing that can be done is going to change these attitudes.
Some administrators view tenure as an impediment to necessary change. Public support for tenure has been eroding for years. Now, even a group in proximity to see its benefits can’t muster more than a shrug over tenure’s continuation. To me, it feels like we're in a use it or lose it situation, and my suggestion is starting by using it in support of those NTT colleagues who should be (but currently aren't) the most natural allies.
If not, seems like we need to start thinking about what’s next.