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Monday, June 20, 2011

The Real Reason for Tenure

In my view, the real benefit of tenure is to create a class of faculty members who identify closely with an institution, who feel the department and the university is theirs. The tenured faculty do not own the university in any literal sense, but they are like partners in a law firm in a specific sense: they feel the university is, essentially, the faculty of that university, not a set of buildings. I know that I feel that way, as a tenured faculty member. If you think of the collective expertise of a university faculty amounts to, you will see that is is one of the most impressive phenomena of human culture. This is true even of a mid-level university such as the one I teach at. Of course, those without tenure on the tenure track still want to be promoted, so they also aspire to this sense of identification if they don't feel it yet.

Job security creates longer terms of employment and a sense of identification. It also means people move less often, sometimes creating frustration (for the individual) and stagnation (for the institution). Once you have tenure it is very difficult to move, because departments only want to hire Assistant Professors, administrators, or stars. Although I moved once after tenure, I'm not sure I'll ever be able to again. I pay a heavy price, then, for the security I receive.

To create this feeling of identification, you need a sense of autonomy. This is what we normally call "academic freedom," or the idea that a senior faculty member can be trusted to choose his / her own intellectual path. I could write a book about jazz if I wanted to. I probably won't, but I could, and this feeling of autonomy helps me because even working in a narrow sub-field (as I do). I know my decisions won't be questioned by administrators who have no clue about what a valid intellectual project looks like. Longer terms of employment also take into account the up and downs of scholarship. I could have a relatively less impressive five year span and I think I should be allowed that, frankly.

Administrators come and go. I've seen seven deans in 15 years. The faculty are a stabilizing force counterbalancing whatever the new trends in Higher Education might be.

People hired to teach courses on the adjunct track, payed by the individual course, typically feel little sense of deep identification with the university. The move to abolish tenure aims to make everyone, more or less, an adjunct. Even in fields where tt positions are hard to come by, the existence of some jobs like that offers a powerful incentive. If most or all jobs become contingent, then it is hard to imagine anyone going into academia any more in the first place. Even highschool teachers have tenure, after all.

17 comments:

profacero said...

I'm going to lift a couple of concepts from this -- the identification and the price to pay issues -- for some documents I need to write.

They'd have to raise pay without tenure, which is one thing I don't think they realize, and improve conditions -- really fund the library and fund conferences and so on at 100%. Most faculty have libraries and computers of their own, too, the way carpenters have tools, but I don't know of any profession other than academia where there are so many obstacles to getting the stuff you need to do your job right.

(Well, not in the so called 1st world anyway -- there was a scandal in Cuzco lately, hospital not funded, doctors got desperate and went to the hardware store and bought tools so they could more or less operate on urgent patients.)

And I don't think having those 5 year renewable contracts would actually mean people move around more, or work better. In most places I've been there are a lot of instructors and they're on one year contracts, technically. But they don't get non renewed unless there's some egregious problem, i.e. the kind of thing that would lead to removal of tenure in the case of a tenured person. Why not: because we'd have to hire constantly, which would be expensive and a drag, and who knows who we'd get or whether they would be better, and so on. So those year to year contract positions actually resemble sinecures more than tenured ones do.

Therefore, my theory is that going to long term contracts would actually drive quality down, not up.

Jonathan said...

I've heard the argument that they would only have to raise pay without tenure but I'm not convinced. That would happen a bit, as it does now for assistant professors, who earn more relative to their experience than the senior people do. But once the entire market is contingent, they can always get people to work for cheaper given the vast oversupply of academic labor.

profacero said...

Don't you think people would have to leave, though? I'd have to go into another line of work. Here in Louisiana what they're doing to save $ is eliminate whole departments, like Chemistry and stuff, so they can fire the fulls and then invite them back as instructors. That's not the same job description and it's only $33K per annum.

I don't know -- perhaps it's just me, but I happen to know that cafe managers make more than that, only work 40 hours, and the jobs pay into Social Security which ours don't. Google Ad raters make about that and you can be a Google Ad rater from anywhere -- I could move to Mex DF and do it and do research on the side. Web designers can make much more and if you've ever worked with DOS, WordStar, or UNIX, which you're old enough to have had to do, HTML and XML etc. are easy. So I'm just really not convinced they can get non independently wealthy research people if it goes all contingent. People desperate to teach, maybe, but...

Contingent Cassandra said...

I remember, back in my grad school days, hearing the argument that universities would have to raise salaries if they eliminated tenure. Of course, we were also being told then (back in the late '80s/early '90s) that there was a looming shortage of humanities professors, due to the baby boom echo and anticipated retirements. The echo arrived on schedule, the retirements took a bit longer due to the abolition of mandatory retirement, but are still trickling in, and the need is definitely there -- but it's mostly being filled by part-time and full-time contingent faculty who are paid much less than TT faculty with similar education and experience. And there are enough of us out there willing to work under these conditions that there's no pressure to replace contingent lines with tenure lines. If anything, the tide may have turned inexorably in the other direction, and tenure may eventually vanish, not, in most places, through any dramatic move by a state legislature or board of trustees, but simply by attrition (or maybe even by a gradual lowering or stagnation of TT salaries until contingent positions do pay more, and tenure is a luxury few can afford. I wouldn't be surprised to see that.)

Contingent Cassandra said...

I agree wholeheartedly that it's hard to feel the same sense of identification with an institution as a contingent faculty member, even one on the sort of full-time, multi-year contract that I hold. In fact, I consciously fight the illusion that, just because I've worked at one school for ten years, and know its students and their needs pretty well, I have some sort of longterm connection to the institution. My contract says otherwise, and I need to be prepared for the possibility that that contract won't be renewed one of these years (which means trying to find/make time for research and publication, for which I, unlike my TT colleagues, don't receive any credit come renewal/promotion time; one of the ironies of the current system is that TT professors, despite the greater security of their jobs, are supported in and rewarded for doing things that would make them marketable to other universities, while contingent faculty receive no such support or encouragement, despite the greater likelihood that they will periodically need to seek new jobs). The fact that service isn't part of my job is a useful if frustrating reminder that I'm not really a full member of the faculty, with a formal voice in decisions about curriculum and the like. I'd very much like to have that.

From my perspective, academic freedom includes not only the liberty to determine one's own research agenda, but also enough job security to be frank with administrators trying to cut costs (and corners) in core undergraduate courses about the fact that such courses, when taught well, are inherently labor-intensive, and hence expensive, and with both administrators and colleagues about the effect that teaching the same 4/4 load of writing intensive classes, over and over, with no built-in time for reflection or regrouping, and a salary which necessitates adding summer teaching on top of that, has on me and my teaching. But it's very hard to talk about such effects without sounding like a bad, or at least less than 100% enthusiastic, fully committed, teacher, and that could hurt me come renewal time. So I'd say that my contingent status does undermine my academic freedom, in ways that affect not only to me but also to the quality of teaching at my institution. But I'm unlikely to say that publicly without the protection of a pseudonym, which is one reason I very much appreciate it when those with tenure name the problem.

Contingent Cassandra said...

P.S. to profacero: I don't see my job as a sinecure, because, although it seems pretty secure for the moment, for the reasons you name, it could easily disappear in a major restructuring of our core curriculum (the sort of thing which, in my experience, happens every 15-20 years in most universities). That's just enough time for my skills to have become very much adapted to the particular needs of the program in which I teach. I'm pretty sure the TT members of my department would object to such a change, since my program involves lots of FTEs, but it would be pretty easy for administrators to sell what they see as a cheaper alternative to other departments if they also found a way to redistribute those FTEs in the process, and my department -- partly because it has so many contingent faculty members, who don't serve on university committees -- might not be in a very good position to make its case for the current course requirements, and/or for an alternative that would still make use of its current faculty members' talents (which are considerable and versatile; we teach a mid-level, required, writing in the disciplines course). I don't see any of the above happening any time soon, but I do fear it will happen before I am ready, or can afford, to retire.

Apologies for three consecutive comments; obviously this subject hits close to home.

profacero said...

In my main dept., Spanish, you don't need a PhD or publications or a research agenda to be a full time instructor. You just need an M.A. that includes 18 graduate hours in Spanish. And, I'm not saying those people really have sinecures, I'm saying that there is de facto less "quality control" -- no national search, no 3d year review, no tenure review, no promotion reviews, no reviews for renewal to graduate faculty, no research required for merit raises, etc.

My question to people who do have PhDs and research desires and are adjuncts (not even instructors, no yearlong contracts and no benefits, etc.) is -- I understand why, after the "professionalization" one undergoes to get the PhD, they are now in this situation. But was it their goal originally? I doubt it. It wasn't mine and I went to graduate school years ago and I am not the world's most confident person. But I thought it might be that my only post PhD employment possibilities in academia would be adjuncting, which I didn't think would be viable financially, so my plan was to do something else if it didn't work out.

Don't you think more people would plan that way if it were all contingent? Or is the typical faculty member really that much more monastically oriented than me???

profacero said...

P.S. Cassandra -- I *do* think the tide has already turned inexorably, and the signs of it are many. It means that anyplace that isn't private and well endowed, or a public private like Virginia or Michigan, will be a diploma mill staffed by underpaid, overworked adjuncts ... with a STEM research park nearby staffed with well paid star researchers on 5-year contracts. I'm serious.

Jonathan said...

Good question. I remember thinking I had to be one of the best people to even get a job. Lucklly, my PhD occurred at the 88 peak of the job market.

A national search means people who come and don't (necessarily) want to live there. Adjuncting often occurs with geographical limitations. A flexible neo-liberal academic job market where everyone is contingent might leave places like Kansas with nobody left.

Clarissa said...

"I don't know -- perhaps it's just me, but I happen to know that cafe managers make more than that, only work 40 hours, and the jobs pay into Social Security which ours don't. Google Ad raters make about that and you can be a Google Ad rater from anywhere"

-You are forgetting the social prestige of being a university professor that a cafe manager who might make 15 times more simply doesn't have.

One of the main reasons I knew I needed to get a PhD from the moment I emigrated was that, as an immigrant, I saw no other way of not remaining a second-class citizen forever. I still don't really see many alternatives in terms of acquiring social status where you have none.

Jonathan said...

That funny. If you read comments on the Chronicle of Higher Education, you find out that professors are held in small esteem. But if you actually meet people, you often find the opposite. People actually seem impressed and intimidated. Or maybe it's just me.

profacero said...

@Jonathan, yes, I think places like Kansas would empty out *once* institutions like KU were completely gutted. It would take a while for reality to sink in, but then...

@Clarissa, social prestige, it where I am it is the same as being a high school teacher. And if you have a PhD, what that means to people is that you haven't attained the MA yet - the highest degree they're aware of!

If you're demoted to instructor, then you're not a professor any more, either. Your teaching load rises and due to the change in your job description, you are no longer eligible for *all* the same kinds of external funding.

And in my case, I need the cash -- can't afford to work for that much less, and the perks of being a professor would be gone anyway. Faced with the salary of a cafe manager and the teaching load of an adjunct, I'd even jump to a job like Dean Dad's if I had to. I don't want to be poor, and I don't want to be a burden on my child when I'm old.

Plenty of immigrants are doctors, lawyers, engineers, scientists working for industry, and so on. I don't see why you'd have to be a professor for social prestige as an immigrant. I'm "involved" with an immigrant whose little construction firm is supporting him & his kids & and his art habit and he seems OK in terms of social prestige - maybe it's easier for men, though.

My mother comes from a truly aristocratic family venida a menos post Civil War and she, for her part, values the social prestige she sees in academia very greatly; she is embarrassed of her father because he only had an insurance business. He died before I was born but I think he's impressive -- his investments are still helping to support her and I'm grateful, and don't care that he "only sold insurance."

profacero said...

...by which I mean: I do understand the idea that only academia is non commercial enough to be prestigious enough, and so on.

But seriously: at some point you have to have a trust fund to have that attitude really be viable. You have to live. I think that when professordom isn't even as viable as high school teaching, the people who now think of going into academia, won't.

Jonathan said...

Sure, when the stereotype shifts completely from "elitist snob who thinks he's better than us" to "couldn't make it as a high school teacher..." Then who would go into academia?

Clarissa said...

"by which I mean: I do understand the idea that only academia is non commercial enough to be prestigious enough, and so on"

-I don't know why it is but this is what I have observed. the moment I put "Professor" before my name people stopped asking me if I was a mail-order bride. I know people in the immigrant community who are enormously rich. And they are friendly with not a single Canadian person. (My immigrant community is in Canada).

I have no idea if I would have experienced the same rise in my social prestige if I were a high school teacher because I never tried being one. All I know is that whenever I say that I am a university professor, people look at me in awe. This is just my experience.

profacero said...

Sure, I guess it would be true -- my experience is when I say I am a professor, people correct me to "teacher." They just do. not. believe.

Still I say that once tenure and the tenure track are abolished it's going to be harder to get anyone to go into the biz at all. Perhaps I am naive and people still will.

Bob Basil said...
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