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Historically, the justification for tenure has rested on a subtle, even unacknowledged, conflation of the intellectual or civic roles of faculty members on the one hand, and their desire for secure employment on the other. The 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure, which continues to define tenure in the United States, invoked the need to protect teachers as “citizens, members of a learned profession, and officers of an educational institution,” but carefully defined the limits of the speech it protected by warning against the introduction of “controversial matter” into the classroom and reminding its beneficiaries that “the public may judge their profession and their institution by their utterances.”
The weakness of the tenure system for protecting heterodoxy became clear after World War II, when professors around the country lost their jobs in anticommunist purges (though untenured faculty members fared worse). While it is rare for tenured academics today to face career-ending consequences for political speech, administrations have found ways to make controversial faculty members’ lives miserable without dismissing them outright. For most others — whether because their views are uncontroversial or because they are in a position to clearly separate their public and professional identities — tenure is far more relevant for its guarantee of employment than for its speech protections.
Even at its height, tenure covered only about half of full-time faculty members and an even smaller proportion of faculty members as a whole. Within and beyond the academy, workers are routinely fired and harassed for political speech or for organizing. The unique status of certain academics has become harder to defend on intellectual or political grounds now than in the mid-20th century: The tenured professoriate is much richer, whiter, and more male-dominated than the rest of academe, let alone the population at large. Humanist academics today recognize in a way their 1940s predecessors did not that socially marginalized groups have often developed ideas and political platforms that only later came to be legitimized by credentialed intellectuals. There is less justification than ever for treating the latter as a community in need of special privileges.
Even in institutions where tenure has been weakened, its status institutionalizes a hierarchy of privilege and impunity whose chief victims are other academics — as in the case of John Brady, a Ph.D. student in engineering at the University of Wisconsin at Madison driven to suicide in 2016, apparently in part by his abuse at the hands of the professor in whose lab he’d worked. Despite a profusion of reports confirming his behavior, the professor received only a brief suspension.
When we advocate for increasing tenure-track hiring, we do so in the hope of breaking down at least some of this hierarchy. But why should graduate students — who have been leading unionization drives and campaigning against abusive and harassing faculty members around the country — be left out of the charmed circle of academic freedom? What about other campus workers, such as janitors, administrative personnel, and food-service staff, who keep universities running and know more than most faculty members about what goes on behind the scenes? The idea that there is a neatly bounded group of people whose occupation entitles them and only them to speak to civic concerns is hard to sustain.
Critics of tenure have often made similar points, but mostly with the intention of making universities more “dynamic” and “entrepreneurial” — in other words, not bringing up other workers to the level of tenured faculty members, but eroding tenure so that everyone is equally powerless. It is no surprise that we are often reflexively suspicious of any challenge to the tenure system, so much so that we become blind to its most glaring failures. It’s important to be mindful of the ways our arguments can be misused, but we should not ignore the weaknesses of the system. They have harmed all of us in one way or another, whether as students, junior scholars, or advisers.
What about other campus workers, like janitors, administrative personnel, and food-service staff, who keep universities running?
Instead, we should fight to ensure that the employment conditions we consider our due — such as just-cause instead of at-will dismissal — become the norm for the economy as a whole. For instance, we should work to repeal right-to-work laws and ultimately the Taft-Hartley Act that enables them and makes labor solidarity more difficult in innumerable concrete ways. Closer to home, we should pressure administrations to recognize graduate and campus-worker unions. We should lend our resources and bully pulpits to citywide battles for labor and tenant rights — after all, colleges and universities are often among the largest employers and landowners in their towns. Many academics are already involved in this work, but as a whole, faculty members have been slow to recognize that these struggles are part of our own collective self-interest.
In countries like the United Kingdom, academics already benefit from just-cause protections extended to broader categories of employees. Yet, as many British academics are all too aware, such systems can protect job security while sacrificing the autonomy afforded by academic freedom to rigid oversight by external bureaucracies. As we work to generalize the working conditions of tenured faculty members to the work force at large, we should ensure that we organize to gain or retain professional control over how we spend our time — without limiting that control to certain privileged categories of faculty members. Undermining the exclusivity of tenure should not be seen as in conflict with this goal, but rather as integral to it.
Decades ago, the professoriate could rely on its social prestige to protect the community of scholars from external intervention; today, as the status of faculty members moves closer to that of other service employees, like elementary- and secondary-school teachers, we need to follow their example and rebuild our power from below. Tenured-faculty work may, in the process, come to look very different — more like the job protections enjoyed by the vast majority of unionized public-school teachers than like the exclusive club of today’s academe.
In a broad-based push for economic justice, both the need and the justification for academic hierarchy will fall away. Graduate and adjunct workers have already taken the initiative in campus organizing, but it is up to tenured and tenure-track faculty members to ensure that we are not the beneficiaries of zero-sum economic calculations that benefit us at the expense of our colleagues broadly defined. Buying off some workers and pitting them against others is a time-honored tactic in the hands of bosses; we should recognize it for what it is and resist it. In the long run, we stand together or we all fall separately.
Greg Afinogenov is an assistant professor of history at Georgetown University. His book, Spies and Scholars: Chinese Secrets and Imperial Russia’s Quest for World Power, will appear in April from Harvard University Press.