First, let me state for the record that I'm not saying the hiring structure of higher ed isn't fucked up. It is totally fucked up. The tenure system isn't fair, nor is it about merit, nor does it serve all students or all institutions in the way that it is "supposed" to (however that is). Higher education generally exploits a vast number of people (especially in my own field, English) in order to achieve its ends (giving the largest number of students possible a college degree). This is not because higher education is a meritocracy, in which people who are "worthy" get ladder jobs. This is because higher education is not willing or able, for the number of students it enrolls today, to pay all of its workers a living wage. And it's not willing to do so because it doesn't have to and because it's not feasible within the current structure of higher education to do so.
Here is, to quote a recent post of mine, why I think tenure matters:
"You know why tenure matters? Above and beyond academic freedom in scholarship and in the classroom? It matters because when we don't have strong administrative leadership, and I suspect this happens at all institutions in a variety of contexts at one time or another, somebody needs to be able to speak up, loudly and clearly, on behalf of students, on behalf of faculty, and on behalf of the future of the institution. Tenure has made little difference to me in terms of my scholarship or my teaching. I have never felt in jeopardy in those areas, and I think my institution values my autonomy in those areas. Where tenure has meant the most to me is that I don't have to hold back at all when it comes to fighting bullshit that will hurt my university, my colleagues, or my students. Now, my loud and contentious voice may not make any difference. But at the very least I do have the power to say my piece without fear of losing my job. And since I'm being put in a position where I'm being expected to "participate in" (read: authorize) things that entirely contravene our mission and our values, then I need that power and I need to use it."
But, there are those out there who believe that "THE SYSTEM IS DYING." And their alternative is eliminating tenure in favor of multiyear contracts. And these people believe, when somebody objects to their claims, that those people are clearly "elitists" who don't actually engage with the arguments that they make. So let me try to address some things, which I think are really important in this conversation.
1) I don't think that tenure makes a person "elite" or "elitist." I think that there are lots of different versions of tenure, at lots of different kinds of institutions. At my institution, tenure means no TAs, teaching four courses a semester, teaching composition, teaching general studies lit classes, and maybe teaching one course in one's actual field of specialty per semester, if one is lucky enough for that course to make enrollment. Tenure (or even just being on the tenure track) means immense service obligations. Tenure means doing research above and beyond all of that. Tenure does mean job security, and benefits (and I don't dismiss these as solid, important benefits), but it also means making a salary of, after tenure, someplace around 60K a year, if one is lucky. I've got friends who are ladder faculty who were hired in originally (recently) in the 30s who will be lucky to see 50K at tenure, and this is in higher cost-of-living places than the one in which I'm located. And this is with the sometimes massive student loan debt that going on for a PhD can entail. Yes, named professors do better. But most tenured faculty don't have named professorships. Let's be real about what the realities of what most of the tenured professoriate's job situations look like. Oh, and for most tenured professors, at least in my field - there is no prospect of switching jobs.
2) While it is true that "it's easier to get out of a bad marriage than to get out of a bad tenure decision" I would also argue that since you have six years before you give a person tenure, during which that person is on probation, then if a bad decision is made, given that time-frame, it's probably the fault of the tenure process at the institution. (And I'd argue that more bad tenure decisions are made in the negative - in terms of not granting people tenure who deserve it - than the reverse.) The whole point of the tenure process is that it's a vetting process. In theory, the tenure process should ensure that you don't hire anybody on long-term who would be a shit employee. If you do, that's not the fault of tenure - that's a fault of the process at a particular institution. I mean, seriously - if you can't figure it out in six years, then how would you be able to figure it out to fire people on a 5-year contract cycle? Unless, of course, the idea is to fire people who are old. 'Cause you know those old people are obviously deadwood. (Though let me note that one of the most productive and active in all areas people in my department has been around since the early 1970s, but obviously, the point here isn't productivity or activity - it's the corporate bottom-line.)
3) If one thinks that somebody on a 5-year teaching contract is going to give a shit about the institution and its future, then they are either woefully naive or actively stupid. If I were on a 5-year contract, I can tell you with utmost certainty that I would not have invested what I have done in curricular development, in service to my university's campus community or community generally, in directing undergraduate research. I'd do what I needed to get the best teaching evals. possible and I would be busting my ass on research, for I'd need to be ready if my institution screwed me to go elsewhere, and research is what allows a person (at least today) to go elsewhere. The fact of the matter is, the work of ladder faculty that is most important, given the adjunctification of higher ed in the past 20 years, is not teaching, nor is it research. It's service. The only incentive for that service, as far as I can tell, is tenure. Tenure binds a person to an institution and to that institution's community. You want to pay me by the hour for the non-teaching and non-research work that I do? Rock on with that. I'd be making more than I currently make. But until and unless that part of my job is acknowledged, I'll take tenure, thanks. Tenure makes it reasonable for me to give a shit about the institution. Without tenure? I'd be stupid if I did.
4) If you want to reduce the number of adjuncts, the first step is in looking at curriculum. If you insist on a curriculum that you can't staff, you're going to have a large percentage of adjunct (or grad student) faculty. If you make a curriculum that you can support with ladder faculty, then that problem becomes smaller (if not disappears). This might mean that not every breathing American can attend college.
5) Graduate schools need to admit fewer people, if what we want is a fairly compensated professoriate. When I enrolled in my well-respected Ph.D. program in the 90s, my entering cohort had a number of 7. They'd already made the choice only to admit those they could fund, and those whom they could ostensibly ensure would get jobs. That's where we start to deal with the problem of hiring in higher ed in my opinion - not with doing away with tenure.
Here's the thing, if getting rid of tenure could (a) definitely ensure more people a living wage and benefits, (b) ensure faculty governance within universities, (c) ensure the birth of new ideas, original research, and a safe space for politically volatile areas of inquiry, and (d) ensure investment on the part of faculty members in the mission of their respective universities, there wouldn't be a problem. The issue is, for me, is that those I've heard argue on behalf of getting rid of tenure have not addressed a, b, c, or d. Address, those, and I could well be your champion. For now? I think you're construing the work of professors as being only the work that they do in the classroom. If that were the only work I did, fine. But it's not. Let me state this clearly and for the record: I'm in the F2F classroom a mere 9 hours a week, in the online classroom a mere 3 hours. On top of that is grading and prep - let's say that accounts for another 12 hours, which adds up to 24 hours a week,. If we count my other work though - writing rec. letters, serving on committees, doing research, keeping myself abreast of what's happening at my institution and within my field of specialization - I'm working probably 60-80 hours per week during the academic year (which, let's note, is all that I'm paid for).
I love my job. I love my university. I love my students. But the reality is, if I didn't have tenure I'd not invest anywhere near as much. Who would? For this salary? And you'd have to hire somebody to do all of the shit that I do that isn't related to teaching and research. Because, seriously? You really think I'm going to give all of that away for free? Even though I'm an English professor and the market is glutted and whatever? I'd temp first. I'm not saying that for rhetorical effect: that's exactly what I did rather than adjuncting full-time when I ran out of funding in my PhD program. It paid better.