Is Tenure Conservative?

October 20, 2009

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.


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