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When Tenure Disappears: Walking Away from the Ivory Towers
July 25, 2010 - 9:30pm

When William Julius Wilson wrote When Work Disappears in 1996, he wasn’t saying that work was actually disappearing. He was saying that work as urban poor folks had known it had been forever changed – factory jobs with benefits had all but disappeared. Today, new positions at factories receive thousands of applications and people are willing to move their families halfway across the country for a full-time job with health insurance. I grew up in a GM family in Flint, Michigan. My father worked night shifts on the line. When he died in 1984, his annual salary was in the $50k range and our family had amazing health benefits. Those jobs have disappeared.

Twenty years later, I earned my PhD and entered a surprisingly similar job market with what seemed like a handful of tenure-track positions receiving hundreds of applications. Tenure-track positions are disappearing. Changes in both of these sectors are the result of changes in the economy and the nature of work. The company is no longer loyal to us and we are no longer loyal to the company. We cannot afford to fool ourselves into believing that these changes have not had radical impacts on work within higher education.

At the same time, we are being told that we need to “constantly reinvent” ourselves to remain relevant and marketable. Many of us have parents who worked for the same company for 40 years – they had been bored and it had been “just a job.” At that time, there had been a discrete line between their jobs and the rest of their lives. This line has disappeared. In academia, we have been trained to think for a living and we cannot stop ourselves from thinking, all the time. We aim for a work/life balance that provides the space for creativity. We believe that meaningful work should have an impact outside of the workplace and that a meaningful life should have an impact outside of the home.

So, how do we get there?

One problem lies in the fact that we are being trained under an old model. In the majority of our PhD programs, we are trained for one position, one role – that of faculty member, one who is primarily a researcher and secondarily a teacher. We take courses in theory and methods within our discipline. We are not taught the theories and methods of teaching. We do not complete practicums in teaching. It is assumed that we are brilliant thinkers who will be able to convey the results of our research in our courses. This is rarely the case.

We need to rethink PhD training. As tenure disappears and PhD enrollments continue to rise, we have to accept the fact that PhD candidates need to be trained to work outside of academia and that our knowledge-based economy needs PhD-trained knowledge workers in all sectors – not just in higher ed.

What should this include?

  1. Teacher Education – PhDs should be certified to teach high school students (Our K-12 systems are suffering and the market is flooded with unemployed and under-employed PhDs).
  2. Higher Education Management – PhDs spend enough years within their institutions – they should know how they work.
  3. Leadership Development – Teamwork, decision-making, management, communications – the basics to make PhDs productive knowledge leaders.
  4. Media Training – Communicating ideas to a larger audience-Why do we keep some of our best-trained minds from having an impact?

We are squandering the wealth of our knowledge workers. We are forcing them into the confines of a narrowly prescribed identity where the majority write for free and teach classes at rates that keep them at poverty levels. Many are severely depressed, disengaged, and forgoing long-term partnerships and families of their own.

Let’s turn this around.

If tenure is disappearing, let’s face this head on. Let’s create a vision. Don’t train your PhD students to become your replacements. Train them to create a new society, a better society. Give them the hope that they can make an impact and change the world. Don’t pitch them into a snake pit of hopeless competition for a diminishing number of positions.

Train them to become knowledge catalysts, to make a difference.

Train them to walk away from the ivory towers.

Mary Churchill is the Executive Director of University of Venus.

This post was inspired by many conversations over the years. I would like to thank Diana Brydon and Kris Olds for sending great reads my way. I would also like to thank Jim Stellar, Sara Wadia Fascetti, and Leanne Doherty for recent discussions on the topic; the amazing writers at UVenus for being inspirational rock stars; and our incredibly supportive editors at IHE.


The Influencers:

  • Burawoy, Michael.2010. “A New Vision of the Public University.” Transformations of the Public Sphere series. Social Science Research Council (SSRC) website. Brooklyn, NY: USA. (link here).
  • Clemens, Randy. July 6, 2010. “Taking down the ivory towers: A new role for universities.” 21st Century Scholar blog (link here).
  • COACHE. 2010. The Experience of Tenure-Track Faculty at Research Universities: Analysis of COACHE Survey Results by Academic Area and Gender. COACHE: The Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education. (link here)
  • Craig, Natalie. July 12, 2010. “Successful women are a study in flexibility.” The Age. Australia. (link here).
  • Croxall, Brian. July 15, 2010. “Six Ways to Make Adjuncting More Effective and Fulfilling.” Prof Hacker blog. The Chronicle. USA.(link here).
  • The Huffington Post. July 13, 2010. “Female Profs Less Satisfied in Jobs than Males: Study.” (link here).
  • Jaschik, Scott. July 12, 2010. “Job Satisfaction and Gender.” Inside Higher Ed. USA. (link here).
  • Maas, Bruce and Michael Zimmer. July 7, 2010. “What Do Newer Generation Faculty Want from IT Services?” EDUCAUSE Presentation. (link here).
  • Macleod, Hugh. July 3, 2010. “’the only way to keep your job nowadays is to constantly reinvent it’” The Gaping Void blog. (link here)
  • Wilson, Robin. July 4, 2010. “Tenure, RIP: What the Vanishing Status Means for the Future of Education.” The Chronicle. USA. (link here).
  • Wilson, William Julius. 1996. When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor. Alfred A. Knopf. New York, NY: USA.



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