Congratulations! You have a tenure-track position. Now what? Seriously, how are you going to make the transition from tenure-track to tenured? What is the best way to spend your time? How much emphasis should you put on teaching? What are the scholarship expectations? Where should you publish? Do you need to be first author? Should you continue working with your graduate advisor? Should you stick to safe avenues of inquiry or take chances with new ideas? How many committees should you sit on? How many campus initiatives should you join? What, if anything, can you turn down? What is the relative value of teaching, scholarship, and service?
When I started my own tenure-track position I had the same questions. I perused published sources and quizzed colleagues to gain insight. I believed that by identifying the right steps to take, people to meet, ways to teach, scholarship to pursue, committees to seek out, and committees to avoid, I would bring clarity to the ambiguity of the tenure process. Unfortunately, my desire to cobble together a magical checklist was still plagued by a fundamental problem. My approach made getting tenure the primary goal.
On the surface, this is perfectly reasonable. Tenure provides job and financial security, as well as the ability to take risks in one’s scholarship and the opportunity to help shape the future of one’s institution. Yet, I believe a superior approach is to get a tenure-track position and then immediately remove the idea of “getting tenure” from your daily (or perhaps even moment by moment) thought process. That’s right. Getting tenure should not be your primary goal (though admittedly this is secretly a “how-to get tenure” article). Instead, your goal should be to follow your interests, your passion, your curiosity, and your creativity. In other words, you should follow all of the things that got you into this field in the first place.
In my first year, I experienced anxiety because the guidelines for getting tenure were somewhat vague. As I progressed in my second year I decided to be proactive and ask the then-chair of my department, David Strohmetz, about my status and trajectory. My anxiety laden query was met with a straightforward suggestion: “You can only do so much. If it doesn’t happen to be enough, you learn from the experience and move on.” I wanted to hear that I was meeting expectations and would assuredly do so in the future. Yet, his advice was the catalyst I needed.
His advice tacitly suggested that adopting a new perspective on the tenure process was more appropriate than constant progress reports. With this foundation, I decided to develop a personal philosophy based on my own priorities. As Morrie Schwartz said in Tuesdays With Morrie “…the culture we have does not make people feel good about themselves….And you have to be strong enough to say if the culture doesn’t work, don’t buy it. Create your own.” I suspect he wasn’t talking about the culture of academe, but the words are no less poignant. I did not feel good about the ambiguous tenure expectations. Rather than buying a five to six year quest through the labyrinthine tenure process, I’d forge my own path.
Admittedly, I had doubts. The social psychologist part of my brain had a strong suspicion that this “new philosophy” might merely be an attempt at dissonance reduction that was masquerading as a more noble effort. Luckily, in a stroke of serendipity, I was in the midst of preparing a Introduction to Psychology class on motivation. It was abundantly clear that I should start practicing a bit of what I was preaching.
To determine the genesis of my own motivation to pursue a tenure track position, I went back and re-read my research and teaching statements from my initial foray into the job market. At the top of my teaching statement was the quote that got me into academia in the first place.
“Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.” – Confucius
Clearly, as I explained in Intro Psych, this was a case of intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation. If I relied on extrinsic motivation, the goal of tenure was achieved by meeting the requirements generated by the university. If I relied on intrinsic motivation, the goal was to focus on my own desire to pursue projects, my own love of teaching, and my own sense of social responsibility to the students, department, and university.
As Robert Bellah and colleagues point out in Habits of the Heart, intrinsic and extrinsic motivation influence whether you see your position as a job (i.e., those who seek extrinsic rewards such as salary, and view the position as a nuisance or obligation), a career (i.e., those who seek extrinsic rewards such as power, enhanced prestige, and advancement), or a calling (i.e., those who seek intrinsic rewards such as self-fulfillment, and view the position as indistinguishable from one’s own goals). I quickly realized that I did not want a job, should not view this as a career, and instead should simply pursue my calling.
During yearly informational meetings with the provost, tenure-track professors asked questions focused on the relative value of teaching, scholarship, and service, and what materials were worthy of one’s tenure dossier. This line of questioning attempts to derive a clear formula of “if I do X, Y, and Z, tenure will be a sure thing for me.” The solution was not provided. Ultimately, the tenure decision is much too complex for such a formulaic approach. If the primary goal is not to simply get tenure, a formula is of little interest. Instead, from my perspective, if I spent time on the things I was passionate about, I would enjoy myself, be productive, and tenure would hopefully follow.
As the oracle at Delphi suggests, this approach requires one to “Know thyself.” That is, you need to clearly know what energizes your teaching, what topics you enjoy, what your academic goals are, what areas of scholarship interest you, and what service efforts you value. I asked myself “in an ideal world at an ideal college, what would the tenure requirements be?”, “If you could research anything, what topics would you study?”, “What is the best way to dedicate your time to service?”, and “Ideally, what would your scholarship expectations be?” The answers were the foundation for my own tenure plan. But alas, one should not go blindly into the fray. It is helpful to have colleagues review your plan.
Creating your own standards helps avoid the trap of striving for the minimum standards. Setting your own standards also allows you to avoid seeing the tenure process as a series of arbitrary hoops to jump through, and instead allows you to enjoy the steps along the way. By focusing on your interests, your plan may be more ambitious than necessary, and may include activities that do not count toward tenure. Although this may be “invisible work”, filling your vita is a secondary concern. I found that many activities that were not worth their weight in “tenure-track value” relative to the time I devoted to them were valuable to me, and valuable to the students.
Ultimately, by doing what you love, you are doing “enough” for your academic career. Granted, there is a possibility that it might not be enough for your current position. Once again, “You can only do so much. If it doesn’t happen to be enough, you learn from the experience and move on.” If you find yourself moving on, by following your passion you’ll have built a record that highlights your strengths and true interests. This way, you can more easily find a college that values the qualities and activities that you value. The alternative is trying to get tenure by doing things to fit in that may compromise your true interests. If you are truly a bad match for your institution, can you tolerate that for your entire career? Tenure doesn’t need to come at the expense of happiness, professional fulfillment, or your sanity.
Focusing on the intrinsic joy of your calling, rather than the extrinsic process of tenure, should also promote post-tenure productivity. If you simply work to get tenure, you engage in goal-directed behavior that provides motivation only when the goal exists. If you get tenure, where will the motivation come from? Doing what you enjoy has the benefit of increased efficiency, and ultimately productivity. Rather than seeing students as potential obstacles to the positive teaching evaluations I needed, or writing a manuscript to meet a scholarship requirement, you can teach and engage in scholarship to share knowledge. By following your true interests during the pre-tenure years you establish a pattern of behavior that becomes routine. If these are activities you enjoy, why would you stop? You won’t “be done” or think “now I can coast.” Instead you will have a sense of fulfillment and anticipation of future opportunities.
In the end, a tenure candidate can spend energy on trying to do all the “right” things. I suspect this energy leads to greater anxiety and stress. This type of energy comes at the expense of creative energy that could invigorate one’s teaching, scholarship, and service. When you get tenure, you want to have the satisfaction of knowing it was truly earned on your own terms and not something you lucked into because you took the “right” steps, knew the “right” people, or played the politics “properly.” So was I happy to get tenure? Absolutely. Was I relieved that the arduous, stressful, and ambiguous process of trying to get tenure was finally over? Not at all. I stopped trying years ago.
Gary W. Lewandowski Jr.
Gary W. Lewandowski Jr. is associate professor of psychology at Monmouth University.
America is up in arms about bonuses for AIG executives who raked up astronomical losses that have (almost) brought our economy to its knees. While most Americans have to deal with the fear of (or actual) job losses, declining values of their homes, evaporating retirement funds, they see hundreds of millions of their tax dollars being paid to the very individuals who created this mess. Compensation practices at AIG and other Wall Street firms not only violated a common sense of fairness, they also turned out to be self-destructive: they rewarded excessive risk-taking and disincentivized responsible risk underwriting at AIG or responsible banking practices at Citibank, Bank of America and others.
Seduced by the enormous rewards associated with betting on derivatives, AIG executives (and the bankers at the other firms) sabotaged their ability to perform the important but more mundane tasks of insuring the homes and retirements of the average tax payer or lending to the businesses that employ them. And they never realized they were cutting off the branch on which they sat until they dropped.…
In higher education we might shake our heads over the insane amounts of money involved, but when it comes to warped reward systems that sabotage an entire profession’s ability to perform its most important function, we don’t have to look far.
A few weeks ago I talked with the provost of a large research university. When the conversation touched on faculty priorities, the provost explained the parameters that determine career progression and remuneration at her institution. They are not very different from those at most research universities in this country and might sound familiar to many. Her hierarchy (in order of importance) of what faculty should do to be considered successful and paid generously was something like this:
a) Win a Nobel Prize b) Write a research grant that attracts millions of dollars from the government (if the money comes from the NSF or the NIH instead of the treasury it is not called a bailout, but a “research grant”) c) Conduct research, publish profusely and speak on as many conferences as possible to generate publicity, win prizes and have their research quoted by others d) Secure patents on their research e) Write a textbook that becomes a standard in their field f) Sit on a few doctoral committees to attract and nurture the next generation of researchers g) Teach a basic undergraduate courses that prepare students for the more demanding classes in the junior and senior year or graduate school h) Be an effective adviser
She pointed out that while a) - e) have direct financial rewards attached to them, f) - h) do not. But then she made an important point that shows that the warped logic of AIG’s compensation system is alive and well on our campuses: “The punishment for being a good adviser is that you get more advisees. That makes sure that you have less time to do any of the activities a) - e). The more you do for student retention and success, the more you cement your status at the bottom of the pecking order. And that is not lost on our faculty.”
The result? In this case a freshman drop-out rate of 18% (which is still below the national average of 25 percent, but much higher than it should be). If faculty are focused more on research than on the success of their students, they are behaving rationally and in accordance with the metrics used by their employer. On many campuses teaching and advising are considered to be hard or impossible to measure, ergo they do not get rewarded, ergo it is considered acceptable and inevitable that too little time and effort are invested in them.
But is this more than just a lame excuse? Systems to assess the effectiveness of teaching have been around for a while. And now there are systems that measure the effectiveness of advising, too. Yes, the effectiveness of teaching and advising can be measured! The true reason they are not seems to be that it is a lot sexier to chase the fast rewards of large research grants than to focus on the mundane tasks of making students successful.
Faculty embrace the value system of their employers as much as the executives of AIG’s Financial Products Division used to. Similarly, their bosses in the cabinets of their institutions seem to have lost focus on their core missions as much as the management committee of AIG had during the derivatives bubble. The coming lean years will show how much of the branches that support our higher ed institutions have been cut away in the past by a compensation system that incentivizes failure not only of students, but maybe also of entire institutions.
Christoph Knoess, is a higher education consultant and founder of Engaged Minds, a services company focused on increasing student retention and success. His Web site is at http://www.engagedmindsinc.com.
In his provocatively titled recent book, The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t, Robert I. Sutton argues for zero tolerance of “bullies, creeps, jerks, weasels, tormentors, tyrants, serial slammers, despots, [and] unconstrained egomaniacs” in the workplace. These individuals systematically prey on their co-workers, especially the more vulnerable ones, leaving their victims feeling humiliated, belittled, and demoralized. Their weapons include personal insults, threats and intimidation, hostile e-mails, public ridicule, and scornful interruptions. In the environments that they poison, enthusiasm for work gives way to anxiety, resentment, and a longing to get out.
The importance of a civil workplace struck Sutton more than 15 years ago during a department meeting at Stanford University, where he teaches. As his colleagues debated hiring a candidate for a faculty position, one of them remarked, “Listen, I don’t care if that guy won the Nobel Prize ... I just don’t want any assholes ruining our group.” Sutton describes the group as a collegial and supportive small department, “especially compared to the petty but relentless nastiness that pervades much of academic life.”
Although he goes on to cite many businesses that have the zero tolerance policy that he advocates, he does not return to his bleak characterization of academic life. Neither does he explore the reluctance of universities to hold faculty members to the rules of conduct that many businesses are implementing — rules that supplement standard prohibitions against harassment and discrimination — even while they apply them to staff. At my own university, for example, exempt and non-exempt staff are explicitly required to “cooperate and collaborate with other employees in a spirit of teamwork and collegiality” as a condition of their employment. Faculty members are not.
The reluctance to adopt a code of conduct for faculty members stems in part from a belief also expressed in corporate workplaces: that geniuses must be jerks and that some belligerence, indifference to others, and rudeness are inseparable from the achievements of a Steve Jobs or Bobby Knight. Sutton counters this view by observing that not all successful people are jerks and that jerks succeed despite their cruelty to others, not because of it. I would add that the odds are slim that the professor yelling at the departmental secretary spends the rest of his day bringing about a Copernican revolution in his discipline.
Sutton also argues that even in the extremely unlikely event that the bully is a genius, he still does more harm than good — which is why a Bobby Knight or Michael Eisner eventually wears out his welcome. Making exceptions for seemingly special cases can be damaging, not only in spawning imitators but in depressing the initiative of others. Sutton rightly emphasizes that “negative interactions have five times the effect on mood than positive interactions”: “a few demeaning creeps can overwhelm the warm feelings generated by hoards of civilized people.”
However, the November 1999 American Association of University Professors statement on collegiality as a criterion for faculty evaluation — while conceding the importance of collegiality to teaching, scholarship, and service — favors limiting a faculty member’s evaluation to these three areas on the grounds that vigorous discussions are essential to academic life. Adding collegiality as a yardstick, the AAUP asserts, is not only unnecessary — it risks “ensuring homogeneity,” “chilling faculty debate and discussion,” and curtailing academic freedom by stigmatizing individuals who do not fit in or defer to the group:
In the heat of important decisions regarding promotion or tenure, as well as other matters involving such traditional areas of faculty responsibility as curriculum or academic hiring, collegiality may be confused with the expectation that a faculty member display “enthusiasm” or “dedication,” evince “a constructive attitude” that will “foster harmony,” or display an excessive deference to administrative or faculty decisions where these may require reasoned discussion. Such expectations are flatly contrary to elementary principles of academic freedom, which protect a faculty member’s right to dissent from the judgments of colleagues and administrations.
Weeding out the gadflies, critics, and malcontents (via the criterion of collegiality), according to the AAUP statement, leaves us with the “genial Babbitts” and casts “a pall of stale uniformity” on what should be a scene of vibrant debate.
“Should be” is the key phrase here. The individuals Sutton is criticizing — the bullies, jerks, and so on — themselves chill debate through personal attacks, intimidation, and invective. One sign of this is the relief felt when they are away. Instead of disappearing, dissent blossoms, as individuals can now express ideas without fear of vicious recrimination and unfounded attack.
Thus, some faculty members have begun exploring codes of conduct, not because they want to squelch free debate but because they want to enable it. They are especially concerned about the most vulnerable faculty members – often newcomers with fresh perspectives and much-needed enthusiasm – who may shy away from departmental deliberations lest they jeopardize their personal futures. The motivation behind codes of conduct is not to make everyone agree but to let everyone feel free to disagree, allowing all voices to be heard.
The literary scholar Linda Hutcheon offers a version of this argument in her recent essay “Saving Collegiality,” in Profession, published by the Modern Language Association. While acknowledging the potential dangers of poorly worded and insensitively enforced codes of conduct, Professor Hutcheon reaffirms the importance of mutual respect, civility, and constructive cooperation to healthy debate: “Harmonious human relations need not stifle the right to dissent that we all so rightly treasure; instead they can make dissent easier, because safer. I fail to see how inclusivity and collaboration would necessarily chill debate.”
I think that this mounting interest in collegiality stems from the intensification of the forces arrayed against it:
A star system that widens inequities between the haves and have-nots and equates academic success with a reduction in teaching loads, service commitments, and other work on behalf of the institution.
Greater reliance on adjuncts and part-time faculty with little connection to the departments that hire them.
Tension between administrators and faculty exacerbated by top-down methods of management and increased demands for narrowly defined measures of accountability.
A poor job market that places individuals at institutions where they may not want to be, thereby fostering feelings of estrangement, disdain for colleagues, and single-minded efforts to leave via one’s research.
Recourse to e-mail as a substitute for face-to-face collaborative decision-making. Its impersonality unintentionally licenses individuals to fight and distrust one another even more (as Sutton explains, “apparently this happens because people don’t get the complete picture that comes with ‘being there,’ as e-mail and phones provide little information about the demands that people face and the physical setting they work in, and can’t convey things like the facial expressions, verbal intonations, posture, and ‘group mood’ ”); and, finally,
Inadequate salaries and benefits at many universities, deepening resentment, stoking competition for increasingly scarce material rewards, and adding new urgency to often longstanding rivalries and feuds.
Add to these forces department chairs who are inadequately prepared for dealing with conflict, and an already fragile community begins to pull apart, giving antisocial behavior even freer rein.
The disintegration of community takes a special toll on academic workplaces. In a chapter of tips for surviving nasty people and hostile workplaces, Sutton mentions developing indifference and emotional detachment, limiting contact with one’s adversaries, and doing the bare minimum required by one’s job — in effect, disengaging. These are not solutions but survival strategies intended to assist individuals stuck a demoralizing job that they cannot change or escape.
So collegiality turns out to be important as well as endangered: important because necessary to the free discussions, voluntary service, and constructive collaborations that universities depend on and endangered because so many institutional developments militate against it. Thinking about the collegial atmosphere of a particular institution, one of the contributors to the Profession symposium wonders if it might not just be “the luck of the draw,” the happy byproduct of a mix of people who just happen to get along, rather than the result of institutional intention.
But other contributors rightly counter that some steps can be taken, especially by department chairs, to foster collegial professional relations: for example, modeling respectful treatment of others, expressing appreciation, hosting social events and lunch meetings, sharing information, informally consulting with and involving colleagues, distributing responsibility, supporting reading groups organized around certain topics, setting up forums where faculty members can discuss teaching or present their research — in short, creating a vibrant social context for decision-making and debate. It can be harder to demonize people you eat lunch with or see at a reception with their children. One contributor to the symposium shrewdly defines a dysfunctional department as “one where the main interactions with the faculty are around tenure decisions.” Embedding difficult discussions in a network of relationships cushions their potentially divisive impact.
At the same time, another contributor to the Profession symposium, Gerald Graff, makes the important point that these “soft” ways of nudging faculty members into collegiality, though necessary, are not sufficient. As “add-ons” or “Friday afternoon solutions,” they must compete with other priorities in a busy professor’s life. When deadlines call and the pace of the semester picks up, attendance drops off and enthusiasm wanes.
Professor Graff argues for supplementing these measures with structural changes in the curriculum such as team teaching, exchanging classes with a colleague at mid-semester, and teaching one another’s books. Overcoming the customary isolation of teaching enables collaboration to be incorporated into what we do every week.
There remains, however, the problem of those admittedly few angry, disruptive individuals whom no one would want to teach or mix with — the “bullies, creeps, jerks, weasels, tormentors, tyrants, serial slammers, despots, [and] unconstrained egomaniacs” that I started out this essay with.
It is always tempting to ignore these individuals, hope they’ll go away, or find some way of excusing them. In “When Good Doctors Go Bad,” Atul Gawande observes the extraordinary lengths physicians will go to look the other way even when one of their colleagues repeatedly botches surgeries, abuses patients, and triggers lawsuits. As with many cases of professorial misconduct, the people in the best position to see the damage being done can be in the worst position to take action against it: junior physicians, nurses, staff members. Meanwhile, senior physicians are held back partly by the tremendous work involved in documenting and substantiating evidence of incompetence and partly by social pressures.
There’s an official line about how the medical profession is supposed to deal with these physicians: Colleagues are expected to join forces promptly to remove them from practice and report them to the medical-licensing authorities, who, in turn, are supposed to discipline them or expel them from the profession. It hardly ever happens, for no tight-knit community can function that way.
As in academic departments, intervention gives way to avoidance but at great cost, in the one case to the incompetent physician’s patients, in the other to the abusive professor’s colleagues and students, who sometimes come into play as prizes to be fought over or enemies to be scorned because they have sided with a rival.
Even so, despite the odds against it, in hospitals and doctors’ practices sometimes the bad physician loses his license or gets sanctioned in some other way.
In universities, here is where a carefully designed faculty code of conduct can become necessary — as a last resort, when other interventions have failed and the behavior in question falls through the cracks of the faculty handbook. The threshold for invoking the code should be high, not just by one isolated outburst. But the expectation of collegial behavior, of cooperating and collaborating with other employees in a spirit of teamwork and collegiality, should be there — not as a distinct criterion for promotion and tenure but as a condition of employment for faculty as well as for staff. Once faculty members make the difficult decision to act against a disruptive colleague, they must have the means of doing so, lest powerlessness and frustration make their demoralization even worse.
After a code of conduct is institutionalized, it becomes everyone’s responsibility to use it. In my experience, most people treat others in the academic workplace with respect, consideration, and care, conduct code or no conduct code. My intent here has not been to legislate collegiality but to make sure that in those rare instances when enough is enough, when egregious behavior persists and reaches a carefully defined tipping point, faculty members and administrators are in a position to do something about it.
Michael Fischer is vice president for academic affairs and dean of the faculty, as well as a professor of English, at Trinity University, in San Antonio. Prior to joining the Trinity administration, he was dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and professor of English at the University of New Mexico. A longer version of this essay will appear in Change and is available on the magazine's Web site.
The financial sector catastrophe and consequent worldwide recession are a crisis of “ethic” proportion, in Vanguard founder John Bogle’s words. Higher education’s own responsibility for the failures of ethical leadership in business, the gatekeeper professions, and government should trigger a careful self-assessment. Could it be that the academic profession, whose members both educate and serve as role models in the formation years for leaders in business, government, and all the other peer review professions, is falling short in its own ethical responsibilities?
A major theme of "The Future of the Professoriate: Academic Freedom, Peer Review, and Shared Governance," the first in the Association of American Colleges and Universities' new Intentional Leadership in the New Academy series of essays, is that the academic profession has been failing for many years in its ethical duty to acculturate new entrants into the tradition and ethics of the profession. The central argument in "The Future of the Professoriate" is that members of a peer-review profession cannot aggressively justify and defend their control over professional work when they do not both understand the profession’s social contract and internalize their responsibilities under the social contract. The social contract of each peer-review profession is the tacit agreement between society and members of a profession that regulates their relationship with each other, in particular the profession’s control over professional work. Essentially, in order for the public to grant a peer-review profession more autonomy and control over the work different from the control that society and employers exercise over other occupations, the public must trust that the profession and its members will use the autonomy at least to some degree to benefit the public in the area of the profession’s responsibility, not abuse occupational control over the work merely to serve self-interest.
The simple fact is that all the data available indicate that a substantial proportion of graduate students and faculty members do not clearly understand the profession's social contract, academic freedom, shared governance, and each professor's and the faculty's specific duties that justify the profession's claims to autonomy. Osmosis-like diffusion of these concepts and duties does not work. There must be required education on professional ethics for graduate students and entering and veteran faculty just as there is for law students in all states and members of the legal profession in many states. (Academic Ethics (American Council on Education/Oryx Press, 2002) outlines the content of this education.)
The governing boards of many colleges and universities represent the public in the social contract between the public and the academic profession. "The Future of the Professoriate" argues that the boards and their senior administrative teams have faced substantial market changes in higher education in recent decades; the current budgetary disaster driven by reduced taxpayer support for public higher education and reduced endowments is among the most difficult of these market changes. While members of all peer-review professions carry an ongoing burden to justify to the public (and the boards representing the public) the profession’s occupational control over the work, carrying this burden is particularly critical during a time of rapid market change.
The report's analysis is that during this period of market change, the academic profession has been almost totally missing in action in mounting a robust public defense of both how the public benefits from the profession’s autonomy and control over its work in the form of academic freedom, peer review, and shared governance and how the profession and its members are actively fulfilling their duties under the social contract. Paradoxically, while we are educators, we are not educating. The situation is similar to the failure of the medical profession to mount a robust public defense of its autonomy during the 1980s and 1990s when the health care market changed toward managed care that dramatically reduced the medical profession’s control over its professional work.
At a significant swath of institutions, the academic profession’s defense of the social contract has focused on rights and job security. As Eliot Freidson in Professionalism: The Third Logic (University of Chicago Press, 2001) has observed, when the peer-review professions defend their social contracts, they typically rely on a rhetoric of rights, job security, and “good intentions, which [are] belied by the patently self-interested character of many of their activities. What they almost never do is spell out the principles underlying the institutions that organize and support the way they do their work and take active responsibility for [the realization of the principles].” They do not undertake responsibility for assuring the quality of their members’ work. The academic profession’s anemic defense of its social contract confirms Freidson’s observation.
The predicable result of an anemic defense of a profession’s social contract during a time of market change is that the society and employers will restructure control of the profession’s work toward the regulatory and employer control typical for other occupations -- essentially the default employment arrangements in a market economy. This is what has been happening to the academic profession. The boards at many colleges and universities have been renegotiating a sweeping change in the academic profession’s social contract over many years to reduce the profession’s autonomy and control over professional work. "The Future of the Professoriate" details how the renegotiation is most evident with the dramatic increase in contingent faculty to the point that, by 2003, 59 percent of all newly hired full-time faculty started in non-tenure-track positions.
The academic profession must not resign itself to the current trend toward contingent faculty, but it cannot reverse the trends toward a higher proportion of contingent faculty and less occupational control over professional work by employing a rhetoric of rights, job security, and good intentions. However, professors cannot defend the social contract without both having the knowledge necessary to make the defense and actively meeting their duties under the social contract. The single most important step for the profession is improving the acculturation of graduate students and veteran academics into the tradition and ethics of the profession. The best starting point at each institution may be a simple faculty self-assessment of the degree to which the faculty is helping new and veteran faculty members understand and internalize both the minimum standards of competence and ethical conduct for the profession (the ethics of duty) and the core values and ideals of the profession (the ethics of aspiration).
If the academic profession at many institutions does not undertake these responsibilities, then this crisis of ethic proportion will continue, and the trajectory for the academic profession for the next twenty years will, in all likelihood, look like the trajectory for the last thirty years. Members of the profession will continue a slow transformation toward employment as technical experts subject to the dominant market model of employer control over work.
While many in the profession believe the battle is against oppressive governing boards, administrators, and market forces, the battle is actually for the soul of the profession. Imagine a world in which each professor at an institution had fully internalized the tradition and ethics of the profession. We are educators. From a position of knowledge and moral authority, not just self-interest, we could then convince the public -- and, most importantly, the governing boards and administrative leadership who are trustees for the public good of creating and disseminating knowledge -- that academic freedom, peer review, and shared governance best serve the institution’s mission.
Neil W. Hamilton
Neil Hamilton is professor of law and director of the Holloran Center for Ethical Leadership in the Professions at the University of St. Thomas.
Is the institution of tenure supportable? No, but not for the reasons you may think. Routine complaints about iron-clad job security and lack of accountability miss the point. But so do pleas for academic freedom from outside (and largely notional) political forces. The real danger of tenure is that it threatens academic freedom instead of protecting it.
The issue is now more acute than ever because financial stresses have created a situation in which normal academic job competition and jockeying for position have been raised to a fever pitch, a desperate scramble among scores of talented people for a slice of the shrinking academic pie. At the same time, public awareness of the costs of maintaining university professors has underlined a significant social change: Taxpayers no longer believe anyone, however brilliant or productive, should get a lifetime guarantee of job security. And they suspect, rightly, that many of those enjoying that privilege may not be so brilliant or productive.
But, while some professors now privately admit an opposition to tenure, many more continue to view it as their rightful inheritance, equal parts compensation for the uncertainties of graduate school and mark of professional advancement in a system where incremental rises in status are as important as pips on the collar of a subaltern. No tenured professor has any reason to criticize his gravy train. Nor does any tenure-track junior professor, sweating out the first few years of professional review. And no graduate student, criticizing academic privilege, could fend off an automatic sour-grapes reply. In any case, grad students, the academic world’s drudges, are usually too fearful to speak out. Enjoying a status somewhat less than that of the departmental janitor, they live in daily terror that the poobahs in the department will decide they are troublemakers who don’t really merit good letters of reference. Hence the cone of silence: All in all, tenure remains sacrosanct because nobody with any standing has a stake in criticizing it.
There is another major factor in tenure’s culture of belief and that is simple psychology, exacerbated by the rampant professional envy of the academic world. The main reason people want tenure is because other people have it. Many academics do not admit this, maybe not even to themselves, because standard arguments about academic freedom are available to them, arguments that make tenure’s critics look crass. Even young academics, previously the victims of exploitation, quickly become rabidly pro-tenure when they cross the bright line onto the tenure track. Though they may complain about the perfidy of their complacent elders, there is nothing that gets the goat of junior academics more than the thought that tenure might be denied them. But now try offering a few deeper objections. Who needs academic freedom in a constitutional democracy, where freedom of expression is already guaranteed? Or, more slyly, what possible objection could there be to speaking frankly about topics in which most people have utterly no interest? Most academic work, especially in the humanities, is published for an audience smaller than a successful cocktail party, and the rest falls stillborn from the press, ignored by citizen and colleague alike.
So fears of outside persecution and job endangerment are, well, pretty academic. Campus scaremongers like the Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship would have you believe that tenure is the last ditch in a trench war against crusading left-wing ideologues, unfettered postmodernists, radical feminists, committed social constructionists, and similar forces of evil. But every academic knows that far more persecution comes from petty egomaniacs, advancement-seekers, and envious colleagues within departments than from public disapproval. Tenure has no business justifying itself by reference to that kind of internal threat, which is not really about academic freedom but intramural power struggles.
Moreover, tenure hasn’t proved much protection against internal politicking, whether personal or cultural. Just ask the members of the University of British Columbia’s political science department, forced in the mid-1990s to undergo re-education programs by an internal political correctness mafia. And when public disapproval of an academic’s ideas does become an issue, on the other hand, as in the celebrated case of controversial eugenicist Philippe Rushton at the University of Western Ontario, university administrators and department heads are often lily-livered in the face of it. Tenure won’t help you if your university president decides you’re too embarrassing to keep around.
So much for the first-blush case. Are there good arguments for protecting academic freedom anyway?
Despite what bottom-line, tax-cutting ideologues say, there are. Work which appears useless may be extremely important, indeed worthy of public support, even (or especially) if it’s dedicated to questions beyond the ken of political calculation. Useless is not the same as valueless, at least in a world where use is measured largely in financial terms. But some goods, like truth and beauty, are literally priceless.
The times are not ripe for that kind of argument, of course. Nowadays people are growing increasingly impatient with appeals to higher (but invisible) goods and cultural benefits, and sure enough, some critics of tenure go so far as to argue that universities should behave like private businesses and survive in the free market or die, in which case tenure would become an inefficient human resource policy to be abandoned with alacrity. But if you argue against tenure by appealing to market pressures and productivity, you miss tenure’s real shortcomings. Because the problem with tenure isn’t that it lacks cost-effectiveness — defined reductively, universities on the whole lack that. The problem is that it doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do; namely, encourage the free speaking and innovation that scholarship allegedly is in service of.
Academic freedom becomes more important, not less, when the market dominates our calculations of worth, meaning there is more reason, perhaps, that there ought to be some kind of exemption for thinkers and writers from the crush of market imperatives and the crass utilitarianism that marks social spending.
That’s assuming that we as a society want higher learning at all and are willing, at least in principle, to support research universities with our tax dollars. Let us say, for the sake of argument, that we do want these things. We could then argue that tenure was necessary to preserve the existence, and relevance, of the useless. Like a Chinese emperor’s paid critic or Lear’s fool, tenured professors could be viewed as a thorn in the side of the state, a prickle of critical awareness and originality whose sting is in everyone’s interests. The emperor needs to know who his enemies are and what they are thinking; he also needs to know that he is limited in his knowledge and wisdom. Hence the most valuable kind of useless knowledge may be whatever is most antithetical to the desires and assumptions of the state.
Would the status quo’s academic critics, thus domesticated, feel happy? My hunch, looking around at a few of what Roger Kimball called in his rabid, eponymous book “tenured radicals,” is that they’d feel just dandy about it. Of course if academics become too domesticated they lose their relevance, which is precisely the ability to speak out harshly and tell the truth. And that undermines this entire delicate argument. Then academics are both useless and irrelevant, an unhappy but common duality in today’s universities. The paradox of tenure as a means of protecting academic freedom is this: It is only justified by someone who despises it. Tenure cherished is tenure made indefensible. It is only by living up to the challenge of telling the truth, in other words, that artificial exemption from market forces and social utilitarianism can be justified.
So there is in fact an argument for protecting academic freedom, even in a tolerant democracy like ours, but it is one that would apply to precious few of today’s academics. The point sharpens the question of whether tenuring individuals is the best way to secure academic freedom. The two issues are so intertwined now that separating them is almost impossible: attack tenure and you must be attacking academic freedom, by definition the act of a philistine.
But not so fast. There are grave dangers in investing individuals with too much significance here. The valuable principle is academic freedom, freedom for the courageous and honest to tell the truth. It is not that this or that person should be forever immune from challenge about her or his job — a confusion made into policy by various faculty associations in this country, who rationalize defending the unworthy individual by referring to the “principles” behind tenure. This confusion has many deleterious effects, and anyone who has attended a university is familiar with them. The problem, as we all know, isn’t really tenured radicals — would that there were more of them. The problem is tenured mediocrities, of whom there are all too many.
Unfortunately, but to nobody’s surprise, the institution of tenure tends to make academic departments conservative. Since tenure decisions are made by senior faculty, all of them tenured themselves, there is a natural tendency to reproduce the status quo. Academics deny this, but their acts betray them. Arguments about “the standards of the profession” and the “fixed criteria of good scholarship” look increasingly strained as those who narrowly conform are rewarded while those who deviate are punished.
The genuine threat to academic freedom, as every junior professor knows at heart, comes not from the world at large but from the senior faculty who hold the keys to job security and status. This threat is usually ignored because it concerns those clinging to the lowest rung of the academic ladder: graduate students and junior faculty. But there is a debilitating effect on young minds when conformity counts more highly than originality. Junior faculty emerge, shaken, from their three-year review meetings, coping with the assessment of their progress to tenure. Have they published enough journal articles? Are they the right kind of articles? In the right kind of journals? Have they served on enough committees? Have they, most of all, sufficiently impressed the departmental power-brokers with their malleability, deference, and ability to echo the opinions of their seniors?
It would be wrong to suggest that there is no element of objective quality assessment in this process, of course, or indeed that all judgments of success within a discipline are reducible to judgments of conformity. They are not, and originality without rigor is not scholarship but modishness. Yet if departments and disciplines, like all corporate structures, do have an in-built tendency to recreate themselves in their own image, truly original thought will frequently fail to fit the bill. It is a rare tenure committee that is willing to approve “non-standard” career paths.
This is especially so now that competition for academic jobs is at an all-time high. You can sample the fear created by this tight employment market by visiting the annual December meetings of the Modern Language Association, the American Philosophical Association, or any of the other big disciplinary professional groups. Here job candidates haunt the hallways like the academic undead, proffering their unwanted résumés to anyone with a heartbeat. Some tenure-committee members realize that they would not survive a nanosecond in the crucible of today’s job market, and the resulting insecurity sometimes leads them, perversely, to be even harder on their juniors.
The resulting strain on junior academics is considerable. You will frequently hear them speak of their “vulnerability” or offer an impending tenure review as excuse for lacking a social life. You cannot blame them, indeed it is only rational, if they begin to retrench and try to pump out the sort of articles that will look good on their curriculum vitae. Give them credit: they will do their best to be original, to break some new intellectual ground. But it will not be — it cannot be — their chief concern.
The point of the institution of tenure, its only possible point, is intellectual innovation. The justification for removing academics from the hurly-burly of market forces, the nearly insane imperatives of capital, is that it gives them the breathing room to be original without fear of economic reprisal. We as a society need that free speaking, for not all good thought is popular thought. We want our scholars to pursue the true and the interesting without having to calculate the results in terms of economic use-values. Even the fact that many fail to make the most of it should not reflect badly on the institution — as long, that is, as there exist a few who take the opportunity seriously, who use their freedom to challenge and to lead. As it stands, too few are doing that to justify the self-satisfied majority.
Mark Kingwell is professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto and the author of 12 books, including A Civil Tongue (1995), Concrete Reveries (2008), and Glenn Gould (2009). A version of this essay appeared first in Academic Matters, the journal of the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations.
The single most important structural change in higher education over the last two generations has been the massively increased reliance on faculty teaching intensively in contingent positions — 33 percent in 1975, 66 percent 30 years later in 2005, roughly 70 percent now. No other reform means anything unless we can obtain job security and academic freedom for the majority of college teachers. It will require solidarity from tenured faculty.
The only true solidarity among current faculty members requires granting tenure to all long-term contingent faculty members. All. One hundred tenured slots for 9,500 contingent faculty members is not solidarity. It’s a mud-wrestling contest with tenure as a prize. Nor does a tiered division between two classes of faculty — 50 percent tenured and 50 percent expendable, or 75 percent tenured and 25 percent contingent — constitute the principled structural change we need. What do we gain if we set as our ideal the permanent diminishment of most of our colleagues’ lives? What good is a compromised ideal? Why congratulate ourselves for selling out?
The only goal worth fighting for is full justice for all who teach. No solution that throws most existing faculty serving in contingent positions under the bus is acceptable. Solidarity is not a weasel word. It’s not about compromising with power. It’s about reaching out to the disempowered and offering them hope. Every other year some two hundred contingent, sessional, or precarious faculty from North America — the titles vary by country — gather together at a COCAL meeting to share their strategies for reform. Most have spent their working lives being eaten alive by the higher education industry. And yet they have held onto their humor, their charm, and their pedagogical passions. I cannot betray them. Nor will the American Association of University Professors do so. In its new policy paper — "Tenure and Teaching Intensive Appointments" — the AAUP recommends that all long-term contingent faculty members be granted tenure.
Since tenure can be awarded to both part-time and full-time faculty members — a person could have tenure at a less than full-time percentage appointment -- the AAUP’s proposal carries no necessary cost. It does not, in all honesty, guarantee faculty members a living wage. But it does give them the job security they need to advocate for better working conditions without fear of reprisal, and it eliminates the sometimes crippling stress accompanying at-will employment. It gives all faculty access to shared governance, including the ability at most institutions to serve on curriculum committees, so that the folks who do the teaching will actually have a say in course planning and development, something that has always been a fundamental AAUP principle. It goes a tremendous distance toward unifying the faculty and reinvigorating faculty solidarity. And because -- unlike conversion proposals that call for full-time appointments for all -- it does not cost money, tenure-for-all can be promoted on the basis of principle alone.
Some administrators will no doubt respond with calls for flexibility in hiring, but the adjunct army that teaches composition, math, and introductory foreign language courses is not providing services likely to prove unnecessary in any imaginable future. Administrators may come and go, but the adjunct army persists. The AAUP’s new statement, it is important to note, supports a traditional probationary period before tenure is awarded. That probationary period provides sufficient time to decide whether a given set of teaching responsibilities will be fleeting or permanent. Meanwhile, thousands of faculty members serving in contingent positions — some of them for a decade or two or more — have effectively "passed" their tenure review by virtue of being hired back year after year. Future part-time hires would undergo appropriate peer review during their probationary period.
Would administrators simply terminate their adjunct army, rather than tenure them? The very size of the long-term adjunct cohort in many systems makes that impractical. The practical educational and administrative consequences of suddenly jettisoning many of an institution’s experienced faculty members would be considerable. Demands for comprehensive conversion to full-time positions would be another matter, which once again demonstrates why the alternative demand for tenure is more realistic. The AAUP’s proposal, paradoxically, is at once modest and revolutionary. Of course its implementation would still benefit from solidarity with tenured faculty.
"Solidarity" is the original rallying cry of worker-empowered union organizing. Its invocation recalls generations of consciousness-raising, of group identification, of class interest recognition, of bodies risked and bodies broken. There were times when the call for solidarity could not overcome racial divisions, when the discourse of solidarity could not link black and white bodies arm in arm. And there were times when it could. Solidarity encompasses the ideological glue that held groups together. It is the concept that gave courage and meaning to imperiled, solitary souls on those most lonely of union nights. Here is Sterling Brown’s “Sharecroppers,” first published in 1939 in Get Organized: Stories and Poems about Trade Union People:
When they rode up at first dark and called his name,
He came out like a man from his little shack.
He saw his landlord, and he saw the sheriff,
And some well-armed riff-raff in the pack.
When they fired questions about the meeting,
He stood like a man gone deaf and dumb,
But when the leaders left their saddles,
He knew then that his time had come.
In the light of the lanterns the long cuts fell,
And his wife’s weak moans and the children's wails
Mixed with the sobs he could not hold.
But he wouldn’t tell, he would not tell,
The Union was his friend, and he was Union,
And there was nothing a man could say.
So they trussed him up with stout ploughlines,
Hitched up a mule, dragged him far away
Into the dark woods that tell no tales,
Where he kept his secrets as well as they.
He would not give away the place,
Not who they were, neither white nor black,
Nor tell what his brothers were about.
They lashed him, and they clubbed his head;
One time he parted his bloody lips
Out of great pain and greater pride,
One time, to laugh in his landlord’s face;
Then his landlord shot him in the side.
He toppled, and the blood gushed out.
But he didn’t mumble ever a word,
And cursing, they left him there for dead.
He lay waiting quiet, until he heard
The growls and the mutters dwindle away;
“Didn’t tell a single thing,” he said,
Then to the dark woods and the moon
He gave up one secret before he died:
“We gonna clean out dis brushwood round here soon,
Plant de white-oak and de black-oak side by side.”
If we take Brown’s poem as a fable for our own time, we know well who our landlords are and why their will and their power must be resisted. We know what brushwood must be cleared. And we know that on campus it is contingent and tenured teachers who must flourish side by side. These are the values we take on when we dare to speak the name of solidarity. It signifies a history and a tradition we would do well not to betray.
There is nothing, to be sure, that limits solidarity to union organizing. Historically it has been used to describe kinship bonding in preindustrial societies. All of us will recall it as the graphic and verbal emblem of the Polish struggle to free themselves from Soviet domination. The Polish struggle began as a trade union movement in 1980 and then became something more. Solidarity unionism — a concept translated into action in the United States by the Industrial Workers of the World or IWW after its1905 founding — promoted the idea that workers should take direct action against a company without paid union representation. Solidarity may thus very well refer to exactly what faculty serving in contingent positions need — direct action unmediated by union hierarchy.
For the immediate question for those of us in academe is clear: Will the call for solidarity link temporary and tenured bodies? Will it link the academic workforce behind principles of job security, fair wages, and necessary benefits for all? Are there examples of solidarity in action powerful enough to hail all of us?
Contingency has been the most gradual of the changes shaping higher education. Faculty members serving in contingent positions had slowly but inexorably come to dominate higher education's teaching workforce over 40 years. Not that they dominate anything else, for their authority anywhere in the industry -- from the classroom to administration to governing boards -- could hardly be less. For half a century tenure had been the key guarantor of academic freedom. Now tenure is available only to a minority of faculty members.
It was not long ago that I would have said very little evidence exists to show that tenured faculty members gave a damn about anyone else. But then I visited an AFT local in southern Illinois, and the tenured faculty talked proudly about making salary increases for contingent faculty the first priority in their most recent contract negotiations. It wasn’t an altogether popular plan at first. But once it succeeded, everyone became an advocate. No one ever said solidarity was easy.
The challenge of solidarity became still more acute over the last year, as real or imagined budget crises gave administrators the will to cut positions and salaries. Forced with a furlough demand, the AAUP local at the University of Northern Iowa reopened its contract negotiations. The union accepted furloughs, but only on condition no adjunct positions be cut. Faced with similar demands, California Faculty Association activists in the 24-campus California State University system confronted a bloody-minded administration that would not guarantee that furloughs could be traded for job security. Tenured CFA members agonized, then voted for the furloughs in solidarity with their contingent brothers and sisters. In the end, the Cal State administration cut thousands of lecturer positions anyway, thereby assuring that the union will not settle for good faith negotiations again.
In the version of late capitalism that prevails in the United States, do not expect to find such workplace solidarity outside unionized settings. The self-interested careerism that has shaped tenured faculty identity for two generations does not hold much hope for solidarity. Most tenured faculty literally do not understand the culture of contingent faculty -- the interests, priorities, values, work patterns, or social and professional relations that shape their daily lives. Thus "You are not us," the implicit rebuke of the tenured faculty to their contingent colleagues, has evolved into "we are not you," the rallying cry of part-timers themselves. In the world of part-time employment, your transient "colleagues" pass unnoticed, like ships blind to each others' passage beneath the noonday sun. Yet even that blunt metaphor is inadequate, since it entails potential daytime visibility. Some departments concentrate part-timers in evening courses. Since those faculty members only feed on the curriculum at night, they are sometimes nervously referred to as "vampires." Perhaps that is a useful provocation. If it triggers a moment of recognition, tenured faculty may realize they are our vampires. We called them up and assigned them to our darkness. They are us, the faculty.
As I argue in No University is an Island (New York University Press), at institutions relying primarily on faculty serving in contingent positions, the appearance of new faculty or disappearance of continuing faculty is often unmarked. No sense of community obtains. The college is literally not a meeting place, a space of interaction, for its faculty, many of whom may retreat to the parking lot immediately after class to travel to another teaching job. A department in an institution staffed with contingent faculty is often essentially a structure filled with nameless bodies. The campus is recognizable only through its buildings and its students. In institutions without tenure, academic freedom and shared governance are often nonexistent.
Despite all this, the AAUP believes the solution is not to abandon tenure but to grant it to everyone who has taught full-time or part-time for a standard probationary period. We’re not talking about making a few tenured slots available to faculty serving in contingent positions. We are talking about granting full-time or part-time tenure to everyone with more than six years of local teaching experience. We are urging ending contingency as we know it. The solution is to find the solidarity necessary to achieve that goal.
At many institutions, of course, the tenured and contingent faculty already have largely identical responsibilities. Major research universities may, however, respond that they hire adjuncts for one skill set (teaching) and award tenure on a much broader skill set (including research). That said, at COCAL IX in Quebec in 2010 I talked to a long-term University of California lecturer who was told his several books in his field amounted — as far as the university was concerned — to “nothing more than a hobby, like gardening.” Writing books was not part of his UC job description. So the “skill set” argument is sometimes dishonorable. My personal recommendation to serious research universities is this: Give long-term adjuncts tenure and then stop hiring additional faculty not tasked with the full range of faculty responsibilities.
Along with tenure must come all the components of a traditional faculty role — control over the curriculum, control over faculty hiring, authority over due process and peer review, and a structural role in budget decisions. Otherwise the corporate university still wins. It will be no good for higher education long term if contingent faculty have job security and academic freedom in the classroom without full participation in shared governance. Indeed the only reason faculty serving contingently have some classroom rights now is that the instructional workforce is too difficult to police, but forces like the assessment movement may yet change that. We need to seek comprehensive professional status for teaching intensive faculty. Anything less will create a deprofessionalized proletariat higher education workforce once called faculty members. What I once scandalously called “Comp Droids,” dedicated robotic deliverers of prepackaged, sanitized content, will become the norm not only for introductory courses but for higher education as a whole. For the slow march of contingent demographics will prevail unless we find the will to resist.
Can the existing faculty unions — dominated either by tenured faculty or by K-12 teachers who have no academic freedom — fuel the will to resistance? Not without pressure from below. That’s not to say that the AAUP, American Federation of Teachers and National Education Association have not begun to address the problem. Even flawed solutions have helped put the issues on the table, and modest goals like small-scale conversion programs can productively coexist with comprehensive tenure. The AAUP is steadily ramping up its enforcement of our 2006 revision of our Recommended Institutional Regulations No. 13, which grants long-term part-timers expectation of continued employment. But nonrenewal without due process remains the norm throughout much of the industry, and union contracts for part-time faculty have a long way to go before meaningful job security and full participation in shared governance, let alone adequate wages and benefits, are obtained. As for full-time faculty teaching contingently, the AAUP’s 1940 statement, endorsed by over 200 higher education organizations, has yet to secure for them the tenured status it guarantees. Permit me to say that seventy years of non-enforcement does not fill me with confidence. What is missing is the pressure from below that might wake everyone to the need for solidarity. We cannot look to the majority of tenured faculty for solidarity unless faculty serving in contingent positions are willing to make daily life difficult for everyone on campus, to make business as usual impossible.
If administrators are able either to increase the percentage of contingent faculty members in the wake of the recession or to fire long-term contingent faculty members en masse, we will leave the current crisis in much worse shape as a profession than we are now. We were already at the tipping point; the current crisis can easily take us irretrievably beyond it.
The only real solution — tenure for all who teach — would also benefit from serious collaboration, rather than competition, among existing unions representing faculty members. We would do well to see interorganizational solidarity in the form of coordinated national efforts by the AAUP, the AFT, and the NEA to organize contingent faculty.
Cary Nelson is national president of the American Association of University Professors.
The debate over the merits of faculty tenure at universities is perennial, passionate, and polarized. Supporters hold that tenure is essential if universities are to carry out their unique mission of creating, discovering, advancing and disseminating knowledge. It is vital to ensure academic freedom, required if research and teaching are to be protected from political, social, or ideological constraint. Critics charge that tenure protects unproductive faculty, maintains the status quo in academe, and diminishes the intellectual vitality of universities.
Both perspectives are correct. Tenure is crucial, but in its current form, it is also dysfunctional.
The six-year "up or out" tenure process leading to lifetime appointment, which prevails at most colleges and universities, is a product of the early decades of the 20th century. Tenure was created in response to a wave of faculty firings for research, teaching or expression of opinions deemed unacceptable by colleges, donors, business or government. The offenses cited at the time varied widely, from the teaching of evolution to opposition to World War I. One of the most telling incidents occurred at Stanford University, named after the son of railroad magnate and California Gov. Leland Stanford. A professor who championed municipalization of the railroads and an end to the low-wage Asian labor that built them was fired on the order of the Stanford board chair, Mrs. Leland Stanford. Had university boards and presidents retained this power to fire faculty at will, the situation would have rendered the mission of the university impossible. Tenure was a creative and intelligent response.
Nearly a century later, however, the problem is that tenure is both an insufficient remedy and too broad a response. It fails to protect faculty and academic freedom in times of intense political pressure when it is most needed. For example, during the 1950s McCarthy-era witch hunts, tenured faculty were fired at top universities across the country.
Tenure also fails to guard faculty who carry out the most controversial research or make politically incorrect research possible. The study of such subjects as intelligence differences by race, gender or ethnicity, for instance, has produced campus demonstrations, and faculty members who do such work are often shunned by colleagues. In these cases, tenure, at best, sustains a scholar’s employment through a career of marginalization. Indeed, it is not uncommon for departments with particular ideologies regarding a discipline to refuse to hire faculty with contrary views, or to deny them promotion or tenure.
If another stated goal of tenure is to ensure the openness of campuses to unpopular opinion, it is also insufficient to this purpose. During the Vietnam War era, for instance, many campuses, or hostile demonstrators on those campuses, barred government officials prosecuting the war.
The inescapable conclusion from these examples: While tenure has dramatically reduced the bald intrusions on academic freedom of the 19th and early 20th centuries, it has not provided universal protection against external or internal constraint.
On the other hand, of those faculty members who receive tenure, the overwhelming majority do not engage in teaching or research that is in any sense controversial. More often tenure provides a lifetime of job security not to professors whose work requires protection, but to a significant minority of "deadwood" — individuals who are unproductive, out of date, or poor in their research, teaching or institutional commitment. In this sense, tenure can not only lead to academic freedom and intellectual excellence, but can also provide license without accountability and shield low-quality academics.
So why not eliminate tenure, as many suggest? There are three compelling reasons. First, the abuses of the past far outweigh the limitations of the present. For universities to succeed, it is better that the majority who may not need the protections of tenure receive them than that the minority who do need protections be denied them. Second, evidence indicates that colleges that lack tenure develop a de facto system of lifetime appointments, in which individuals receive continuing appointment based on their longevity at the institution or personal circumstances such as a child in school or a family illness, which make separation from the institution a hardship. By contrast, tenure at least necessitates a major scholarly review and a thoughtful decision by academic colleagues regarding a faculty member’s suitability for a lifetime appointment. Third — and this is an entirely pragmatic rationale — any major institution that chose to eliminate tenure would be at a disadvantage in recruiting top faculty in the future.
In spite of all these reasons to retain tenure, it urgently needs reform. When tenure began, mandatory retirement rules at particular ages were possible. Today, these are illegal. As a result, tenured faculty can remain at the university far beyond the time in which they are effective. With no incentive or requirement for them to retire, it can be exceedingly difficult and expensive to secure their departure. In some cases, institutions have had to provide “early” retirement packages — to failing faculty in their mid-70s. Many colleges report that this problem has grown worse in the last few years, as faculty members have responded to losses in their retirement funds by staying on the job longer than they originally planned.
For universities, the cost of this situation is not primarily financial. It is their intellectual vitality, the capacity to continue to create, discover, advance, and disseminate knowledge. With scarce budget lines committed to tenured faculty who no longer produce, or whose areas of scholarly and teaching expertise have been overtaken by other subjects or approaches, it becomes impossible to hire adequate numbers of new faculty who bring an infusion of energy and fresh ideas. In a weak economy with declining university funding, the problem is particularly acute.
For the reasons already discussed, I believe it would be an error to eliminate tenure, yet faculty turnover is essential if universities are to succeed in their mission. It is time for American higher education to attempt some controlled experiments with alternatives.
I would offer one proposal: Since mandatory retirement is not possible, the length of tenure could be limited to a significant but finite number of years. A term of 30 years, for example, would ensure essential academic freedom and at the same time allow for the turnover that universities require to remain intellectually strong.
Beyond that initial term, faculty and universities can together negotiate shorter-term contracts, modified assignments, or retirement. To be sure, some faculty remain vital well into their eighth decade, maybe even beyond. Some who no longer teach or publish or advise students still contribute to their institutions in other ways. In such cases, a contract extension model could work to the benefit of both the faculty member and the institution.
Still, as life spans grow longer and early-tier benefit packages create disincentives to retire, the issue of tenured budget lines absorbed by faculty past their productive years will become all the more acute. Moreover, as American institutions face a society in transition, in which change is the new normal, and compete with increasingly powerful competitors worldwide, the need to recruit top talent will become all the more pressing. Now is the time to develop a model of tenure for the 21st century that protects academic freedom and also maintains institutional vitality.
Suppose you are an ambitious, gifted college student with a passion for your major and the potential to become a world-class college teacher. You are precisely the person parents and taxpayers want to be teaching tomorrow’s students. Furthermore, private and public spending per college student has grown faster than median household incomes for the past three decades, suggesting that people are willing to pay more for your services. You want this career, parents/taxpayers want you to have this career, and they are willing to pay for it; what wonderful prospects!
During your undergraduate studies you were introduced to several luminaries in your field who receive considerable attention from the news media and are often on the lecture circuit. They are well-known for their six-figure salaries and commanding positions in your discipline. So far, it’s all good. Except …
Unfortunately, the luminosity of the luminaries has nothing to do with their teaching prowess; it is entirely due to their scholarship. There is a thriving market for senior scholars in higher education -- a market that brings plenty of release time from teaching, along with high salaries and fame.
There is no corresponding market for world-class teachers. No one in higher education becomes famous or well-compensated for exceptional teaching. How could this happen, since the students, parents, and taxpayers (those who pay the bills) have only a passing interest in research, but an abiding and personal stake in high-quality teaching?
Before we address that question, it is important to note there are many social benefits to be derived from an efficient market for senior scholars; the existence of that market is not the problem. Only spite and envy would ban the market for scholars as some ill-conceived “fix” for the imbalance between teaching and research. The correct response is to learn why we have a market for scholars and no market for teachers.
The critical reason why one market exists and the other does not is the information available to potential employers. Potential employers of professors have sufficient information to judge scholarly productivity, but virtually no information that would allow them to judge teaching productivity.
Institutions seeking to hire exceptional scholars can identify productive scholars at other institutions. The information they need is provided by outside sources that are independent of the scholar’s home institution, the scholar in question, and the potential employer. That information comes from the journals where the scholar publishes, books they’ve written, citations by other scholars, and their reputation among other scholars in the field.
None of this information exists for gifted teachers, and as a consequence, a potential employer seeking gifted teachers cannot identify those candidates. This creates a real problem for the potential employer. The teacher’s home institution may know who is an exceptional teacher and who is not, but too many institutions don’t even bother to find out.
If the potential employer makes an offer to a candidate and that candidate is in fact a gifted teacher, the home institution will make a counter offer. If the candidate is in fact a poor or average teacher, the home institution will not make a counter offer and the potential employer is likely to hire a poor or average teacher. This leads to what economists call “adverse selection” for job offers to potential teachers. Since the prospective employer knows it is likely to hire a poor or average teacher rather than an exceptional teacher, it does not make offers designed to attract exceptional teachers, and the market for exceptional teachers does not exist. Clearly, this problem is made worse by tenure, since tenure greatly increases the cost of making a bad hiring decision. In short, the “market for superior teaching” has unraveled due to insufficient information about teaching quality.
What does this mean for our prospective college teacher? First, he or she will not be able to find a Ph.D. program that specializes in preparing world-class college teachers; all the Ph.D. programs try to produce scholars, even when their own faculty members are not good enough to adequately train a new scholar. Most of these second- and third-tier Ph.D. programs could succeed in training teachers, but they do not because all the rewards in the faculty tenure and promotion process go to scholarship.
Second, the lack of a market for teaching creates a real dilemma for a new Ph.D. starting an academic career. If he starts his career on the teaching track, his future employment opportunities are limited to the teaching track since it is the information attached to research output that enables outside job offers and he will not have time to do research. Further, if he gets tenure through teaching, he will never be able to move to another comparable institution with tenure; the tenured teacher is stuck at his home institution and his employer knows he is stuck. On the other hand, if he starts on the research track, there is a chance he can move up the quality rankings, gaining more salary and fame if he succeeds as a researcher.
Now, suppose we have two fully informed young people: one aspires to be a world-class scholar and the other aspires to be a world-class teacher. They are about to make their career choices. The fully informed potential scholar chooses an academic career and the fully informed potential teacher decides to apply her talents to some other career. The few talented potential teachers who choose college teaching careers are those who derive significant personal satisfaction from teaching (despite the lack of public acclaim or financial rewards) or are very risk-averse (they crave the economic security provided by a tenured position).
What does this mean for college prices and quality? Since there are few rewards for teaching, faculty members focus too much on scholarship. Rather aspiring to be well-balanced teacher/scholars, faculty members become slaves to scholarship. We have a similar result for institutions. “Mission creep” among colleges and universities is partially due to the imbalance in the rewards for teaching and research. Colleges and universities try to become research institutions, rather than world-class undergraduate teaching institutions. As great teachers are discouraged from becoming professors, and as professors are discouraged from focusing on teaching, undergraduate teaching quality declines steadily over time.
Some may argue that an active research agenda improves teaching quality, but the evidence proves otherwise. A meta-analysis of the studies looking at the relationship between research and teaching by John Hattie and H. W. Marsh finds that they are completely unrelated. Nor is it hard to imagine why -- more research means less time for teaching.
Why has this obvious imbalance existed for so long? First, the average faculty member has nothing to gain from correcting the problem. This is obvious if the average faculty member is a scholar, but, it is also true if the average faculty member is a teacher, as the average teacher is by definition not a world-class teacher (out of the entire population of potential teachers, the current system weeds out a disproportionate share of good teachers and encourages the rest to focus on research, meaning that the current crop consists of below-average teachers).
Further, teaching institutions have little incentive to correct the problem. If they compete for students by publicly promoting their exceptional teachers, they run the risk of having those teachers hired by another institution, and they strengthen the teacher’s negotiating position with respect to the institution. In other words, recognizing the exceptional teachers increases their mobility and raises the probability they will be hired by others. Even among teaching institutions, colleges do not invest in the personal reputations of individual teachers; they always tout the high-quality teaching of their faculty as a group (everyone is above average). While there are a plethora of campus teaching awards and recognitions, they count for little outside their home institutions. Prospective employers know that most institutions do not make a serious attempt to measure individual value added and that leads teaching awards to be more political than they should be.
Even if the home institution sincerely wants to compete on the basis of high-value-added teaching, it has no way of changing the environment it operates in. If it is the only institution to identify and promote their exceptional teachers, those teachers can be lured away by other institutions, and the rest of the faculty will resent the recognition given to exceptional teachers (current teaching awards do not lead to this behavior because no one knows what a teaching award at different institution signifies).
What Can Be Done?
The “holy grail” of higher education reform should be the creation of a market for exceptional college teachers. The vigorous market for scholars provides the keys to this project. First, the information required does not have to be perfect in order for the market to be efficient (the information about scholars is not perfect). Second, the source of this information should be independent of the individual teachers, their home institutions, and their potential employers. There is great hope that the Web will be the requisite outside platform. Intercollegiate teaching tournaments are another possibility, as are digital course offerings.
The key requirement is a mechanism for excellent teachers to establish their reputations independently of those who have a vested interest in the outcome. Once that happens, teachers will no longer be filtered out of the pool of professors, as they are now. As a result, great teachers will enter the profession in greater numbers, and existing professors will have incentives to improve their teaching as well.
Robert Martin and Andrew Gillen
Robert Martin is emeritus Boles Professor of Economics at Centre College and author of The College Cost Disease: Higher Cost and Lower Quality (Edward Elgar, Ltd., forthcoming). Andrew Gillen is the research director at the Center for College Affordability and Productivity.