Some things that I find troubling about the discussion about tenure's ill effects and the prospect of eliminating it as it now stands:
- I feel like it's lame that untenured junior faculty or recently tenured folks seem to be left out of the conversation.
- Those who talk about doing away with tenure, as far as I've seen (though I could have missed something, obviously) by and large aren't presenting specific ideas about what would replace it. (Though The Constructivist, Professor Zero, and Lumpenprofessoriat do weigh in more in this direction, though to be fair, all of these plans don't do away with tenure and in Professor Zero's case tenure would be extended rather than limited.)
- People assume that the tenure process is jacked up for all people - that all people are victimized by it. They also assume (it seems) that the tenure process is the same across institutions or at least institutional types. This then leads to the sweeping, "let's get rid of tenure!" battle cry, and then people respond with, "no! people need the freedom they get post-tenure!" and the discussion doesn't go anyplace real.
Let me be clear about my own position here: I think it is idiocy to consider in any serious way doing away with tenure in this profession. I think that it would be bad for those of us in the profession, bad for our institutions, bad for students, and bad for higher education generally. I've got reasons for believing all of these things, but I'm going to table my discussion of those until later. Nevertheless, I figured that I should just come out with my position before moving forward.
All of that being said, I want to experiment with the idea of what I think would need to happen to get rid of tenure and yet to preserve the things that I believe are intrinsic to effective post-secondary education. And the only way to do that is to talk about specifics, so perhaps the best place to begin is with my job (its expectations, its duties, etc.) as well as the tenure process, as well as the performance review process, as it works here. We've got to know what we've got now in order to talk about how to improve upon it by doing away with it.
My institution: My institution is in a state of transition, but, I've got to say, I think it's in a very thoughtful and so-far-well-executed state of transition. Historically (though it's not been a terrifically long history) we've been a teaching institution. We've served a primarily local student population, and only in recent years have we been attracting students from further afield. The teaching load is 4/4. After teaching, service is valued, followed by research. This remains true, even as we change. Yes, more research is required now than has been, but we know who we are, and we're not aiming, at least as things now stand, to strive toward research university status. Like pretty much every university, we rely a good deal on part-time and full-time non-tenure-track faculty. The primary role for that portion of the faculty is to teach. They don't develop curriculum or participate in a significant way in university governance or policy-making. Some of the permanent full-timers do some service, but it's very limited. In terms of performance review, they do not have to demonstrate in the areas of service and research in the way that tenure-track and tenured faculty do.
So. Let's move to what my job requirements have been on the tenure-track.
Teaching: I teach four classes per semester with three preps, unless I can get a course release, and if I can (and I've had good luck with this), I teach three classes with three preps. I have designed around 10 courses since I've been here. Most of my courses have 22-25 students; senior-level courses in my specialization have 20, but usually the enrollment is closer to 15. My lower-level courses always max out. I hold 1 office hour per week per course, but many of my students have outside commitments that mean office hours don't work for them. I'd estimate that during heavy times of the semester (like now) I probably spend about 8 hours per week meeting with students, in addition to the time I spend in the classroom. So in a typical semester (without release time) I'd have approximately 85 students, which translates to approximately 170 pages of formal student writing, plus informal writing and in-class stuff, plus exams and tests to grade. In addition to this in this academic year I'm advising an honors thesis. I also advised another thesis a few years back.
Advising: I've got 25 advisees, and I probably meet with about 7 or so per semester. (We don't require students to get advising every semester.) Advising meetings typically take about a half hour a piece. I also help run an advising meeting we do for majors, which means about three hours of work/time commitment.
Service: I serve on one departmental committee and one university-wide committee consistently. In addition to that, I typically serve on 2-3 additional committees a year (whether ad hoc or whatever - it changes). In addition to that, I judge a bunch of writing contests, I advise a student publication, I do some stuff for another program on campus, I give 1 or 2 talks to the community per year. I'm also an officer in a professional organization, I've served as a referee for a journal, and I'd imagine there's other stuff I'm forgetting. I'd also include in this category going to things like department meetings or receptions and events and things for students or for faculty. (You'll notice: junior faculty at this institution are not protected from service, so the idea that all junior faculty are protected from service so that we can publish or perish is just not how it works at all institutions.)
Research: Ok, so I've been a bit insane in this category given my institution. The minimum requirements for tenure are 2 conferences per year (and they can be local, though national/international conferences are regarded favorably) and one peer-reviewed journal article over the course of one's time on the tenure-track. Now, I've got the book coming out this year, and I've got one major journal article, a few small articles, a review, a collection article that languishes... Yeah, I've done more than is expected. And everybody recognizes it as that. I'm in no way typical. Also, non-traditional publications (creative, textbooks, etc.) count for tenure and promotion here, and they are regarded favorably at performance review.
Now, the tenure process:
We turn in the binder every stinking year. It goes all through the whole chain of command, as in I get a letter of approval for reappointment from the Board of Trustees every year. Sometimes, this has felt like an unnecessary burden. Looking back, yay for my institution! This means that one knows where one stands throughout the process! Even when requirements change, you hear about it before the end of your time! It is marvelous! Incidentally, there is no university-wide P&T committee. It goes to a department committee, then to the chair, then the dean, then the provost, then the Board. Very streamlined. When you begin on the tenure-track, you choose a tenured mentor who looks at your book and gives you advice and stuff, and each year the chair of the dept. P&T committee meets with you to give you feedback. I get annoyed because most feedback I get is about my scrapbooking ability, but I think this means that I'm cool as far as the content goes :)
The performance review process:
This, too, happens each and every year, and it's a separate process from P&T. I'm most especially looking forward to tenure so that I'll only have to deal with being evaluated once a year and not twice. You fill out your activity report for the chair, he reviews it and summarizes it, you meet and discuss, everybody signs off on it. Very straightforward, and again, you know exactly how you're doing. All of the parts of what you do are recognized, and you make goals each year for each of the three major areas.
Ok. So let's imagine, just for kicks, that we were to eliminate tenure at my institution. Instead, we embrace multiyear contracts for all. How might this, logistically, work?
1. Add a layer of administration.
See, all of that work that tenured faculty do to evaluate their peers can't really happen under a multiyear system. Instead, you'll need to have people whose job it is to evaluate, in order to keep the process honest. If you have people evaluating their peers (presumably in years when they weren't up for evaluation), the investment would be in renewing everyone so that when it was their own turn others would return the favor.
2. Faculty would also probably have to be specialized in terms of day-to-day job duties in ways that they now aren't. Instead of being jacks of all trades, doing work in each of the three areas as opportunities arose, faculty would most likely need to, at least per contract period, choose an area of emphasis. This would be to make the evaluation criteria more obvious for this new class of administrators. So you'd probably have to pick: I'm going to focus on service in the next five years, and that will mean serving on x # of department/university committees, teaching x service learning course, and do x service in the community (for example). Let's then say that the opportunity came along to present at an international conference or that you had this great idea for a new course? Well, that wouldn't be in your five-year plan, and if you pursued it, you might get fired at the end if it compromised your focus area. Further, in order for a university to run, you need people working in all areas. So some people will have to be forced to be teaching-focused or research-focused (if we say the service focus is what people would want, which it isn't). Then, because of this, different classes of faculty would emerge. The research faculty would get lots of resources (because they bring the high profile) and the teaching faculty? Not so much. But, you say, the way to eliminate that would be to have a rotation for people. Every five years you switch, so that means every 10 years you get to focus on research. This would be a fair approach to the problem. It would totally fuck up any research program, but that's ok. It would make sense in terms of fairness and equity and transparency.
3. The year-long academic market wouldn't really work, otherwise people would be out of a job for a full year if they weren't renewed. Or, I suppose another option would be that people could just go on the market every 5 years, regardless of whether one was happy with one's job or not. Think about the energy that takes, folks. The energy that it would take away from the work of the current place of employment. Having been on the market in a very limited way in the past couple of years, I can tell you, a full-on market run every five years might kill me (a) and if everybody at my university was doing it, it might kill the entire institution. And would we all move all the way across the country every five years? Is that in any way reasonable? Another thing: you can't really have faculty members doing searches because (a) it wouldn't be part of their contract decided upon 3 years ago, (b) it would be in their best interest not to hire somebody who might take away their job come renewal time, and so self-interest would dictate that they'd choose people who didn't threaten them. You think this is a problem now with old guard tenured faculty and junior hires? I suspect it would pale in comparison.
4. There would have to be much less specialization in the disciplines, because the curriculum couldn't support specialization, since you couldn't count at a given time on having somebody to fulfill specialized curricular needs. Instead of hiring an expert on Shakespeare, it would be more beneficial to hire generalists who can fill whatever gaps non-renewed contracts would create. This would compromise faculty research (how can you create new knowledge when you're all over the map and barely expert in the stuff you spend most of your time teaching?) and it would compromise students' engagement with the material. Now, you might argue that students don't "need" such a specialized education. But if college isn't "specialized education" then what is it? Why go to college if you're not going to get that? Wouldn't a high school diploma do the job?
5. How are you going to attract people to do this job, especially in high demand technical fields? Forget us English folks. We're idiots. We'll do anything and you don't even have to give us a living wage for us to do it. And even forget the high-demand technical people. We'll pay them a gajillion dollars or something. But who in God's creation would be an accounting professor under these conditions? And so who is going to teach people to be accountants if nobody will?
I could go on, but I'm tiring myself out. And I've not even addressed the issue of academic freedom. But you know what? I don't think I care that I haven't. Academic freedom to me is the least salient point in this discussion. The point is, unions don't solve these logistical problems. It may be true that universities do not run efficiently, in the way of companies in the World of Business. Their procedures are complicated, the bureaucracy is often insane, and well, it's not perfect. BUT. And this is a big but. What do we sacrifice if we attempt to look more like a company or a factory? And who pays for that sacrifice? (Hint: it's not just academics - it's our communities, our students, and, indeed, taxpayers.)
The system as it is now designed is unwieldy, sure, and some people are fucked up by it (and fucked over by it). I'm not denying that. But the system as it is now designed, if it is functional at a particular institution, also allows for people to follow their intellectual and social (in the sense of service to the community, university, profession) interests, to play to their strengths and to take opportunities as they come along, and to grow as people as well as to perform as workers. I'll tell you: I felt much more brutalized by graduate school than I have by being on the tenure-track, and I'm not in some "dream job" when you look at it on paper. So if the tenure process at an individual institution isn't working, I'd say that the answer isn't to call for an end to tenure everywhere. (I'd say it's to fix tenure at that institution, but that's just me.) And I don't think that to abolish tenure fixes the adjunct problem, either, at the end of the day. (And let me just note, I do think that the reliance on adjunct labor is a huge problem, and so I'm not arguing from my position of privilege, which I acknowledge that I have, that it isn't. I'm just saying that doing away with tenure wouldn't necessarily improve the lot of adjuncts.)
But tell me. Am I missing something? How would this whole doing away with tenure thing work? How would your university run if it did away with tenure? What would your job look like? And if you think it would be a good thing, why do you think so? I'm seriously asking here - not being snarky. But I just don't see it, and I'd really like it if somebody could make me see how it would work.