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What Percent of Your (Academic) Salary Would You Trade for Tenure?

A thought experiment about the scholarship of learning innovation, staff status, and academic freedom.

May 12, 2019
 
 

What percent of your salary would you trade for tenure?

The people I have in mind to answer this question is anyone who identifies as an academic but is not eligible for tenure.

The question of what percent of your salary you would trade for tenure may sound like an academic version of Sophie’s Choice.

Nobody is getting rich on an academic salary.  The choice to forgo some pay that is already allocated to housing, car payments, or (in my case) your kid's college tuition payments may seem like no choice at all.  But this is only a thought experiment.

I would give up half (50 percent) of my salary for tenure.

Yes, half.

Tenure, for me, would be less about “economic security.”  (See part 2 of the AAUP 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure below). Although economic security would great, it is not something that exists nowadays for almost anyone who depends on a paycheck.

Tenure, for me, would be all about academic freedom.

The area that I’d like to spend the second half of my academic career thinking, writing, (and hopefully teaching) about is learning innovation. This field - as my co-researcher Eddie Maloney and I are thinking about it - is the study of how colleges and universities make step-change (non-incremental) advances in student learning.

The interdisciplinary field of learning innovation that we are trying to get off the ground, along with a few other misguided fellow travelers, integrates the disciplines of learning science and organizational change.  The unit of analysis is the institution, although the dependent variable may be individual outcome measures student learning.

Studying learning innovation requires that one take a critical look at how colleges and universities are constructing the student learning experience.  The scholar of learning innovation might ask what it would mean for a school to align their teaching practices with the findings of learning science research.

As a non-tenure track / tenurable alt-ac, my ability to publish critical analysis is limited.  Research on learning innovation always hits close to home, as the subject of that scholarship is the employer of a learning innovation scholar.

Professors in departments of Higher Education who have tenure can publish critical research.  Those of us working in learning organizations (centers for teaching and learning, academic computing units, etc.) are seldom eligible for the protections of academic freedom.

The field of learning innovation, as Eddie and I are thinking about it, is an applied one.  Learning innovation researchers are scholar-practitioners.  They work on and lead campus learning initiatives, while also conducting research on these efforts. This is why we don’t think that the tenure issue in an emerging discipline of learning innovation can be solved by trying to pivot to a traditional faculty role.

Part of the special sauce of learning innovation is that it combines research, with the sort of work that is being done by people working in CTLs or academic computing units or other learning organizations. Almost always (but not universally, see some academic librarians), those working and researching in the area of learning innovation are classified as staff rather than faculty - and are therefore not eligible for tenure.

Again, I would trade half of my salary to be able to do the same work, in the same way, but with the protections of tenure.

Tenure would enable the scholarly part of my work to be better.  Braver.  More critical.  More open.  More honest.  More probing.

Tenure would also provide a sort of longer-term runway in which a research agenda around learning innovation could be built.  It takes a long time to gather data, figure out some results, and produce research.  Tenure would allow for some long-term thinking in the development and execution of a learning innovation research agenda.

What percent of your academic salary would you trade for tenure?

How would tenure change the way you run your academic life?

Would your motivations for tenure be economic security or academic freedom?

As you think about these questions, here is an excerpt from the AAUP 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure:

Institutions of higher education are conducted for the common good and not to further the interest of either the individual teacher or the institution as a whole. The common good depends upon the free search for truth and its free exposition.

Academic freedom is essential to these purposes and applies to both teaching and research. Freedom in research is fundamental to the advancement of truth. Academic freedom in its teaching aspect is fundamental for the protection of the rights of the teacher in teaching and of the student to freedom in learning. It carries with it duties correlative with rights.

Tenure is a means to certain ends; specifically:

(1) freedom of teaching and research and of extramural activities, and

(2) a sufficient degree of economic security to make the profession attractive to men and women of ability. Freedom and economic security, hence, tenure, are indispensable to the success of an institution in fulfilling its obligations to its students and to society.

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