Monday, March 31, 2008

The Tenure Wars

Both Inside Higher Ed and the Chronicle have posts on tenure, with the latter citing Tenured Radical, Lumpenprofessoriat, Oso Raro, and Professor Zero. There are lots of good and thoughtful ideas in these (go read them; I'll wait), but I wanted to mention two in particular, the comments of Professor Z and The Constructivist/CitizenSE:

Professor Zero:
I think the abolition of tenure would be an CEO-administrator’s dream. The entire workforce would be contingent, and certain research and development stars could be retained through very high salaries and the elimination, for them, of all but the most specialized teaching and all service except on projects which directly benefit them.

The Constructivist (comment #20):
As for the supposed glut of dead wood in academia, I challenge J and AHA to visit my department and identify the tenured people who should be fired. (Sorry that we don’t have any lab space to be wasting at taxpayer expense.) Identifying deadwood from afar is about as productive by judging the state of the English profession by titles at the MLA convention, the prevalence of classic literature in curricula by titles in the course catalog, and the legitimacy of a judgment by “in my personal experience.” Which is to say that it happens all the time, even in comment boxes.

I don't deny that there are abuses in the tenure process, especially in dysfunctional departments or universities, but is this a good reason to abolish the whole system?

To echo The Constructivist, where is all this supposed deadwood? At the risk of proving his point about evidence-by-anecdote, those senior faculty I've known, at my institution and others, have been highly productive. If they aren't, they're the ones who are in the faculty senate protecting faculty interests from rapacious cost-cutting by central administration, or mentoring younger faculty, or doing advising. Some take the time for undergraduate students that tenure-track people can't spare. Who's going to do this if tenure is abolished? Those who want to find themselves out of a job, that's who, since in a free market, the only thing that will be valued is what can be measured. Human interaction and working for the good of the whole can't be measured. Scholarship stats can. Which one will a faculty member in a new tenureless system spend time on, do you think?

And Professor Z is right about the corporate model. We'll be like Target and Wal-Mart, which fire managers when they hit 45 and get in younger workers who'll work for cheap. Frankly, I'm a little shocked by the ageist bias I see the comments at IHE and CHE: would it be all right to say "let's get rid of the women, because they're always having babies and messing up our scholarly productivity stats anyway?" Of course not, and yet somehow it's entirely acceptable to say this about senior (in age, not rank) faculty.

Institutional quality could suffer, too. We already see the "consumer service" model being promoted by administrations; who's going to hold the line on plagiarism or teaching difficult topics if a disgruntled customer student blasts you on a teaching evaluation? With tenure, that's not as much of a concern. Without tenure, we'd have to cater to the interests of a shallow few rather than the genuine intellectual curiosity of those students who are there to learn.

I hadn't paid as much attention to this topic as I should have done, because earning tenure didn't change what I did or how I approached the job; I didn't feel depressed or let down, and I didn't feel trapped, all comments expressed on blogs and the CHE forums. But without it, I might feel compelled to teach a course in the literature of Facebook or something instead of equally interesting things that demand a little more effort.

[Edited to add: Actually, I'd have to teach "The Literature of Facebook: The Movie," if I really wanted to reach every student. The majority aren't like this (shallow), but under a tenureless system, the class could conceivably be run by those who are, and that's what I fear.]


Anonymous said...

Dumbing down teaching: contingent faculty *do* do that and sometimes tenure track ones too, who want good evaluations / lack of complaints and are teaching other sections of the same courses contingent faculty are.

I, on the other hand, get to demand that people write in complete sentences and such, since I don't have to care so much if my students go and complain to my chair "she's so haaaard..."

Anonymous said...

P.S. It's true, too, about the ageism in the comments threads. It's very weird how people seem to think old people don't know anything.

undine said...

It always surprises me, too, Cero, and I can't figure out why no one every calls them on the ageism.