The time has come for tenure in academe to be either radically modified or, as I’d prefer, abandoned altogether. I’ve held this position from long before I was tenured and promoted to full professor, and nothing I’ve experienced since being granted tenure — neither the job security, nor the greatly increased power in affecting departmental matters, nor the access to the ears of the administration, nor inclusion on any number of high-level committees, nor anything else — has changed my mind. Simply put, tenure does more harm than good.
Defenders of tenure invariably cite its protection of academic freedom and free speech, and they’re not entirely wrong. In higher education, tenure does prevent administrations from firing a faculty member simply for teaching, researching, or merely saying something with which an administration disagrees. But tenure, while protecting the academic freedom and free speech of the tenured, exacerbates the lack of academic freedom and free speech of the untenured. Actually, tenure suppresses them.
Tenured faculty on a tenure-decision committee hold an almost life-and-death power over the untenured candidate. If power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, a tenure committee is a veritable Petri dish for moral and ethical corruption. Members can — and do — vote negatively on a candidate because they’re threatened by the competition of the candidate’s teaching or research, because the candidate has openly disagreed with them in faculty meetings, because the candidate lunches with a member of the faculty the members don’t like, because the candidate has a student following, because the candidate dresses funny, because, well, because of practically anything.
To the protest that most if not all of these reasons are not allowed to be factors, I’d reply that they’re ridiculously easy to conceal in the committee’s official business. Unless the candidate is a Nobel Prize contender with students hanging from the rafters to hear his or her lectures, the tenure case is de facto decidable on illegitimate grounds.
To the protest that most tenured faculty are decent, reasonable people who wouldn’t vote against a candidate for illegitimate reasons, I’d reply that in a good many colleges it takes only one or two negative votes (against, say, a half-dozen positive ones) for the committee’s recommendation to seem weak or invalid in the eyes of the next level of decision-makers. (“The decision to promote wasn’t unanimous,” the dean says, “and I don’t want to make this schism in the department permanent, so. . . .”) In short, the institution of tenure and the way it’s decided — good ol’ peer review — means that if a candidate makes one measly tenured departmental enemy for any reason whatsoever, that candidate is most likely doomed.
Tenure also kills free speech and academic freedom because it institutionalizes and encourages the bullying of untenured junior faculty. Those tenured departmental enemies sure don’t wait until the committee meetings during the up-or-out year to start getting their ounces of flesh. Although overt bullying may seem rather rare (it’s like rape in one of those cultures requiring multiple male witnesses for the crime to be taken to court), subtle and even silent bullying is pervasive to the point of universality.
Tenure turns otherwise upstanding junior faculty into servile yes-men and yes-women — or, worse, cowards. Junior faculty working toward tenure must develop the servile art of pleasing those who outrank them. (Where, by the way, besides the military, is the power gap between “officers” and “enlisted men and women” so enormous?) That leads them to suppress their real opinions and ideas. So much for the academic freedom and free speech that tenure is supposed to preserve.
And if their servility and cowardice does manage to get them tenure, these same faculty — like abused children who grow up to abuse their own children — quickly hoist the Jolly Roger of their own suppressed anger and humiliation and start bullying the next group of junior faculty — with, of course, complete impunity.
Bullied or abused junior faculty can file grievances, you say — to which I reply: Lots of luck. Grievance boards are either composed of tenured faculty (who tend to protect their own) or have but a few token untenured members who are, of course, conveniently bullyable; faculty senates don’t want to dirty their hands with individual grievances against colleagues; ditto for the AAUP, which is interested only in grievances filed against administrators.
For those who’d argue that corruption and bullying come from only a few aberrant tenured faculty members and that the rest are decent people of principle, I’d reply a) as I said above, it takes only one or two for corruption and bullying to be effective, and b) look around at the situation on the ground: I’ll bet there’s one or two egregious — albeit often subtle — bullies in every department on campus, including yours.
In addition to bullying, tenure creates the problem of tenured professors hanging around long past the point when, if they had any sense of honor, they’d retire. They cling to their lifetime jobs, medical insurance, their comfy offices, and their phone/fax/copier privileges; they fumble with crumbling, yellow notes for courses they teach by rote recital. They profess blameless inability to handle any necessary IT, including, half the time, simple e-mail. They won’t budge, and it’s actionable age discrimination in most places for a department chairman or a dean even to raise the subject of retirement. Meanwhile, students suffer their perfunctory teaching, and younger, more energetic, more passionate, more eager teacher-scholars can’t advance past this arterial blockage or, worse, can’t even find jobs. While tenure isn’t the only reason for the “adjunctification of the university,” it’s a big one.
But one of the worst consequences of tenure is the heavy price of Outcomes Assessment. If we’re going to be burdened with sinecured faculty members who have heretofore been “unaccountable” for life, administrators conclude, we can at least put them through the OA grinder. That is, under threat of being held responsible for disaccreditation, these non-fireable faculty can at least be made to insert prescribed “learning goals” and “learning objectives” into their syllabi. And they are being made to. That’s right: Outcomes Assessment has grown into Incomes Approval, i.e., the shaping of course content by administrative fiat. Where’s the precious academic freedom supposedly bulwarked by tenure? Where are the putative guardians (committees composed of or led by tenured faculty, faculty senates, or the AAUP) on this one?
Make no mistake about it: Outcomes Assessment and its less polite real objective, Incomes Approval, are killing academic freedom bit by bit, one idiotic “learning objective” at a time. Give it a decade or so, and the liberty bell of academic freedom will be reduced to the tiny tinkle of a sidewalk Santa begging for charity change.
A rough justice is at work here, however. Outsiders who pay the bucks to support academe are demanding that the insiders who take the bucks justify what they’re doing with the money. And it’s no surprise that outsiders with clout have the backing of taxpayers and tuition-payers. When those regular folk peer into the halls of ivy, they see a bunch of sinecures, more secure in their jobs than Austro-Hungarian royalty, practicing a freedom which, for anybody but themselves, is strictly academic.
What to do about tenure? Next time, I’ll have a couple of suggestions.