Thursday, April 03, 2008

So Let's Talk about Doing Away with Tenure

I mentioned earlier this week that I wanted to post about this, and now seems like as good a time as any. I talked a bit about my thoughts on tenure last week, but apparently those thoughts weren't interesting enough to be included in this blog-based reportage from IHE (maybe because my thoughts wouldn't fit with the headline?) and then there was the news of the Baylor tenure denials, and then Tenured Radical posted again, lamenting the fact that this conversation isn't really addressing the question: "what is the effect of the tenure process on young scholars, and how do we protect their academic freedom?" (among other things).

Some things that I find troubling about the discussion about tenure's ill effects and the prospect of eliminating it as it now stands:

  1. I feel like it's lame that untenured junior faculty or recently tenured folks seem to be left out of the conversation.
  2. 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.)
  3. 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.
The thing that's tough is that there are some pretty good reasons why all of the above happen. Junior faculty get left out of the conversation precisely because we tend not to say too much very openly about the issue, or when we do it's on blogs like this one, which is disconnected from a professional identity. People don't present specifics in part because specifics would a) identify them unduly or b) because of #3. People make broad sweeping claims precisely because they're not familiar with tenure systems not their own (or not like their own). So yes, I get why these things happen in the discussion. But if we're going to talk about it, let's really fucking talk about it. Let's try to get specific, and if enough people get specific, then maybe this can be more than a titillating headline on IHE.

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.


LumpenProf said...

Very nice post. I agree with you that getting rid of tenure is a very bad idea. There may be lots of things broken about the system at lots of universities, but that doesn't mean tenure itself is the problem.

It struck me in reading this post that some of the arguments against tenure mirror the arguments against big government one hears from some conservatives -- they point to the worst run government programs and then use those as reasons why government itself is bad. Of course, we know what you get from folks who believe you can't have good government is even worse government. I shudder to think what the effects would be on higher education if such views about tenure won the day.

Susan said...

My experience, when we had multi-year contracts, was this: when you first were hired, you had three one year contracts. Then you went to a three year contract, and then a 5 year contract. A system like that mirrors the tenure system; if your contract was more than a year, you were notified in the penultimate year that you were denied. (Again, mirroring the AAUP guidelines, but without tenure.)

It seems to me that it would not be impossible to have a contract system and have faculty on 5 year contracts (or 7 or whatever) doing the reviews. That is, you wouldn't need to have a level of administrators.

That's not to say, however, with the corporate types so prevalent in contemporary higher education that you wouldn't GET the kind of administrative structure you speak of.

I'm totally with you. It's all well and fine to say that education needs to meet the needs of the 21st century blah blah blah, but these cries are ones that tend to have very short term conceptions of education -- they are really interested in training. And I don't think we want education that doesn't value the past. (But then I'm a historian...)

Catrala said...

Another thing that occurred to me that one would need to consider in getting rid of tenure is what that would do to graduate education. As it is, unless something like the Apocalypse happens, my diss adviser will be here at least until I finish up. How would one structure that in a contract world? I know that people now have advisers leave, drop them, and generally not be good at what they're supposed to be doing. But - I can see a systemic disaster looming for grad students and completion times under the contract scenario.


Second Line said...

One of the four schools at which I regularly teach, an Arts university, has already effectively done away with tenure. In any given department, there remain a few tenured faculty, but they're all very near retirement.

So how does it work? First there is a graduated system of 1, 3, and finally, 5 year contracts -- 5 years is as good as it ever gets. Each department has a chair or head who has either reached or, as a result of experience, been hired at the 5-year plateau. Like the corporate world, this head functions like the head of a department or unit within a corporte system. In other words, the head of, say, liberal arts (they lump them all together here) is more or less equivalent to a head of a corporate department. And they ultimately handle the reviews and evaluations and the renewals.

The criteria for renewal vary from department to department. But for the most part, the bottom line is effective teaching. For the most part, in liberal arts, they don't really care about publication. In the case of the arts faculty, the priority is effective teaching; exhibitions, shows, or recordings are considered, but not very much.

Believe it or not, it does work.

Dr. Crazy said...

SL: From what it sounds like you're describing an arts institute or something like it? And also you're in quite an attractive part of the country, many would say. I can see where in that setting the graduated contracts could work, particularly for faculty who were not expected to (or supported in) doing any research whatsoever. I'm also thinking size of institution/dept. makes a difference, as does mission of the university. Where I can see this being workable for a school of 1400 in your location, I'm not sure how it would work at a school of 14,000 in a less desirable location. Also, if faculty across disciplines are supposed to collaborate with undergrads on research (as just one example) a model where faculty "just teach" doesn't work, and research output as well as service stuff is how we convince the state to fund us, which is another consideration for a public institution.

You know, responding to this comment has reminded me of something that struck me about your comment to the last post that I wrote about tenure and to which i had meant to respond. You said something about most of what I wrote being about "good citizenship." See, that's the thing - it sort of is, but it's my *job* as it now stands to be a good citizen. It goes with the gig. Maybe I'm a self-serving selfish jerk, but I suspect that if it became about meeting terms of a contract that I would be very careful not to extend myself beyond that contract or to deviate from it. Growing up with the background that I did, my impulse is to tow the line and to do what's expected - but not more. And certainly not out of the kindness of my heart. At my institution, because the tenure process works as it does, I've been... nurtured... in a direction where I'm not quite so limited in the way that I think about work. In other words, if you put me on a multiyear contract and I knew that the "bottom line" was effective teaching, I'd do what it took to achieve the benchmark they expected and tell those students who wanted me to advise a publication no dice, and I'd stop participating in a lot of the committees that I work on. Why? Because it wouldn't be valued. And I'm a lot of things, but a martyr isn't one of them. I'd feel bad for a second about denying students, but really, I wouldn't lose much sleep over it, I suspect. Why? Because I'd be able to say, "well, my job is to teach them in the classroom, and I do a good job of that," and then I'd go home and think no more about it. Maybe not everybody would be like this, but I suspect a good many people would be.

Anyway, I digress. Thanks for your comment, though. I think it demonstrates what I meant about how this not being a one-size-fits-all sort of a question and so the answers couldn't be either.

New Kid on the Hallway said...

Quick because I'm supposed to be on my way somewhere: I don't agree with #2, that people would have to be that focused for their 5-year period or whatever, or that evaluators would be so rigid as not to allow changes if the serendipitous opportunity appears; I guess I just don't see why not having tenure would require you to plan out the next (say) 5 years any differently and specialize in the way that you suggest. Can you explain why you think that would be required?

As for #3, I would assume non-renewal would create the same situation it does now, where you get a terminal year, so you do have that shot on the market and you're not out of a job for a full year. I haven't seen anyone suggest that non-renewal of a non-tenured contract means you have to pack up your desk the very next day.

(Will try to come back and read the comments sometime later!)

David said...

While the corporate world doesn't have tenure, they do basically operate on the system that you have a job until you don't. The hard part of a transferring that presumption to academe is our schedule. You can't really fire a lazy, incompetent faculty member in the 13th week of the semester. So that's out of the door.
The only alternate method that makes any sense to me would be if the faculty shifted to a guild-style system, wherein you work your way up through the guild and the university contracts through the guild for your services. You keep health insurance and retirement, irrespective of where you teach, but you evaluated on your time in the guild not the institution itself.
Obviously this doesn't solve all the problems, but I do wonder if it might work at teaching institutions. The biggest criticism of tenure in teaching schools is that it prevents the school from reacting quickly to changes in demand and faculty are often unwilling to take up and entirely new subject area (with good reason). The guild would allow the school to shift its resources quickly and provide a fall back for faculty who have become irrelevant to either re-invent themselves or simply transition out of the academy (I hear academics make good insurance salespeople).
Research schools simply must have tenure, other systems don't make sense.

Astroprof said...

Tenure has its up sides and its down sides. Overall, though, I support the concept. We all know of faculty that worked hard and did a good job until they got tenure and then slacked off and are now dead wood. But, at most places, they are a minority. Tenure may discourage changing jobs, but that has advantages for the institution. It also can promote loyalty among faculty. Tenure allows for academic freedom. Tenure allows faculty to uphold high standards without worrying that they will lose their jobs if too many students fail or get poor grades. If we did not have tenure, you can rest assured that some institutions would be looking to implement policies to remove faculty who are tough or who don't pass everyone regardless of their learning. Just look at what is going on in our public schools. But, tenure also allows faculty to take an active roll in university governance without fear of retribution. (Yeah, I know that there are ways to hit people without actually firing them, but you know what I mean.)

Overall, tenure is good for faculty, good for students, and good for the institution. However, we all know of abuses of the system, both in terms of faculty who get tenure and then don't do their job well, and in terms of qualified people being denied tenure on trumped up excuses. Rather than doing away with tenure, we need to fix what is wrong with it.

Dr. Crazy said...

To respond to the comments I didn't get to before:

L: Thanks :) I actually agree some of these arguments against tenure do seem to have much in common with conservative arguments against big government. That's why I'm always surprised when people talk about getting rid of tenure as a radical proposition. More radical is Profacero's proposition of hiring everybody with tenure and your 7 years to tenure proposition. (I should note that probably one reason why this process has been positive for me is that it's not going to be longer than 7 years, barring any unforeseen glitches. I imagine my perspective might be different had I been in a few VAPs or adjuncting for years before I reached this point.)

To Susan and New Kid: You're right - if people had the lame duck year then they wouldn't have the unemployed for a year problem. But I'd imagine that carries problems with it, too, much like it does now. First, if the lame ducks stay around, they'd have no incentive to do their job well and could be a really negative presence at the university during that time. (Not saying this would definitely be the result, just that it's something to consider.) Second, if people chose to leave rather than to do the lame duck year, there wouldn't be time to get somebody in on a multiyear contract to replace the person (if the disciplines remain specialized as they are now), so that would mean hiring a VAP or an adjunct to do the job. Then, just as with t-t lines, the multiyear line could be lost, right? (This is one reason why I'm not sure how doing away with tenure would help with the adjunctification of higher ed. The year-long job cycle combined with how "permanent" lines are funded seem to me to be at odds, and this is how lines get lost, esp. in times when there are budget crises.)

Catrala: I agree that this would have a profound impact on grad education. That said, to be fair, if the shape of higher education changed totally and people were less specialized then perhaps having a specific individual adviser to guide one through one's PhD would be less paramount? Hmm. I don't know the answers to this one.

New Kid again: My thoughts on #2 come out of discussions that were occurring at my institution about the potential of differential workload, so may very well not be applicable in all contexts. Here's where I'm coming from, though. Such a system of multiyear contracts would mean that the burden of assessment of faculty would increase - rather than just having to assess the t-t faculty, assessment in renewal years would be (though perhaps my imagination is limited here) like a mini-tenure-bid. If people's jobs aren't more concretely defined in the contracts, that would make the process quite onerous, even if a way was found to have peers in one's department still doing the review. In order to streamline the process, and to have assessment measures that would be in a form that could be presented to accrediting agencies and the state, it strikes me that departments would have to find a way to show that they were hitting the various goals handed down to them by the administration in order to justify the renewals that they recommended. Again,this is the way our discussion about differential workload (which never came to pass) was framed, and so that's where the idea came from in my head in relation to this. It may be possible to have a more flexible evaluation system, but I don't see how it would work in a way that could be easily and efficiently be communicated without a bit more structure and without doing away with some flexibility. Basically, it would be like having to complete program review every single year in order to make sense of renewals and dismissals. That's a lot of additional bureaucracy (and I'm at a place with a lot of bureaucracy as it is).

David: I could see where the guild idea could be a solution.... Though I wonder whether getting into the guild (kind of like getting into a trade union) would become its own hoop to jump through, much like getting tenure. I don't know. I need to think this through more carefully. I am leery, though, of saying that teaching institutions somehow are less in need of tenure than research institutions. I fear the repercussions that this would have across higher education, devaluing the degrees of students who don't go to the "best" universities. Also, what would we do with schools that are very strong in some particular research areas and less strong in others? (I'm thinking, for example, of a school that would primarily be known for its engineering program, for example, but where the liberal arts works primarily to serve general education stuff.)

Anyway, thanks for the comments everybody! I feel like this is a great discussion, and I'm really interested in how you're all pushing against my entirely speculative claims in the post :)

Second Line said...

Dr. C -- Thanks for the thoughtful response. And I have no argument per se with anything you say. It's ironic, though, that you basically describe my outlook on my job, though I tend to articulate it in economic terms. If I am being paid roughly 1/4 of what I am worth -- according to the general pay scale for full-time and tenured folks with a Ph.D. -- then I basically give them 25% of what I otherwise could give. It's the notion that "you get what you pay for." Pay me more and I will give more.

As for how this translates into my day to day performance, you nailed it. In class my students get 110% of me. Outside of class, they get as little as I can get away with. And it all seems to work just fine. Yes, I often get asked by students to do indepenednet studies -- just last week someone asked me to do one on Foucault -- but I never do them. I won't be paid anything extra, and the department doesn't care whether I do it or not. Sure, it's flattering, but I've been doing this long enough to nopt be too seduced by that.

But this isn't the point I want to make. I know I've said this before, but no one addresses it: the fact is, tenure is already being eroded. Many departmetns already operate under 4 to 1 or 5 to 1 ratios of adjuncts to tenured, and with each new retirement, the ratio takes another step toward I think is inevitable. Now maybe people just think I'm crazy or they think what I describe is just too outlandish. And yet, it's happening. I really do not think it's implausible that in some not-too-distant future, you and two or three freinds will be the only tenured faculty left in your department amidst a sea of adjuncts.

I realize no administrator is ever going to announce this trend as a bona fide policy. But then, they don't really have to. It happens an inch at a time, or rather, one retirement at a time. And this isn't a fictional or speculative claim. Of the four schools at which I teach two already have no tenured faculty; at the others, with every retirement, two or three new adjuncts are hired. Oh sure, the chair makes an effort and says to the dean we need to do a search to find a replacement for so-and-so, and the dean says yes, absolutely, let me get back to you next semester, and somehow it all gets forgotten and one more tenured line is gone.

Again, this isn't fiction or paranoia. I see it happening all the time. And iot won;t stop unless the tenured faculty at any given institution actually mobilize and do something. But they won't. They never have and they never will. And this is why I keep arguing that we ought to just jump ahead to the inevitable. Cease granting tenure and start hiring the adjuncts on serial full time contracts.

Dr. Crazy said...

Quickly, because I'm actually attempting to get writing done today:

Astroprof: Thanks for your comment. As you might suspect, I pretty much agree with all you say. Your comment crossed my last one.

SL: I actually don't think that what you describe is outlandish (though - luckily - this does not at all seem to be the trend at my institution, where we've added t-t and permanent f-t lines in the past ten years in addition to those that already existed and where that seems as if it will continue to be the trend), but I think that's why it's worth actually thinking in concrete and pragmatic ways both about fixing the tenure system if possible so that it doesn't happen OR to think in concrete and pragmatic ways about what an alternative to that system might be. I'm not a fan of letting this happen to higher education under the radar, nor am I a fan of so-called radical endorsements of getting rid of tenure that come from people in higher education that don't offer specific ideas about what would replace it. There *is* a lot wrong with how the labor of higher education is conceived and managed, but my thought is, let's stop moaning about it and really start working toward some specific solutions. (And, I'd argue that given differing institutional contexts we need solutions that integrate unionizing efforts with other strategies, given different state laws, the constraints of unionization at private universities, etc.)

Rent Party said...

Brilliant post and really interesting comments thread. I don't really have a lot to add except to say that the problems in the tenure system reflect the problems in the "academy" generally, and even more generally, the problems in organizations. The tenure system isn't the *cause* of these problems, although as I say, it does reflect them.

StyleyGeek said...

You might be interested to know that Australian universities HAVE done away with tenure. And almost every prediction you make has been borne out.

At the moment (1) is not true - there is no extra layer of administration. But that is because there are still older faculty who are tenured (they just don't tenure new people anymore). So the heads of dept evaluating younger faculty to decide about renewing contracts usually are still the tenured ones.

(2) I don't know how it works in other universities, but our university has a "research school" and a "faculty" for each discipline. If you are hired by the research school, you do research only. If you are hired by the faculty, you mostly teach and do service (although there are still research expectations).

(3) We don't have a year-long academic market in Australia. Rather at any given time, there are a handful of jobs available across the country. It means you can look for work any time, but also that there is never a feeling that there is much out there.

(4) We currently have a situation in our dept where all the old profs who have tenure are specialists, and all the younger faculty are generalists. In the next three years, many of the specialists will retire, and there is much wailing and gnashing of teeth, since we need to hire people with their specialities, but not ONLY with their specialities, because we can't afford to replace all of them. So really, we need to hire someone with five specialities AND who can teach the big generic undergrad classes.

5. Yeah, we're idiots too. There are plenty of people lining up to work in our dept even without the lure of tenure. The holy grail has now become "renewable contracts". Everyone wants one of those. Most of what are offered, though, are three year non-renewable contracts. Because after three years, you might be up for promotion, and then the university would have to pay you more. Better to hire someone else low level at that point.

StyleyGeek said...

Oh, and Dr Crazy, the incentive to be a "good citizen" does still exist under a non-tenure system - in fact, it may be stronger, because at any given moment, you might be out on your ass in then next three years (not even through any fault of your own - the university might just choose to cut staff numbers). And then you need glowing recommendation letters from former colleagues, and an impressive CV to have a chance of getting another job at another institution.

Belle said...

What I think is particularly valuable in this wonderful post is your clear delineation of the reqs and expectations of your job. This context then clarifies your stance and outlook.

My SLAC has tenure, and other than the English dept (!) and KES relies only slightly on adjuncts. The job market is so bad that we never seem to have problems finding people willing to work for very little in a less than desirable place. Tenure is one of the few incentives we can (and do) offer; even at our low salaries, that security entices candidates.

The biggest tenure-related problem on our campus is the long-time tenured faculty who are the dead wood. They are here until they die, as retirement isn't an attractive option for many. Since they came in and were tenured in an environment in which service wasn't an option and teaching was the be-all-end-all, they get to stick with that expectation. While the environment and expectations have changed radically, they do not. Thus, anyone that's been hired in the past 20 years picks up the service load, the old-timers avoid it and newbies get slammed. A familiar story, I'm sure.

Professor Zero said...

Great post - I agree that landscape
without tenure would be more or less the one you describe and I'm glad someone has thought this out and written it down, it's very helpful.

This point in Lumpenprof's comment strikes me as very astute, so I want to underline it:

"It struck me in reading this post that some of the arguments against tenure mirror the arguments against big government one hears from some conservatives -- they point to the worst run government programs and then use those as reasons why government itself is bad. Of course, we know what you get from folks who believe you can't have good government is even worse government. I shudder to think what the effects would be on higher education if such views about tenure won the day."

The Constructivist said...

Really find the post and discussion incredibly valuable. Thanks for doing the former and starting the latter. Just wanted to let you know that Craig Smith of AFT and I have been having an intermittent dialogue on extending the tenure system, which I hope you'll join in on. (IHE seems to like my tongue-in-cheek posts better than my serious ones.) We're really just thinking aloud, not (yet) taking positions.

I guess the ideal in my head is that whatever the size or kind or mission of the college or university, everyone teaching in it should have the equivalent of a tenurable, unionized job at a wealthy SLAC--we'd see very little reliance on contingent academic labor to do the work of the university; we'd see people well-compensated for that work; and we'd see reasonable teaching loads and class sizes, lots of professor-student interaction, and a strong sense of community and commitment. (That at least was my experience going to one of 'em in my undergrad days, minus the faculty union, of course.)

So my questions are: 1) do other people find this vision attractive? 2) what would it take to get there? (or to your vision?)

Dean Dad said...

Sorry to come so late to the conversation. There's a lot here, but a few things need responses.

Sailorman adequately addressed point 1.

Under point 2, any evaluation system -- tenure or not -- has to be flexible enough to recognize when needs change. There's nothing stopping you from going to your evaluator person in year two, informing her of the nifty opportunity you just received, and working out a different measure. That's far easier than, say, trying to psych out the P&T committee three years in the future.

Under point 3, there's no reason the renewal-or-nonrenewal decision couldn't be made in the penultimate year. (Say, in the fourth year of a five year contract.) This is actually how most tenure denials work now, so there's ample precedent.

Under point 4, specialization is a non-issue for community colleges.
We don't need specialists.

Under point 5, I don't know why apologists for tenure seem to think that nobody wants to pay decent salaries. We pay what we have to. If we suddenly have to pay more, we will. This ain't rocket science.

I'll turn the tables. Let's assume the existence of dead wood. What's your proposal for dealing with it?

Dr. Crazy said...


1) Sailorman? I don't know what you're talking about.

2) If it's a 5-year contract then a new opportunity would mean that you need to renegotiate the contract if an opportunity came up that wasn't within the terms of that contract. This would include a layer of red tape that isn't currently there for me, and a change could be denied, based on the perceived needs of the institution or upon the inclination of the evaluator. Given the particular tenure situation at my university (which I took care to outline in pretty good detail) this would, actually, be harder.

3) I addressed this point in a comment.

4) I wasn't talking about community colleges. BUT. I'll say this. Within my discipline, I'll say that I think it's a bad thing to reinforce hierarchies that dismiss the ideas of people based on institution type. Even at a community college, I would argue that active participation in the discipline (although in different ways obviously than at a research university) are vital to what makes it a community *college* rather than just highschool 2.0. Now, does a community college professor need the level of specialization that an R1 prof needs when in the profession? No. But some level of specialization, in my discipline as it stands now, is necessary to professional engagement. Unless you want to lock people into their job and forestall potential mobility, some value needs to be placed on their own intellectual interests. And I say this as a person with a number of colleagues at CCs with active research agendas in specialized areas. In fact, in one of my research areas, CC people are central contributors. Take that away, and you do a disservice to higher education. Moreover, I would argue that people who are the least professionally engaged and the least engaged in university life that I know in my discipline are also the ones who don't have specialized interests. The "dead wood" people are the ones who don't engage in my discipline. period.

5. I'm not an apologist for tenure: I'm an advocate for it. And as you say, "We pay what we have to." In a glutted discipline like English, tenure *makes* institutions pay a reasonable wage for a small portion of the people who do the labor. Without tenure, NO English professors, given the overproduction of PhDs as it now stands, would necessarily make a reasonable wage given the market. Moreover, one of the reasons that institutions can get away right now with paying people in high-demand fields what they do now is because tenure compensates for the pay cut that they take. My point in #5 was that, as I see it, the entire pay scale will change if tenure is not there as an incentive. Now, if we start not with removing tenure but rather with regulating the production of PhDs across disciplines, and then after we've done that we moved to multiyear contracts, perhaps there would be a reasonable "let the market decide" argument. The problem is, universities can't afford to limit the number of English PhDs because composition programs (at both CCs a and 4-years) run on the backs of graduate students (for even at CC's adjunct labor comes from the ABD pool). But if we look at the reality of the current market, in my field specifically, it makes absolutely no sense to trust that any institution would do other than exploit the labor that is available. It's what's been happening with the move to adjunctification for years.

The system as it now stands is not at all equitable, and I'm not saying that it is. But removing tenure, from the perspective of a person in my field, would not improve equity within universities across disciplines. If you say that equity is not essential - that it's about what the market demands - then I suppose that's fine. But I believe that value exists even in those areas that are not immediately commodifiable. Because I believe that, I believe that there should be protections for those areas that don't easily translate (although they do actually translate) into the commodity culture of the 21st century.

So, your final question: dead wood.

First, I will say that there is "dead wood" in any working environment. I've worked in non-academic jobs, I've got friends who aren't academics, and no one in my family is an academic. In all areas people complain about people who don't do their jobs, or don't do them well, and who don't get fired. So yes, some dead wood will exist in *every* career path. Some people just don't care about doing their jobs well. Period. BUT. I think the way to decrease that in academe must go back to a) playing to people's strengths and valuing those things that they do well, b) ensuring that those people are not abused before they achieve tenure (whether on the t-t or in adjunct positions), and c) instilling in them a certain level of commitment to the place in which they are (one thing tenure helps do). It's as easy as ABC, ultimately. It's not about rooting out the evildoers - it's about promoting a culture of achievement and success. That's what tenure is *supposed* to do. Maybe it's not the best way, but I've not seen an alternative that matches it.

Seriously, tell me your alternative. I'd really love to hear it.

Rent Party said...

Dean Dad, can you get me six figures? Or a house in California - on the coast, paid off and in my name? Where do you work, that you can pay what you have to? I have these salary requirements (without tenure) so I can live but also save for a layoff.

Also, I must underline Dr. Crazy's point about no specialists = dead wood. Our dead wood is not tenured faculty, it's *de facto* permanent instructors with little incentive to keep abreast even of teaching methodology in the field.

Why do we have de facto permanent instructors? Because we don't have that many M.A.'s around to choose from among, and we pay as little as we can, so we have those we can get.