July 30, 2003

Tocqueville Explains the Growing Opposition to the Tenure System

No, not really. I just wanted to get your attention. But I think he does explain a dynamic that might be applied to the division between the tenurable and the nontenurable.

"In France," wrote Tocqueville in his The Old Regime and the French Revolution,* "the nobles clung to their exemption from taxation to the very end to console themselves for having lost the right to rule" (98). In Tocqueville's account, it was the growing gap between privilege and power which opened up a space for criticism and resentment, as ancient feudal rights and prerogatives became increasingly intolerable to an increasingly isolated French peasantry:

When the nobles had real power as well as privileges,...their rights could be at once greater and less open to attack...True, the nobles enjoyed invidious privileges and rights that weighed heavily on the commoner, but in return for this they kept order, administered justice, saw to the execution of the laws, came to the rescue of the oppressed, and watched over the interests of all. The more these functions passed out of the hands of the nobility, the more uncalled-for did their privileges appear -- until at last their mere existence seemed a meaningless anachronism (30).

Replace "nobles" with "tenured" and "commoners" with "untenurable," and here's one possible explanation of why increasing numbers of contingent faculty oppose the tenure system.

*Since "regime change" is a current buzzword, let me say that I think Tocqueville's Old Regime and the French Revolution is one of the most interesting accounts of regime change ever written: in large part because it was written by an aristocrat who wanted to explain the transition from aristocracy to democracy in terms that were comprehensible both to a displaced aristocracy and to an audience whose sensibilities had already been democratized.

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at July 30, 2003 03:00 PM

It's an interesting analogy, but needs to be expanded to include the concepts of *function* and *responsibility* as well as power. Originally, the feudal nobility provided for the defense of their own lands against interlopers, organizing the defense and personally participating in the fighting. With the rise of centralized State armies, this function fell by the wayside. The reduction in their power was an inevitable consequence..which then led to the next consequence, the elimination of their privileges.

Loss or abandonment of responsibility >>
Loss of power and respect >>
Loss of privileges

Posted by: David Foster at July 30, 2003 03:47 PM

Or rather, loss of power leading to loss of privileges and rights. When the nobility were the bulk of the armed forces, and the tax collection system, they could defend their privileges. When the state had large, powerful armies, combined with large, effective bureaucracies to support those armies, the nobility were unable to defend their privileges.

In universities, if the vast majority of faculty are tenured, with small administrations (most of the work done by faculty members within the department, or by temporary assignment of professors), the faculty retain some power. Note: this assumes tenure. As universities move to very large administrations, faculty have less voice - they don't have the expertise or knowledge to run things.
The professional administrators aren't faculty members - they don't start off with professional sympathy, and they don't have to fear reprisals after they rotate back into a faculty role, since they remain administrators. If a large chunk of the faculty were to go on strike, the university would experience less disruption of administation. Combined with a large 'reserve army' of adjuncts, the administration holds a more powerful position.

Posted by: Barry at July 31, 2003 09:57 AM