Is Tenure even Worth Fighting to Save?
This excellent article by Robin Wilson on the sad state of tenure got me thinking. We all know the basic story: tenure track positions have been evaporating at an alarming rate. Instead universities have been shifting their teaching burden overwhelmingly to underpaid and contingent adjuncts, graduate students, and post-docs. The result, especially at places like NYU, where I am, is the creation of basically two universities. On one hand there is the education of the undergrads, done overwhelmingly by adjuncts and graduate students. On the other hand there is the traditional intellectual production—the training of graduate students, research, conferences, etcs…—that is the realm of very privileged and prestigious tenured (or tenure-track) professors. This is a bit of a simplification as there are still undergrad courses taught by some of the star professors. But they tend to be the smaller more advanced courses, while the big 101 courses are dominated by adjuncts and the like. Given the board assault on public universities, and the corporatization of private universities, the trend is all going towards this two-track system. And, as in any two-track labor force, the incentives will be to continually employ more and more people at the lower-paid one, eroding the privileges of the higher-paid track.
The result of this situation is de facto elimination of the free speech protections that tenure was created to protect in the first place. Lacking tenure, and forced to constantly re-apply for positions, adjuncts are unlikely to air controversial views or challenge university policy. The article quotes the estimable Cary Nelson: “Faculty members are guarded, they’re not making courageous decisions about what to say, what to think, and how to challenge their students.” It also seems clear that the rise of adjuncts hurts the education experience. I’m always skeptical of studies, like those that Wilson cites, that purport to demonstrate quantitatively how good a teacher is, but there is some common sense to the idea that poorly paid, harried, insecure adjuncts, who often teach courses out of their specialty, are not going to be as committed and as skilled teachers. It, after all, is a bit bizarre, that an adjunct teaching US history at NYU—supposedly a prestigious and wealthy research university– is getting paid significantly less than a social studies teacher in the public high school next door.
Although Wilson doesn’t go into it, it also seems likely to me that the privileges of tenure may actually contribute to the erosion of conditions for other academic laborers. After all, if you have to keep every tenured professor around forever, lavishing them with time off and research assistants, its not surprising that universities are going to be reluctant to hire them, and more likely to rely on adjuncts.
I’m not sure what the answer is. A big problem, as Wilson shows, is that we currently have a bizarre sort of either/or system regarding tenure. In other words there is tenure track—which is pretty sweet—and there is an endless world of contingent poorly paid nameless adjuncts, who have little hope of ever moving up. In between is very little. On balance I think tenure is a good thing, but if its only going to apply to the top 20% of faculty than I hardly think its worth fighting to preserve. It’s beginning to seem more like the privilege of an aristocracy, rather than relevant to the actual experience of most teachers. Worse, though, it is a privilege which serves to discipline the rest of us. With ever growing desperation, we claw at each other and keep our opinions to ourselves, in order to fight for the receding carrot of Tenure.
It seems to me that the challenge is to turn adjunct positions into more stable, highly paid, well-respected positions, with greater opportunity to move up. Move adjuncts closer in position to where full professors are, even if you don’t give them the full privileges of tenure. In other words, hire professors like you would hire a janitor or a chef, or basically any other employment: for open-ended time periods, with the possibility for promotion, regular raises, and paid vacation. If you fire them, you should have to give a reason, and if you lay them off you should have to pay unemployment. I, for one, would accept less tenure if it meant a deal like that for adjuncts.
How do we get there? Well, I’m not totally sure. Of course adjuncts should organize unions and fight for contracts with higher pay and, perhaps more importantly, systems that encourage long-term employment. It would be nice if influential magazines like US News and World Report paid more attention to the percentage of face time that students got with tenured professors, rather than the misleading faculty to student ratios they use now. Finally, and I know this will only provoke howls of laughter, but it might be nice if somewhere some university actually cared about the type of education it was producing, and decided that highly paid and stable teachers are better educators than poorly paid and insecure ones.
(h/t to Susan, btw, for the article)