Lots of people are (and have been) talking about tenure, and so I figured, "what the heck? I might as well put in my two cents!"
I've actually been thinking a lot about tenure lately, and what tenure will mean to me when I (knock wood, cross fingers, etc.) get it. On the one hand, I really don't think I view tenure as some sort of brass ring that's going to be my crowning achievement within the profession. I have a friend who did see it that way, and this friend is still recovering from the let-down of tenure in reality. Indeed, tenure doesn't really change one's day-to-day life much. Most people I know don't have wildly different research agendas after tenure, nor do they make much more money, nor do they spend their free time much differently, nor do they all of a sudden become different people. So in one respect, I think that tenure's not going to make that big of a difference in my day-to-day world.
And yet, recently, I've started really looking forward to getting tenure. Why?
Tenure will mean the freedom not to worry about how what I do service-wise appears.
One of the reasons that I've been ambivalent (at best) about service over the past five years is because I've often felt like there was a mandate to serve in ways that had nothing to do with what I'm good at, what I care about, or what is interesting to me. But knowing that I needed to demonstrate performance across certain areas (regardless if it just meant sitting sullenly and silently in meetings and contributing nothing - all that mattered was the line on the cv, and a line indicating x kind of service was more important than a line that replicated y kind of service, if that makes sense), I often felt like I often sort of sucked at service things I took on, and I felt like I wasn't really engaged in the service that I took on. With tenure, I won't need to pay attention to those sorts of categories anymore. Now, that's not to say that I won't have to do crap that is annoying or frustrating, but I'll have the freedom to choose which annoying and frustrating things I do based on my own inclination as opposed to some weird chart where one has to fill in boxes for different kinds of service.
Tenure will mean that I can take a more active role in shaping the university.
Now, I've never been one to keep my mouth shut, and I have not conducted my time on the tenure track as a silent, inoffensive shadow who smiles pleasantly and keeps her opinions to herself. I know that's the advice that a lot of people get about how to conduct themselves on the tenure track, but my feeling was always that they hired me and not some wallflower, and well, if they didn't like that I speak up then maybe this wasn't the job for me. And my colleagues have been very supportive of my tendency to speak up and of my active engagement with issues of the day in our department. That said, I'm not insane. One does need to be strategic and to protect oneself while on the tenure track, and that means it's best not to serve on certain university-wide committees before tenure, and it's best not to take a leadership role in certain initiatives or programs, and it's best not to agitate for certain kinds of change. It's one thing to have a voice in my department and to do behind-the-scenes stuff with tenured colleagues on the front lines. But it will be nice to be confident that I can step out front and center and be more visible across the university without worrying that I could jeopardize my job. I want to be on the front lines. I want to be involved in the changes that will take place in the coming years at my institution in a visible and concrete way. And I'm looking forward to that opportunity and to the challenge of that kind of work. I'm looking forward to a situation in which covering my own ass isn't quite so central to the roles that I play.
Tenure will mean (I think) a certain confidence boost.
One of the most palpable things that I noticed upon starting on the tenure-track was how much more centered I felt about my abilities than I did as a graduate student because the tenure-track job "authorized" me - both in my own estimation and in the eyes of others. I suspect that something similar will happen with tenure and promotion. And yes, this is sort of a vague feeling that I've got, and I don't know that there's anything concrete to back it up, but it is a sense that I have about how I'll feel once tenure is achieved. I could be wrong.
Tenure will mean (overall) that my investment in this place will grow because I will be in a position where it makes sense to invest more.
I realize that's kind of a circular claim, but I think that this has been a primary thing with which I've struggled over the past five years. On the one hand, I'm the sort of person who likes to invest her energy in a social context, for lack of a better way of putting it. But during this time on the tenure track, I felt like it made sense to invest most not in what surrounded me but in the "me" that might not stay here. What investments I did make here were about my personal professional development, and I didn't really invest freely because I wasn't sure that this was where I'd be in any sort of long-term way. This had personal repercussions as well as professional, positive and negative. I'm looking forward to investing without thinking quite so much about whether it's personally advantageous to do so.
You'll notice in this list of thoughts that I've not once discussed "academic freedom" or the usual things that come up in discussions of tenure. Well, here's the thing: I do believe that tenure secures academic freedom, but not in a simple cause and effect sort of way. I do not see the majority of scholars running out after tenure and setting the world on fire with their controversial course offerings or their dangerous new areas of research. Also, I already feel like I have academic freedom where I work, and I don't have tenure. So if those two things are true, what does tenure have to do with academic freedom? Well, look at the list of things I'm excited about related to getting tenure. All of those things are about participating fully in shared governance, in developing the curriculum of our university, in having a stake in the values and goals of the university, and in helping to shape the kind of institution at which I work. And so let's say that all tenured faculty (to different extents, obviously) take on this sort of a role when they get tenure. They then are in a position to foster a culture of academic freedom at an institution and that culture affects everybody connected with the university - tenured and untenured, students, administrators, staff, adjuncts, you name it. Now, no university is perfect, and sure, there are hierarchies that put limits on freedom, but without a core of employees invested in the future of the institution - because that future of the institution is intimately bound to their own future - fostering a culture of academic freedom takes a backseat to looking out for one's own interests and to putting the bottom line ahead of more abstract concerns like, say, "freedom." The fact of the matter is that no multiyear contract would inspire me in the way that tenure does to want to invest myself in this institution. How do I know? Because that's what I've got now, and for the past five years, my own self-interest has driven all of my decisions about my professional life. With tenure, it's not like my self-interest flies out the window, but my self-interest will become bound to the university in a way that it currently isn't.
Ultimately, this is the allure of tenure for me, and it's what I think is most positive about the way I see tenure working at my institution. This is not to say that the tenure process at some institutions isn't screwed up, or that even at my own institution that the tenure process plays out this way for all people. Tenure can mean that people check out entirely, or it can mean that people spread their poisonous negativity around because they no longer fear retribution or negative personal consequences. Tenure can mean that a university is filled with dead wood faculty who no longer give a shit about their own professional lives or about the university. Sure, all of that is true. But ultimately I believe in the tenure process because I see tenured colleagues who have not checked out, who are deeply invested not only in their own professional achievements but in our university and the surrounding community, and who do a lot of hard and often invisible work to continue to make our university better. It's tenured faculty members at my university who've fought for partner benefits, who've fought for benefits for adjuncts, who've fought for greater transparency in the tenure process. It's tenured faculty who make sure that things other than the bottom line go into administrative decision-making.
Would faculty have a similar investment if they were all on multiyear contracts that stipulated provisions for "academic freedom"? Maybe, but I kind of doubt it. Would unionization provide the same sort of protections that tenure provides? Perhaps, but a) laws in my state stipulate that the state doesn't have to negotiate with unions, so that certainly wouldn't work here and b) it also wouldn't provide the inspiration that tenure can provide to give back to the institution. Would there be problems with the pay scale in academia if the tenure system were not in place, particularly in historically low-paying disciplines like mine? There sure would be, because the only saving grace for me with the coming recession is the job security that tenure will (fingers crossed, salt thrown over the shoulder, a quick Hail Mary) bring. There would also be problems with the national and highly specialized job market in academic fields, as if your contract wasn't renewed, it isn't like you could just get the same job down the road, which is how it works in other professions, and which also would be a huge problem in times of economic downturn, as the easiest way to deal with budget cuts would be to eliminate some of the people on multiyear contracts, and it could actually amplify the adjunct problem because ultimately, why not just have ONLY adjuncts and get rid of multiyear contracts altogether?
Maybe I'm just not seeing the big picture here. Or maybe I've been brainwashed by a system that has to this point been pretty good for me personally. Or maybe it's just that the tenure process at my university is really pretty good. Or maybe I'm just a weirdo. Hard to say. That said, I suppose I wanted to speak on behalf of tenure from the perspective of somebody who's nearing the end of the process and who doesn't feel brutalized by it.