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Why? And for what reason? And wherefore?

I had meant to respond, ages ago, to a question Matt H. asked in the comments to a note almost a month ago. Since I never did respond, rather than just ignoring it, I’ll put it up here in a new note, particularly as I don’t have any real inspiration for writing just now, and don’t feel like doing another damned Book Report.

What is it that makes you in favor (apparently) of abolishing tenure, where I’m leery of it; and I want term limits for Senators, which concept you (V) previously have expressed the leer thereof?

First of all, I’m going to do the web thing where I dismiss the question: The current situation with Senators, which can roughly be described as renewable six-year contracts with the understanding that almost all the incumbents will be renewed in their positions, is what I would imagine replacing the current tenure system, if the tenure system were to be replaced. I would be against limiting the professor to a particular number of renewals at a particular institution; I would be against granting Senators life appointments. So there’s that. And besides that, I wouldn’t describe myself as in favor of abolishing tenure so much as strongly ambivalent about tenure; if I could snap my fingers and make that policy change, I don’t know that I would do it. And I am less leery about term limits than I was; if I could snap my fingers and institute a, say, four-term limit for the Senate, I don’t know that I wouldn’t. Although I would prefer to use that finger-snapping business as leverage for other changes that I think are more valuable, but that’s where the leer comes in, right?

But I don’t think Matt was getting at the specific differences in circumstances and policies. I think he’s looking at our instincts when it comes to job protection, democracy, conservativism (in the sense of preserving What Is), and the levels of leeriness in suggesting changes. Essentially, we both look at the tenure situation and see positives and negatives, and he is leery of change where I am willing to chance it; we both look at the Senate and see positives and negatives, and I am leery of change where he is willing to chance it. It’s not risk-aversion, it’s not the conservative temperament, and I’d be willing to suggest that it isn’t really the policy differences in the matter (much as I would be willing to argue that I am correct in both of my positions). So what is it?

Partially, of course, it’s that my Best Reader is at the moment Junior Faculty. Y’all know the joke about the scholar that has a heart attack and dies at the very moment the hood is placed over his head conferring the Ph.D.? At the gate of the Afterlife, he is told that while of course had he continued in his academic career, he would have been dispatched to the Bad Place, but since he expired just at the moment, they weren’t sure what to do with him. Eventually, he is told that he will have to choose his ultimate destination. Choose? he asks. I mean, isn’t it obvious? No, he is told, he should visit both and see which he prefers. So up he goes on a visitor’s pass, and it’s very nice. Harps, hosannahs, haloes. You know, nice. Not real exciting, but nice. And then he goes to the other place, again on a visitor’s pass, and you know what? It’s wonderful. It’s like the ultimate college, and the library? It has everything, everything ever written and a lot of stuff that was never published, and even more, there are all the great scholars and academicians, from his own advisor’s advisor’s advisor all the way back to Plato, and all the stuff they’ve been working on since passing to the other side. And they all sit around and talk about the work. And they are interested in his work, too, and have suggestions for collaboration and for resources he could use, and all of these conversations are over the most fantastic meal he’s ever had, eating and drinking and the life of the mind and when he is back at the gate turning in his visitor’s pass, he says I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I’d like to go to Hell, please. Well, there’s this, like, ultimate thunderclap, and blam-blam-blam there’s our deceased young friend in Hell, with torment, unspeakable torment, and flames, and ice, and demons jeering at him, and the howls of damned souls, and all of that, and he cries out in agony, he cries out Where is the library? Where is the meat and drink? Where are my colleagues? This is not what I was shown! and the voice that answers him says that was the interview, fool. Now you are junior faculty.

Which, you know, funny. But.

I’m saying that the problems with faculty tenure are connected to problems in my own daily life. I’m actually experiencing them. So, naturally, when I’m totting up costs and benefits, and weighting factors and risks and whatnot, I’m naturally going to weight those factors that I’ve seen with my eyes more heavily. Too heavily? Probably. Hard to tell, of course. How could I tell how heavily to weight the misery and waste of publish-or-perish? I see the people (not by Best Reader, so far) who have gone into the decision and come out busted, the university losing a good teacher (in at least four of the cases I personally know about, although to be fair, I don’t know that they are good teachers by any sort of objective metric, if such a thing exists) and the neighborhood losing a neighbor as the tenure-denied family packs up to go elsewhere, and all that. And did I mention selling the house? And in many of those cases, it seems to me that the problem is tenure, that the departments would, on the whole, be happy for the junior faculty member to keep teaching and going to committee meetings and all, but for tenure, well, they just don’t have the stuff for that.

Whereas, you know, the stuff about the Senate and term limits, while I do see the problems in theory, in practice there are very few bills that I am aware of as passing or not passing because of term limits, or cases where the bill that passes is significantly worse because of the lack of term limits. Is that because I’m just not paying attention? Or because I’m not working on the Hill, or married to somebody who is working on the Hill, with a bunch of other college buddies and siblings and other friends and acquaintances on the Hill as well. Or because the problem is trickier and more insidious, because the real problem is the committee chairs and their seniority-driven power to set the agendas, so that it rarely comes down to a vote and an old retrograde Senator who has rested on incumbency for a decade to publicly screw his constituents in that vote. Sure, all of that.

So I can make all the logical arguments in the world, and furthermore I can believe all of those arguments, and ever further all of those arguments can be right but that’s not why Matt and I have different instincts on these cases. Why is that other thing.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


A big question with respect to the abolition or the retention of tenure as a practice in institutions of higher learning has to do with context. What else would change? If the abolition of tenure were to come in isolation--nothing else changes except now we have six-year contracts instead of tenure, my response to the question, "Should tenure be abolished?" is a resounding HECK, NO! Now, say instead that the standard arrangement at institutions of higher learning is for all faculty to be members of unions, with UNION contracts rather than individual contracts, and a good grievance procedure and the right to strike and so on, then I would be a bit more sanguine about the abolition of tenure. Or, instead, say that there were actual, honest-to-God faculty GOVERNANCE, where faculty representatives actually had some decision-making capacity in the institution, rather than the mere right to advise. Then, maybe tenure would not be so important. But, absent unionization or governance reform that would shift power from trustees and the administrators to faculty, all that abolishing tenure would accomplish would be that administrators would have more control over the conditions of the faculty's work and the faculty would have less. Given that administrators have not, by and large, proved themselves to be enlightened, caring employers in their treatment of non-tenure track faculty, I can't see that making all faculty non-tenure track would be an advantage, except perhaps as a spur to unionization. And since the right to a union is denied to faculty at private institutions in the U.S. and the right to a union at state institutions varies depending upon state laws, tenure remains the only form of job security legally available for much of the professoriate.

There are all kinds of problems with the tenure system. But those problems need to be examined in the context of the whole system of academic labor, which has numerous problems. The tenure system contributes to those problems in some ways, but its invidiousness would be diminished if the rest of the system weren't so monumentally exploitative. If it weren't for tenure, the rest of the system might not have become so exploitative, but removing tenure now would in no way guarantee a reduction of exploitation in other parts of the system.

My assessment of all this is by no means disinterested, as I am a junior faculty member myself. I am currently at an institution whose tenure system appears to function well, and I hope it will continue to do so. I have also seen tenure systems that did not function well. In considering why tenure is denied, it is often the case that departments are supportive of a candidate, but administrators overrule the department's wishes. Cases of this sort do not give me confidence that contracts would create less of a stumbling block than tenure to employment stability for faculty.

I have actually not been aware of the tenure system malfunctioning (that is, not retaining the faculty that the admin wants to retain) so much as it lets the admin promote goals that I don't necessarily think are the right ones. That is to say: V, in the experiences where you have seen the university "lose a good teacher," did the school actually care about teaching? Most of my friends and acquaintances (who I believe are good teachers) who have been denied tenure have been at universities that, while they may have paid lip service to teaching, in the end didn't really care about it -- they cared about having world-class, prestigious research (which is very hard to pull off when you are junior faculty). By contrast, the good-teacher friends of mine who have chosen teaching-oriented schools have had a much, much easier time with tenure -- in fact I cannot think of a single person I know who has been denied tenure at a school that actually focuses on teaching.

Now, these friends have by and large been, I think, slightly looked down upon by general academia for their decision to mostly forgo the holy grail of research (one of my friends' advisors still continues to tell her she should do research because she'll be bored with teaching five years down the line and wonder if this is all she's doing with her life). So perhaps part of the problem is the, so-to-speak, societal expectations.

(The disclaimer I always have to state: that I live in a science-dominated bubble and know no humanities academics, so perhaps it's different there. I get the vague impression from my college years that it is a little worse, anyway.)

Chris, I would not go so far as to say that faculty should unionize in the absence of tenure, but I'm certainly supportive of the right to unionize. (I work at a company where there are no unions, and we are treated extremely well -- but I am aware that this is an outgrowth of living in a society where people can unionize.)

i'm torn between writing this as a full (but unintelligible) article of my own, or commenting here (in less internally thorough form). i mean, i guess that's always true, but i'd like to add a few new angles to the discussion.


* the (desirable, predictable, fair) downslope of US hegemony and the bookkeeping tricks extending its life,
* the upending of industrial practices and half-baked resource accounting,
* the thus-outdated cosmology of current campaign finance, lobbying, and staffing (captured by late-hour black box accounting), and
* the ensuing conflict between sunset and sunrise, let's say represented by stuck-up cold warriors and terrified planners.


* what the fall of the UAW implies for job stability in education: does the finance model really work? because
* even if your endowment survived, the collapse of america's assets puts future college students' ability/willingness to pay in serious question, and
* loans? paid by whom, when? oh, you mean the credit bubble...? and
* THIS WOULD BE A VERY GOOD TIME FOR ANOTHER G.I. BILL and that means "drive down tuition costs" and
* the cosmology of "in the great moderation, research was best applied to corporate profits" leaves something to be desired in the face of paradigmatic existential crisis

and public health care, or it all goes to hell.

If you define the function of the tenure system as retaining the faculty that the admin wants to retain then, sure, it's working fine. But, if so, then what's the point of tenure, since the administration is always essentially in a position to retain the faculty it wants to retain, except insofar as it lacks the resources to provide the salary and work environment desired by faculty who are ready and able to take a different position for more money or better working conditions?

The tenure system was created, in fact, precisely so that faculty retention would not be in the hands of the trustees of the university and the administrators they hire to manage the institutions. For a succinct description of the purposes and history of tenure, the wikipedia article on tenure--http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tenure--is a useful source, but the key point to note is that the major justification for the development of the tenure system was the preservation of academic integrity and that the group that defined the purposes of tenure was the AAUP--The American Association of University Professors. Administrators at some leading U.S. universities certainly played a substantial role in its adoption, but they did so in concert with the purposes for tenure articulated by the AAUP.

It is because I do not believe that the purpose of the tenure system is for the administration to retain the faculty that it wants to retain that I see cases where the faculty have supported a colleague for tenure but the administration has used or abused its role in the process to deny tenure to a faculty member supported by colleagues as failures of the tenure system.

As to the differences between the sciences and humanities--yes, they exist, and they are mostly an outgrowth of differences in the way in which publication works in the disciplines--but the tenure process is no fun for any but a select few who happen to be completely fulfilled by devoting their lives to research and who are blessed by extraordinary talent in doing so. I might note that the emphasis on research in tenure decisions is part and parcel of the corruption of the tenure system and of higher education in general, but that's a different subject. It's possible that the tenure system has exacerbated the emphasis on research, but I'd say that the emphasis on research (and, really, on publication) is rooted in the pursuit of money, prestige, and power by administrators and faculty, and the integrity of the tenure system is only one of many casualties of this pursuit.

*i'm talking about the old G.I. bill's scale, dragging the country into the modern era, not the "for soldiers only" of jim webb's (admirable) update.

eligibility comparison.

original bill: ~10% of US population
new bill: ~1%

Well, and if we're going to talk seriously about tenure/prestige, there's the fact that there are lots and lots and lots of places that are not going to be world-class, prestigious research universities but have tenure reviews that are weighted as if they were. As one easy category, take any institution that is a state school but not a flagship: a Northern Arizona or a UMass Boston or a UC Davis or any of several dozen others. Perhaps not the actual majority of college students, but a biggish minority at least. Fine schools, and there is fine research done, but the purpose of the school is to teach undergraduates, mostly, and some master's students. If they are not schools that focus on teaching, it is not because they are research institutions, but for some other reason entirely.

But the situation there, from everything I've heard, is that the Administration, acting as a body despite the individual misgivings of lots of the people within it, demands that Standards Be Maintained, which means that every Poli-Sci prof has to have a monograph published or out they go. To be replaced by another junior faculty sap trying to publish another monograph. I suspect, not having access to the data, that the percentage of courses at such institutions being taught by not-yet-tenured people has increased substantially in the last two decades or so, which is a Bad Thing, and not actually good for the prestige of the institution, although of course not bad for the payroll. Except the payrolls of the academic publishers, but that is yet another mine field.

Anyway. Whether the tenure process is supposed to work from the administration's perspective or the department's perspective, the fact is that they spend oodles of money on searches, hire some Bright Young Thing, make that person miserable for several years, and then with really astonishing frequency fire that person and do the whole thing again. That can't be right. It can't be right at all.

Now, as Chris so rightly says, pulling the tenure block out of the academic labor Jenga stack is not actually going to fix the systemic or cultural problems. And I would tend to agree that both the systemic and cultural problems would be helped by strong national organization of faculty unionization, which would need to be addressed statutorily, I suppose. Hmph.


Oh, and hapa--the problem is that I don't think that the stumbling block on an enormous GIBill or public health care for that matter is the accumulated power of Sens. Levin and Kennedy, or Byrd for that matter. I mean, yes, the generational thing is contributing to a bunch of problems, but when it gets down to (a) actual bills or (2) actual Senators, I'm not seeing it, myself.

Also, you put your finger on some ugly things about the economics of higher education generally, but then finger put on anything about the economics of higher education is likely to need washing. Eeegh.


In contrast to the above comments, I have a) an off-the-cuff opinion about 2) legislative term limits, that iii) veers almost entirely away from the topic at hand.

In short, I'm against them.

My beloved state, California, has implemented two great innovations of democratic accountability -- direct voter involvement via ballot initiatives and term limits for the state legislature. Both have the effect of directing political power away from our constitutionally-designated institutions and towards the unaccountable institutions of wealth, demagoguery, and patronage. We're recently being told (through ballot initiatives, natch) that all of this would be fixed if we would just complete the trifecta with legislative districting reform. Reflexively, I shudder.

i don't think seniority's blocking in the senate. i think the expense of winning a senate seat is partly defrayed/covered by incumbency, but the rest of the cost makes for conflicts of interest.

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