May 22, 2003

"Higher Ed in a Down Economy"

"Frank" at Frank Admisssions is linking to an NPR series entitled "The Ivory Tower in the Real World," which carries the suggestive subtitle "Higher Ed. in a Down Economy." Today's installment (which presumably will soon be available as an audiofile):

“The Trouble with Tenure” The professor’s profession is changing. When higher education falls on hard times, cash-strapped colleges cut corners, often at the cost of faculty job security. Recent years have seen an erosion in tenure: schools are saving money using part-timers, some lure faculty with lucrative, but short-term, contracts, and states place limits on the number of tenured positions. Now, as states struggle to cover big budget deficits, the system of tenure is at a tipping point. In a time when few jobs and fewer pensions seem safe in the American economy, does a system of guaranteed employment even make sense? Sarah Gardner reports from Lincoln, Nebraska, on that state’s attempt to cut budgets by cutting tenured faculty, and how professors, nationwide, face uncertain futures. Thursday, May 22, 2003

One quick comment: the rationale for tenure is not supposed to be security against economic downturns but rather security against assaults on academic freedom, which is a rather different thing. I have more to say on this, but for now, light blogging ahead as real life intervenes.

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at May 22, 2003 01:31 PM

Let me throw out a weird idea I've had for some time, since this is a different arena than I've used it in before.

Suppose the university offered two tracks. One, the tenure track, provided all the protections of the current tenure system, which I agree is meant to protect one's academic freedom. The other track allows the university to forgo any promise of tenure but compensates by providing those in track two a higher wage. One may therefore "sell" one's right to academic freedom to a university. What problems do you think arise from this two-track approach?

(I'll develop the idea more later -- I just want to read discussion right now.)

Posted by: kb at May 22, 2003 03:03 PM

Interesting proposal. I only have time for a quick response at the moment.

I think there would definitely be a problem with forgoing academic freedom.

However, the fact of the matter is, many of those who now teach and research do not have anything like academic freedom in the first place. Those on the tenure-track must be careful not to offend those who would grant them tenure, which in some cases exerts a powerful pressure toward conformity. And those off the tenure-track have absolutely no security whatsoever. So as an invisible adjunct, I might be inclined to say: "Show me the money." After all, what have I got to lose?

Your proposal seems to presuppose that tenure is the only way to protect academic freedom (so that those who agreed to give up tenure track would be "selling" their right to said freedom). I'm not entirely convinced that this is the case: I believe there might be other ways of protecting academic freedom.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at May 22, 2003 03:19 PM

Many universities are switching to the contract system, which almost creates the two-track scenario as the transition occurs. Currently I work on a contract, just got mine renewed for another year, and I love it. As far as tenure protecting academic freedom; I don't buy it. If someone wants to get rid of you, they will. I've always been cynical of big business, corporations, and the administrative structure of institutions. Not saying that there aren't nice folks in these positions, just that when the rubber meets the road, they will think bottom line and reputation. If you feel that tenure will shield you from that, fuhgeddiboutit.
As far as potential problems with the two-track system, personally I think it's an intriguing solution. It might get more adjunts out of a bad situation, for example. I think the biggest hurdle one would have in implementing this system is the magical allure of tenure to begin with. People won't let it go. Many continue to see it as some sort of jumbo condom that will shield you from the nasty things in the world. (I had to come up with a compelling metaphor, sorry). In this country, people will find a way to fire you if not by the official route, then by the backstabbing one. Tenure offers no real protection. If someone doesn't like what you say or publish, they will (unless you are the .005% of professor-celebrities who can do no wrong) launch a campaign of sorts to push you out. This has never happened to me, but it has happened to people I know. Academic freedom? Schmeedom! It doesn't really exist, not in the true sense. If it did, you would see more people saying how they really felt. It's like a public school teacher lecturing kids about how they are lucky to live in a free country, yet these same teachers won't say a word come faculty meeting time because they want to keep their jobs! Are we really free?Freedom is a fine idea, but it has to be backed up by people. When you are talkin' the workplace, people do not have your back.

Posted by: Cat at May 22, 2003 03:20 PM

Tenure does not confer, as some outside the academy suspect, the total freedom of Alistair Crowley, where "the whole of the law is do as thou wilt". Why? For one, because the process of getting tenure tends towards the heavy domestication of scholars. For another, however, because there are costs to behaving like a wild-eyed prophet straight out of the wilderness in any institution, even if there are no formal mechanisms for disciplining or firing such a person. If everyone is unremittingly hostile towards you in your institution, it doesn't matter that much if you can't be fired: you're not going to be able to accomplish much except being a nuisance.

E.g., welcome to human sociality. There's nothing in tenure that cancels out political mechanisms and social relations, nor could there ever be.

So the point that it defends academic freedom is really only aimed at a narrow but potentially threatening kind of behavior: specific retaliations against faculty for their specific political or intellectual views by administrators or senior faculty with administrative authority. The problem here of course is that *prior* to tenure, there is no such protection, and it often shows--the very process of seeking tenure ends up actively denying academic freedom to candidates during that process.

It would be interesting to try and think about a system that undifferentiatedly guaranteed the right of faculty to unorthodox views and scholarship as a basic condition of academic life without tying that guarantee to a lifelong labor contract. If you could conceptualize such a system, it might clarify who supports tenure because of academic freedom, and who supports it as a labor incentive designed to keep attractive candidates in the system. (E.g., a reward for long apprenticeships during productive wage-earning years and relatively low salaries subsequent to apprenticeship).

Posted by: Timothy Burke at May 22, 2003 03:51 PM

Richard Chait, a professor at Harvard, has done a lot of interesting thinking about tenure - his book is called The Question of Tenure. Maybe he's interviewed for the PBS thing? As I understand it (I haven't read him yet), he's proposing something like what the first poster on this list proposed - a variety of "tracks," in which some people would be tenured and others not, and in which there would be appropriate incentives/disincentives in different scenarios. His ideas are causing the sorts of palpitations you'd expect among most tenured faculty aware of his ideas and his growing influence (I think I'm right that he was a consultant to the Univ. of Minnesota when they were tinkering with their system).

Posted by: Newman at May 22, 2003 05:23 PM

I meant to ask you before: what are the principled arguments against tenure? I maintained, and still maintain, that there aren't any; and I hope we can avoid quibbling over the semantics of "principled."

Maybe a better (and different, yes) way of asking the question is: are there any good arguments against tenure?

Posted by: He Who Must Be Obeyed at May 23, 2003 04:18 AM

I'd like to make three points. First, tenure is not a gurantee of employment. A tenured position can be closed.

Second, the trouble with the idea of selling academic freedom is that it is about selling one's freedom. Isn't this obviously a bad thing?

Third, surely one reason why tenure is good is that it stops people being fired just because students often prefer younger teachers. Administrators too might prefer lower paid, more naive faculty members. So if tenure goes, so might many older faculty mebers who then have to find something else to do for a living, which probably wouldn't be so easy for many of us. The upshot is that an academic career would be much less attractive than it is now, which I expect would lead to a decline in the overall quality of people going in to the profession. Not good.

Posted by: Duncan at May 23, 2003 01:03 PM

Tenure allows people to coast, which a pretty good argument against it. I can think of many examples. Many in academia seem to think of research as a cost -- you have to beat your brains out on your dissertation, and then you have to keep cranking stuff out in order to get tenure, and then you can live your life.

Caveat: the examples I know of are at a low-ranking teaching university and might not be entirely fair.

In a time of academic downturn (economically), tenure also makes it harder for new people to get started. I've seen this not only in the Humanities but also at a biomedical research U., where the "post-docs" are not at all happy.

Posted by: zizka at May 23, 2003 03:42 PM

It strikes me that tenure offers perhaps a way to survive the infighting between demanding forces that act on faculty members.

There are students, who, while they know what they do and do not like in the classroom, lack the experience or big picture to assess whether the institution is served or not by having that particular professor there. There are faculty colleagues, who have vested interests in having colleagues who go along with the majority of the department and who do the necessary work. There are administrators, who want the faculty to draw in students, money and positive publicity. And then there are the needs of the faculty members themselves.

Without tenure, it seems to me, it is difficult for the center to hold against these competing demands, and therefore acting becomes a matter of trying to decide which master to serve. Does one please the students, but risk alienating one's colleagues or reducing the reputationof the college by pandering with easy grades? Does one go along with one's colleagues whereever they may roam, but thereby ignore the students' wishes for needed but unpopular-to-teach courses, or the administration's need to balance department needs with institution-wide ones? Does one kowtow to administrative needs to cut costs and attract students, and thus give students less-than-ideal service and annoy one's colleagues for having divided loyalties?

In short -- if everyone is pulling your strings but yourself, how can you get any work done? Tenure may be flawed in that it means that no one of these groups gets a "perfect" professor for their needs, and that there is the (more in theory than practice for most) risk that the tenured faculty member will serve no master but his or her own. It also is true that having tenure does not completely free you from having to take such power dynamics into account. However, it does seem to me that tenure offers a form of checks and balances that has the additional benefit of including the individual faculty member's own needs and interests in these equations.

Posted by: Rana at May 24, 2003 05:55 PM

(One example I have to offer is a colleague of mine who was recently granted tenure, and for the first time has had the chance to point out some much needed areas of reform in her department. As these reforms hinge around the questionable actions of senior faculty members, many of whom had voting power on tenure decisions, she had not been able to criticize them before then. Now she can, and I think her department will be better for it.)

Posted by: Rana at May 24, 2003 05:59 PM

Rana -- Couldn't one argue that the tenure system actually creates some of this in-fighting?

Timothy's point about the domestication of scholars as a condition of tenure seems dead-on. Of course, wild-eyed prophets out of the wilderness aren't such a great thing: no institution can really absorb too many of these, I think. But creativity and unorthodoxy are good. How to achieve the right balance?

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at May 24, 2003 08:48 PM

Maybe. I'll have to think on this for a while. In the case of my friend, probably not. Even if these particular professors hadn't had tenure, they were older, had been at the college longer, and had more time to develop strategic political alliances that allowed them to do their own thing regardless of whether they were tenured or not.

One could probably argue that tenure encouraged these tendencies in them, but it seems to me that in the absence of tenure for all, my friend never could have challenged them.

Hmm... maybe there's the secret -- tenure at the outset, or a drastically reduced time of pre-tenure review?

Wouldn't that suggestion put a burr under some saddles!

Posted by: Rana at May 25, 2003 03:07 PM

As Timothy points out, there's no escaping human sociality (nor would most of us want to escape it, I suspect). Political conflicts, personality clashes, hierarchies (both formal or informal) and so on are pretty much inevitable. But to acknowledge this isn't to suggest that there aren't better and worse ways of structuring institutions around the social relations of those who inhabit them.

One of the problems with tenure, I think, is that many people become so "domesticated" by the process that by the time they are in a position of security that would allow them to propose reforms and changes, they are no longer inclined toward such proposals.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at May 25, 2003 03:18 PM

How about random tenure?

Rather than an evaluative process which encourages domestication and homogeneity, universities can set a selection rate: ranging from say 10% at HYP to about 90% at third-tier state schools.

Unless you commit a felony or don't show up for your classes, you know what exactly what your chances are when the time comes. You don't have to worry about bias.

Universities could also establish deparment-specific publication requirements, but these would have to be "quality"-neutral--i.e., a book from OUP would count just the same as one from St. Martin's, peer-reviewed article in Mind worth just as much as one in Academic Questions.

This may sound outlandish, but I think it would take care of many of the problems with tenure, and those who don't get it wouldn't have any stigmata--some might even be considered holy in the same sense that the Romans thought of plants which grew in the cracks of roadways as having special medicinal benefits [this example comes from Gravity's Rainbow; Lem has also explored similar ideas in a number of his books].

Posted by: He Who Must Be Obeyed at May 25, 2003 09:55 PM

Yes. It's a tricky line to walk; on the one hand, you want to make sure that the tenured-to-be are worth the lifetime investment that tenure represents. On the other hand, if the tenured are to be truly valuable (and for tenure to make sense) there needs perforce be a certain amount of risk in the investment. You might get a brilliant iconoclast whose ideas change the world, or a slacker who putters away at maddeningly dull and unproductive tasks for years.

Maybe something like this would work: Give everyone a form of limited tenure at the outset. The limit would have to be somewhat generous -- 10-20 years -- so as to permit real activity while under this protective umbrella to occur. At the end of those years, then the person would receive a tenure review to see whether keeping them on made sense. Those who like to play safe could, those who want to stir things up would have a chance at it that lasted long enough to make real change possible (or to lay a groundwork of scholarship that would foster moving to a new institution if tenure was not renewed), and people who were duds relative to the institution and their colleagues would not be allowed to linger forever, breeding resentment and taking up space.

Another benefit to this approach to tenure is that young scholars wishing to have families would not be penalized by the simultaneous demands of their biological clocks and their tenure committees, but could concentrate on one at a time.

Posted by: Rana at May 25, 2003 09:59 PM

D suggests a further amendment to the "start with tenure" proposal, above; give tenure after one year, rather than immediately or after the usual time. This is enough to figure out if the person is a poor fit or not, without weakening the other advantages of the tenure-first approach. It might also help in addressing the stigma of tenure denial, though being denied a continued tenure later, at the time of renewal, could be more devastating.

Posted by: Rana at May 26, 2003 04:06 AM

Heck, while we're at it, why not have 4-5 major universities chip in and produce their own reality series? You think the Real World and Survivor has action packed confrontation scenes and backstabbing? Not compared to this possible reality series. Viewers could have all submission materials available via the internet so they could decide who is eligible for the "big T." Just like real-life tenure selection committees, they wouldn't have to really read the materials, just tally up who sent what in to which journal, who is more popular, etc. If this series flies (which I doubt it would, because even mainstream America has more sense than to endorse such a system like tenure), all colleges and universities could create their own entertenuretainment!

Posted by: Cat at May 27, 2003 05:11 PM