The recent firing of 33 employees, including tenured professors, at Emporia State University in Kansas was deplorable. On the faculty Listserv at my university, it led to a wringing of hands from tenured professors, who lamented it as heralding the dismantling of tenure and the further deterioration of higher education. According to Inside Higher Ed’s reporting, those at Emporia State regard it in the same light.
“Tenure is no ivory tower,” Max McCoy, a tenured professor of journalism who was among those terminated by Emporia State, wrote in an article for the Kansas Reflector last month. “It’s as essential to higher education as the fire department is to your community.”
At moments like these, we fail to acknowledge that, according to American Association of University Professors statistics, 62 percent of faculty members in the United States are already working without the protections offered by tenure. In our fear that our own privileges might be stripped away, we overlook the fact that theirs already have been. Our hand-wringing is insensitive, to say the least. It’s also proof of the individualism that the tenure system cultivates and that will eventually contribute to its demise.
Unlike the majority of my tenured colleagues, though, I think there is potential for positive change in that demise. The end of tenure doesn’t have to mean the end of academic rights to freedom of speech or protection against arbitrary firing. We could see it as an opportunity to develop better ways of protecting these rights—ways that work for all teachers and researchers in higher education, not just for the lucky minority.
I’m a tenured professor at the University of Washington at Seattle, where faculty are not unionized. I spent the 2021–22 academic year working at Northumbria University in England, a country where legal tenure does not exist but where faculty in higher education are heavily unionized. Based on my observations of these two ways of protecting faculty, I’d gladly exchange my tenure for a union.
Tenure theoretically protects faculty from arbitrary dismissal, although there are many loopholes, and it can be suspended in an economic emergency. A union protects faculty against a whole host of other wrongs in addition to arbitrary firing—discrimination, inequity, harassment and bullying, for instance. Perhaps more importantly than the rights and privileges it protects is the mentality that a union cultivates. Tenure protects the individual; a union protects the collective. Unions cultivate a sense of solidarity, whereas the tenure system creates divisions and pits individuals against each other. Those in non-tenure-track positions at my university are afraid to voice their opinions about the failings of the tenure system on the faculty Listserv lest they suffer retributions. The tenure system secures freedom of speech only for those who need it least.
Higher education in the United Kingdom is far from perfect. In the 2020–21 academic year, 32 percent of faculty were on fixed-term contracts, about half the proportion of faculty on contingent contracts in the U.S. That 32 percent shares the same access to the University and College Union’s resources and protections as do those on a permanent contract. Colleges and universities, including the University of Portsmouth, the University of Roehampton and Goldsmiths, University of London, among others, have moved to fire dozens of faculty members to compensate for budgetary shortfalls or close academic programs. But a grading boycott organized in response to job cuts by the University and College Union recently won major concessions from Goldsmiths, including a commitment to no further compulsory redundancies or dismissals, enhanced severance for those whose jobs had already been made redundant, and a review of the institution’s use of fixed-term contracts.
We speak of “earning” or even “winning” tenure, language that implies a meritocracy. “At Emporia State, as at most colleges, tenure is hard won,” McCoy writes in the Reflector. This phrasing obscures the fact that privilege and luck are often what separate those who “earn” tenure from those who occupy non-tenure-line positions and can never earn it no matter how hard they work. The protections provided by a union are not “earned,” nor are they confined to the elite few. They are given in exchange for dues calculated on a sliding scale. However, the preservation of those rights does require participation—an active commitment to the ideals of solidarity and community embodied in a union. The grading boycott at Goldsmiths would not have worked if a significant number of faculty had decided not to participate.
I participated in three strikes while working in the U.K. I shared my colleagues’ worries about the effects of canceled classes on students’ education and their regret for what amounted to 10 days of lost pay. But I also recognized the industrial action as the means to achieve important policy reforms and an opportunity to model for students my hope that collective action can create positive change.
Labor unions, academic or otherwise, enjoy a much stronger presence in the U.K. than the U.S., and it would undoubtedly be difficult for American academics to learn to embrace collectivism rather than individualism. In a provocative blog post, Steven Mintz recently argued that individualism is ruining higher education because each of us prioritizes professional activities that primarily reward ourselves (e.g., publication) over those that benefit others (e.g., peer reviewing, mentoring, committee service). While I agree that individualism is certainly not improving higher education, it is wrongheaded to blame demoralized and depleted faculty members on the crashing plane that is U.S. higher education for putting on their own oxygen mask before helping those around them to put on theirs. Individuals do not create individualism. The systems within which individuals operate do.
I’m sorry for the suffering of those who been stripped of tenure at Emporia State University and elsewhere and who stand to lose their livelihoods. There is nothing redemptive about this situation. At the same time, I feel that faculty members in the United States will never come together to fight for our collective rights until the tenure system has been dismantled, until all the remaining haves, of whom I am most decidedly one, become have-nots.