Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Tenure and the Adjunctification of Higher Ed

Ok, I had vowed to myself that I wasn't going to enter the fray (or not really enter the fray, even though did, sort of, already). But I can't just let it go (even though I've tried all day, sort of, to let it go, since my initial comment). So, I'm going to write this and get it out of my system.

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.


Unknown said...

As usual, you've made some really good points here and despite my being on the side of getting rid of or seriously changing tenure, I'm inclined to agree with most of them.

I think that someone could address the four points you mention at the end. After all, there are places that have moved to contract positions and I've talked to people who work at those places, and they tell me those things are all taken care of. But I don't have the specifics.

I wanted to address your 3rd point about whether people on 5-year contracts would commit to their institution. I think they would. They might need to be given some more incentive to do so--extra pay, as you suggest, perhaps. As a staff member, I was evaluated every year. I could have lost my job at any time. I had no contract. I had no union. And the same was true of my counterparts. And yet, I, and my fellow staff members participated in committees, worked on long-term projects, and generally committed ourselves to the institution, even though we might not be around to see the fruits of our labor. Certainly, there were staff that could care less and they were the ones who avoided that kind of work--but that happens with faculty, too, even with tenure.

I don't think faculty would be that different. Surely, even with contracts, they're not that shallow. But I don't know.

It was interesting to read that you are willing to work 60 hours or more a week because of tenure. That exemplifies part of my problem with tenure. There are a lot of faculty who take the stance you do, that you're willing to do the work because the school has made a commitment to you. But then there are some who don't. And tenure actually protects them. They avoid the committees and the extra service. Maybe they even slack off on research. Or maybe it's the teaching. There's nothing in the tenure system at most places that balances this out, that makes it so that it's not the same people doing all the heavy lifting. Nor does the tenure system make it so that you don't feel like you have to work 60 hours a week.

Certainly shifting to a contract system might not solve these problems. I've witnessed plenty of slackers on the staff side who do the bare minimum to get by. And it annoys the heck out of workers who put in extra hours (without overtime) and do extra work. But I've also witnessed those slackers having their jobs threatened.

It seems to me that either within the tenure system, or with a contract system, could potentially make explicit those aspects of a faculty member's work that are currently largely invisible. Currently most faculty are reviewed and rewarded periodically based on the amount of teaching, research, and service they do--a positive incentive. The objection to contracts seems to be that the incentive has shifted to a negative one, that one could be fired (or not renewed) for failing to do something. But contracts can be written to be mostly about positive incentives as well, and in my experience, working under situations where one's work *could* get you fired, the work has to be pretty poor before that would happen.

Sorry to go on for so long. I think tenure is one of those things that's different at different places and so while it's a system that works at a lot of places, the places where it's not, make it look like a pretty bad system.

P.S. Now forget about this whole thing and enjoy your holiday! :)

New Kid on the Hallway said...

I promised myself I wasn't going to enter the fray either... ;-)

I think the main thing I want to say is that there are currently lots of people who work at schools that *don't* offer tenure (they're full-time/permanent but the school just doesn't do tenure), and I really don't think that these people are all phoning it in and aren't dedicated to their jobs/institutions. The people I know in such situations are pretty happy with their wages/benefits (I don't think they're rolling in dough, but they make more than adjuncts do), and they play a role in the governance of the institution. They're not in positions that require research so (c) on your list isn't quite addressed, but that said, I think academic freedom in the classroom is just as huge an issue as academic freedom in research. Some of the tales told about tenure seem entirely to overlook this whole class of academic people.

Some institutions without tenure probably abuse the situation to prevent faculty governance and academic freedom, but I don't really think that *having* tenure necessarily prevents this (because there are schools with tenure that are pretty oppressive in such areas). I think it's much more about the culture and history of a particular institution, to be honest.

Bardiac said...

Good job.

I think you're speaking for an important constituency, folks at comprehensive and regional universities. I have a sense that Berube understands that constituency pretty well through his service, but I think Suburban Dean (is there a more patriarchal, paternalistic nom de plume than "Dean Dad"?) really doesn't get it. He's interested in staffing classes only. He doesn't seem to think hard about curricular change (partly because he's at a CC which doesn't have to worry about preparing majors, and partly because he seems to think that administrators can handle all that), nor about the other things faculty do.

I have point I wish you'd made more forcefully. I think some of the very most important work we do as tenured faculty is in hiring, mentoring, and developing our colleagues. And with a five-year contract system, no one would do that.

Deans would be making all the hiring decisions, and only the people who most fit the mold would get mentoring at all. At my school, that would be the other white men who drink on the porch with the dean, who defend male privilege as best they can while their wives work at home providing unpaid labor to allow the men to drink on the porch.

Shane in SLC said...

I've been hoping you would break down and venture into this. I agree with almost all of this, but I think you've overstated the case in #3. To be fair, what DD is talking about is rolling 5-year contracts: at the end of the first year, your performance would be reviewed (by administrators, no doubt), and if favorable, your contract would be renewed. So you'd always have 4-5 years of guaranteed employment ahead of you, unless they don't renew the contract. And as New Kid noted, other employers (in and out of the academy) manage to inspire loyalty and productivity in their workers without tenure.

Your basic point holds, though: Dean Dad's ideas would eviscerate much that is good about being a professor, while doing nothing to mitigate the rampant exploitation of adjuncts in the profession.

undine said...

"Unless, of course, the idea is to fire people who are old. 'Cause you know those old people are obviously deadwood."

That's always been Dean Dad's position, and that's exactly what would happen in a 5-year-rolling-contracts scenario. Even a well-meaning department head would get an unbelievable amount of pressure to fire everyone who hits 45-50. Forget retirement benefits.

Oh, and if you're unfortunate enough to become disabled or contract a big, expensive disease? Buh-bye, and good luck with that discrimination lawsuit.

The 5-year contract discussion isn't about productivity. It's about giving up one of the few protections available and making academia an at-will firing place.

Historiann said...

I'm with Bardiac, Shane in Utah, and you, Dr. Crazy. We "elitists" making all of $50-$60K need to band together and defend tenure for all of the reasons you state above. I think in these precarious times, it's easy and popular to point to tenured faculty and demand that our work lives be just as fragile and as desperate as other those of other workers. But as you note, making our work less secure doesn't make other people's more secure--it just makes our work less secure.

You might be sorry you entered the fray: Dean Dad will come over here and tell you that he's "disappointed" by the level of discussion here, and that you "don't get it," because clearly as an administrator at one community college he does, completely. (See http://www.historiann.com/2009/07/14/dean-dad-makes-you-a-counteroffer-you-cant-refuse-zilch/#comment-383917).


undine said...

A brief addendum: the reason that 5-year contracts don't have these drawbacks now is that those institutions are competing with institutions offering tenure.

I know that the tenure system is screwed up and seriously unfair for the reasons Dr. Crazy has mentioned, but this won't improve it.

Does anyone think that institutions won't go to increased adjunctification if tenure is removed?

Janice said...

Grading and prep only twelve hours a week? I wish. It's never been so minimal. Sure, I have the occasional term with six hours of teaching. But that's still usually 100 students!

This term is gutting me. But I know that I can look forward and say that it won't always be this bad. For now, my research has definitely taken a big hit as I struggle with the teaching obligation that's on my plate.

If I was looking at a contract renewal right now instead of knowing I can put off my application for promotion to another year, that I'd approach things differently. I wouldn't have set so many short assignments to build my students' writing and research skills. I would resort to using multiple choice questions on some tests -- easy to grade. I wouldn't revise any preps or take on new topics to cover in western civ or my ANE survey.

What got me good-enough evaluations and fulfilled the outcomes well enough to satisfy peers would be good enough as I focused more on the research and writing that would either keep me employed here or get my foot in the door somewhere else.

Now, if I was on contract and my school wasn't putting so much emphasis on research (that's new since I was hired!), I could let that slide in the tough terms and focus thoroughly on the teaching. But that's just not the case for me and for a lot of other faculty at regional comprehensives with ambitions!

Next term my teaching load lightens (to about a hundred students in two classes; I may have a TA or I may not) and I will be able to move forward on my research.

Year2Year said...

At least one school gets it: new higher ed ad today for a position in "rhetoric and compensation." Ideal for the new U!


Dr. Crazy said...

To Laura - I think that part of the reason that tenure is so meaningful to me is that the "positive incentive" piece that you note just doesn't exist in the current economy. With state budgets floundering, the reality is that there is *no* positive incentive to contribute to my university's long-term goals, other than the fact that I know I'll be here when the economy (we all hope) takes an upward swing. There are no raises, there are no (as far as I can tell, though I'm crossing my fingers) course releases, travel funding has been slashed, there is no *reward* for going above and beyond. I continue to go above and beyond because this institution has committed to me and because I'm committed to it. But there is no compensation for a lot of the above and beyond stuff I am doing. Tenure is, in fact, the compensation. So maybe the problem is at rock bottom with funding for higher ed?

New Kid - I didn't mean to imply that people without tenure necessarily phone it in (any more or less than people at tenure-granting institutions, or with tenure or on the tenure-track do!) but rather that one's working conditions shape the kind of things that a person produces. Thus, if I'm in a situation in which I know that my job depends on x results, I'm not going to take the same kind of risks (whether in research, or teaching, or service) that I might take otherwise. I'll do y to produce the x that is required. This isn't about not being invested, but it is about not putting myself on the line, and thus jeopardizing my livelihood. I agree with you that having tenure doesn't necessarily prevent administrations from limiting academic freedom or faculty governance. You're entirely right: there are schools with tenure who do these things. But with no tenure (esp. in states that refuse to negotiate with or to acknowledge unions), faculty can't fight those regimes. (Guess which sort of state I'm in?)

Bardiac: Exactly. And the point that you brought up that I mentioned not at all (for I was in a tither as I wrote my angry screed) - TOTALLY.

Shane: I probably was a bit vitriolic and perhaps hyperbolic in #3. I had worked myself up into a lather of affrontedness. That said, see my above response to NK. I think that my vitriol and hyperbole come from the fact that I think knowing that a review that could result in termination was on the near horizon would surely stop me (though maybe not others more virtuous than me) from taking any sort of risks. I might still devote myself to an institution (who knows?) but I surely wouldn't do something that I thought somebody might use against me at review time, however much I thought it was the right thing to do. I'd be productive, and I might even be committed, but would I be innovative? Probably not.

Ann - did you see Berube's response to DD? http://www.michaelberube.com/index.php/weblog/dean_dad_responds_and_how/ I heart it :)

Janice: I'm teaching a slate of courses that I've taught a gazillion times, and also, I'm very lucky in that my 4/4 load only maxes out at 100 students a semester. There are surely weeks when I do more than 12 hours, but I was averaging on the low side, for the sake of not over-inflating my stats. Here's the thing, though: if there were NO tenure anyplace would the research expectation really be lessened? I doubt it.

PhysioProf said...


Dr. Crazy said...

Physioprof, you make me laugh :)

Susan said...

I think about this from several angles. First, until just over a year ago I taught at a place without tenure. When I was first hired, we had multi-year contracts with an expectation of renewal unless you were really bad (and they never went after the people they should have). When the institution was in financial difficulties, they slowly shifted us all to one year contracts. Many people had other jobs, and while they were teaching grad students, few were still engaged in the research enterprise. It wasn't good. At the same time, there was a significant group of people who worked really hard for the institution because we believed in its mission. And we argued with the admin when necessary, though we were always ineffective. The moral of that is that service and a willingness to take on leadership don't depend on tenure, but the mission of the institution was key. As the mission shifted, so did faculty commitment.

For a long time I would have said, I just speak up, no matter what my status. But when I arrived at my new job, as (suddenly) tenured full professor, there was a moment when I thought "I can say what I want; I have nothing to lose". And it was good. And now I have a gazillion different jobs, and really, I see this as part of the deal: I have tenure, I'm well paid, and so yes, I do my time.

PhysioProf said...

BTW, of course Dean Dad is in favor of abolishing tenure! He's a motherfucking DEAN, for chrissakes! What the fuck do you think Brian Cashman would say if you asked him whether he was in favor of Carl Pavano's guaranteed contract during his pitiful time with the Yankees?

Historiann said...

Susan's uni had better appreciate the great bargain they got when they hired her. She is indeed working her butt off for her uni! Tenure is only one of the things that lured her out to where she is now, but it would be difficult to imagine that she would have made such a personal and professional leap as a senior scholar. (This is one of the points made in the Lawyers, Guns, & Money post Berube links to in his reply to DD.)

Thanks for that link, BTW. I don't agree with everything Michael B. has written--he was especially ugly and hyperbolic when that b!tch Hillary Clinton dared to run for the Dem nomination. But I think he's got more perspective and experience than "Dean Dad." (Kudos to Bardiac above for pointing out the implications of that monikker in particular.)

Some of us super-duper elite fancy tenured faculty blog under our own damn names. (As anyone who has looked at my home page knows, I link my RL identity to my blog and prankish pseudonym.) Maybe Dean Dad ought to give that a try, if he really wants to get into smackdowns with Berube.


FrauTech said...

Just wanted to jump in with some uninformed observations...

Implying that faculty would not devote anything on contract would be implying that ALL the employees of for profit and non-profit companies in at will states are not contributing anything or innovating anything. Which is patently untrue. The pay gap is not so large as to explain this discrepancy (unless you mean a paygap between humanities in industry, b/c i'm not sure where outside of academia that is a viable career).

Faculty DO benefit from a flexible schedule, whether they are tenured or adjunct. This is not disimilar to exempt employees hired, again, At Will by private industry. Yes you end up working a lot more than 40 hours a week. Give it up, everybody in this country except the unemployed are working those hours. And b/c they are exempt, they also are only paid for the 40 hours a week.

Don't you think an employee on a 5 year (or even 10 year) contract would strive to do good work and contribute in order to be re-enrolled for the next contract? That's what keeps them accountable, same as when you are in a TT job.

Fire all the 45-50 y/o's? Really? Private industry would love to do that too, luckily there's lawsuits and age discrimination. I'm sure you could structure the contract renewals so that NOT renewing would require justification, and that justification could not be based on age. Private industry deals with this every day. I'm not saying discrimination isn't an issue, but don't solve it by guaranteeing everyone's jobs.

I think I actually agree with you Dr. Crazy, I just think those particular points are weak points.

Michael Bérubé said...

I'm glad you entered the fray, Dr. C. And thanks for reminding everyone that 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. That's precisely why the Garcetti fallout is so important: it leaves faculty open to administrative retaliation whenever they speak or write in the course of their professional duties.

Whether you're tenured or untenured, pro- or anti-tenure, under 45 or old deadwood like me, everyone who teaches at a public university in the US needs to know about the AAUP's Garcetti report. The .pdf looks like this:


You don't have to be a member of the AAUP, of course. This thing is meant to advise faculty at any public institution about how to proceed in the wake of Garcetti.

he was especially ugly and hyperbolic when that b!tch Hillary Clinton dared to run for the Dem nomination.

Begging your pardon, Ann, I think this is unfair. I didn't like her campaign, and I especially didn't like her line about how she and McCain would bring their lifetimes of experience to the White House, but I have never uttered a sexist word about Hillary Clinton in my life. You can look it up on the Internets.

Anonymous said...

"Faculty DO benefit from a flexible schedule, whether they are tenured or adjunct."

I was with this sentence until it said "adjunct." Flexibility is great but I do not benefit from the randomness of my schedule. It is incredibly difficult for me to arrange childcare for an hour here or an hour there. The problem would be solved by acquiring full-time childcare but I can't afford it. See, I'm a fucking adjunct.

That's not central to your arguments here, Crazy. And I agree with Ann (I think it was Ann) that making your work less stable, as tenured folk, is not going to make my position any better. Getting rid of tenure is not going to do anything to address the adjunct problem.

Dr. Crazy said...

Thanks for linking to the Garcetti report, Michael. And thanks for stopping by!

I have other things to say, but let me suffice for the moment with this: the employment market in academia is not identical, or even comparable, to the employment market across the rest of the country. Further, even if it were, that wouldn't mean that the administrative structures of institutions of higher education would be identical to those of employment possibilities outside of academe, nor would it mean that those structures demand or expect similar things of their employees.

Professor Zero said...

This is such a fantastic post.

Firefly said...

As for Dr. Crazy's original statements, Great arguments about this, great discussion, great essay.

Professor Zero said...

Late response to Frau Tech (Laura made a similar point):

"Don't you think an employee on a 5 year (or even 10 year) contract would strive to do good work and contribute in order to be re-enrolled for the next contract? That's what keeps them accountable, same as when you are in a TT job."

The answer is, they'd keep on doing the things that _get_ you tenure. That means publish well, have good student evaluations, do service work competently but don't take on major service projects, and don't rock the boat. The point of having tenured faculty is that tenured faculty are in a position to do more than that. (Things like chairing a department, which does cut into research and personal time, and as Dr. C and Berube say, standing up for the institution and the students. I favor more tenure, sooner, not less, later.)