The Chronicle Review

Please Place This in an Appropriate Colleague's Mailbox

April 14, 2000

Last April, I attended a one-day conference at which a couple of distinguished scholars read papers before an audience consisting largely of graduate students, few of whom were likely ever to get on the tenure track that would lead to their appearance on the podium. A provost then made an appearance and singled out for praise a senior scholar in the audience. That scholar had been teaching at the college level since 1945 and had entered the tenure track in 1952.

The incongruity between his open-ended career and the dead-end careers of most of those in the audience proved too much for me, and, after the session, I approached him and asked whether it wasn't time to step aside so that a young scholar might have a chance. He ignored my question and walked away -- although he later called a couple of my senior colleagues to complain about my remark.

According to figures from the U.S. Education Department, 30 years ago only one out of every five college professors worked part time. That number has now doubled, and, if anything, the trend is accelerating: Of the 35,000 who entered the profession from 1995 to 1997, more than two-thirds were part-timers. And those disturbing figures ignore the swelling ranks of full-time instructors hired on short-term contracts. If things continue at this pace, it won't be long before the overwhelming majority of academics will no longer be on the tenure track, and will not receive the kind of institutional support crucial to sustain scholarly work.

When mandatory retirement was first threatened, in the 1980's, surveys indicated that most scholars still planned to retire in their mid-to-late 60's, after roughly 35 years of full-time teaching. Over time, however, that attitude has changed, and some, like the Shakespeare scholar I confronted, have no plans to retire as long as they are healthy enough to teach. Given the health consciousness of the 1970's and 1980's, the number of those planning on holding on to their tenured positions for 40 or 50 years is sure to grow.

I believe that age should not be the sole determinant of when a career should end, and I am a strong believer in the tenure system. Nevertheless, I object to the abuse of tenure. That includes using it simply to prolong a career -- a purpose for which it was never intended. When tenure so nakedly serves the interests of established senior scholars, while it remains beyond the reach of most young scholars, any defense of the tenure system is badly weakened.

The intellectual price paid for endless tenure should be clear to anyone who wonders why scholars who were the leading figures in their field 25 years ago remain so today. It is especially apparent when the intellectual excitement such scholars first brought to the field has been replaced by a sense of sameness, if not dullness.

Intellectual progress, I'm suggesting, depends on a complicated intergenerational exchange. It is predicated on the assumption that those who control the mechanisms by which scholarship is made possible -- tenure, endowed chairs, service on editorial boards, fellowship and tenure-review committees, directorships of patronage-dispensing institutes -- will turn them over to the next generation after an appropriate time, even as their mentors did for them. The end of mandatory retirement and the rising number of adjunct positions have meant that this carefully calibrated system is collapsing, along with the revitalization that disciplines depend on. Surely, the rights of the tenured must be weighed against those of scholars past and future. However significant the work of those, like myself, who are currently tenured, our contribution is meaningless unless we ensure that the discipline passed on to us by previous generations is safely bestowed on a younger -- and tenured -- group of scholars.

Unless we want to turn control of our careers over to state legislatures or cynical administrators who today seek to dismantle the tenure system (and who are ready to wait a generation to achieve victory without a fight), the solution to this crisis must be voluntary. It doesn't require that tenured scholars retire at a specified age, or, for that matter, stop teaching, conducting research, or publishing.

But it does mean that those of us in tenured positions will have to decide how long it is appropriate for us to retain the benefits that go along with our job security, but which stand in the way of the health of our disciplines. To my mind, 35 years on a tenure track and in a tenured position -- that is, roughly two intellectual generations -- is long enough. If you entered the profession at age 40, then leaving it at age 75 sounds about right; if you entered at 27 (as in my own case), 62 seems appropriate.

When I reach 62 -- in 18 years -- I hope to continue writing and teaching, but teaching as an emeritus without tenure; that is to say, as an adjunct. If my institution will commit to replacing me with a tenure-track candidate, I will give up my tenure. If enough of us (especially those who have accumulated institutional clout) do this, the status and working conditions of adjuncts -- who are clearly here to stay -- is sure to improve. For those who cannot do so -- whether for personal or financial reasons -- let me suggest a series of halfway measures, short of surrendering one's tenure:

Decline to serve on tenure-review or dissertation-defense committees in cases in which you are asked to evaluate the work of a scholar who is two academic generations removed from your own. I've seen a number of extraordinarily promising careers damaged at this stage by aging scholars using their power to punish the young. It's tough enough for one generation to acknowledge the often revisionary intellectual agenda of the next; by the time you get to two or more generations, what one often hears is condescension and resistance, though that is often translated into cliches about falling standards.

If you earned your degree in 1960 and feel comfortable deciding the fate of those who completed their degree in the late 1990's, I ask you to consider how your own dissertation or tenure case would have been evaluated by scholars who had earned their Ph.D.'s in 1920. There's too great a chance that the work that seems most off-putting -- the bravest and strangest work -- will provoke the greatest antipathy. In saying this, I understand that those who have been around a long time, yet are still some of the strongest supporters of young scholars, will have to recuse themselves as well, but I don't really see how else to protect the work of emerging scholars.

If you have been honored with an endowed chair for more than 20 years, surrender it. Honorific chairs are often crucial in departmental recruitment and retention. In the days before mandatory retirement ended, freeing them up was rarely a problem, since scholars were often given them near the end of illustrious careers. If, after 20 years, you still need a chair to underscore your worth, something is wrong, and the fancy title only masks that. And if you have been running an institute for 20 years, step down and allow a successor to breathe new life into it.

Stop applying for competitive fellowships, unless you really need them. As I write, news of the most recent recipients of a major national grant is leaking out. I heard that a senior scholar whose work I have admired since my undergraduate days was awarded one of the fellowships, while a promising scholar in the same field whose work I also admire, and who is 10 years out of graduate school, was not. The distinguished senior scholar is surely deserving, but let's face it: To do his work, he doesn't need the recognition, support, or free time, all of which are far more crucial to the younger scholar, who is saddled with administrative responsibilities and desperate for time to write.

If you have overseen a book series at a university press for 20 years, it's time to turn over the reins. I have a former colleague who still edits a series a decade after retiring, and who hasn't shown the slightest inclination to allow a younger scholar a turn. University-press editors with whom I have spoken wring their hands and confess that they are unwilling to alienate still-powerful, if increasingly out-of-touch, scholars. If you have been serving on the editorial board of a journal for over two decades, ask to be removed. Every journal editor with whom I have spoken has described as nightmarish the process of urging those who have overstayed their welcome to step down.

Finally, collaborate with younger scholars. I will always be grateful to Carl Woodring, four decades ahead of me in the profession, who, when asked to put together an anthology of English poetry, refused to do so unless it was in collaboration with a younger scholar. Our resulting work was much the better for having been the fruit of two scholars, generations apart, who held widely divergent critical assumptions and values. If you don't work collaboratively, at least try to resist cronyism, and stop dispensing invitations to give papers, write reviews, or edit texts to members of your peer group.

Many people, both inside of and outside of academe, believe that the culture wars between "tenured radicals" and traditionalists remain the greatest struggle facing the profession today. The fact that this stale battle is still news is testimony to the influence of the entrenched and aging foes on both sides. In the meantime, a much more brutal and costly war between the old and the young is being waged. Unfortunately, it is all but over. Thanks to scholars -- of all ideological stripes -- who are hanging on to tenure for too long, the young are on their way to defeat.

James Shapiro is a professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University. Section: Opinion & Arts Page: A88