A standard feature of conservative and libertarian attacks on higher education is a polemic against tenure. My own view is that tenure is a fundamentally conservative institution—one that deserves to be defended.
Although tenure is not in immediate danger at some of our best colleges, it’s naïve to believe that it has much of a future. Its disappearance is part of our current movement from defined benefits to defined contributions. Risk is being transferred from the employer to the employee. Employer and employee loyalty, in turn, are withering away. Fewer and fewer people can expect to have a career at a single institution, whether Apple or Stanford. More employees are becoming independent contractors, selling their skills for a price to whoever needs them at the moment.
The good news is that there’s more opportunity to be entrepreneurial, and people are being paid what they’re really worth. The bad news is that work becomes more contingent than ever.
The members of the “cognitive elite”—those who have high-level technical and managerial skills—are making more money than ever. Those who don’t do that kind of intellectual labor are becoming more marginally productive. Professors, despite their Ph.D.'s and all, are falling into the latter category.
Professors, as workers, are increasingly vulnerable: That’s how to understand the assault on tenure.
Tenure works by compensating employees with security instead of money. A secure (if modest) salary makes it possible to raise a family—to, for example, take on a mortgage. In the absence of security, an employee should expect more money. (When a member of my college’s board a number of years ago said it was time to do away with tenure, I said sure, just give me a 25-percent raise.) But those who want to do away with tenure think in terms of withdrawing a luxury perk—not of replacing one form of compensation with another.
The assault against tenure is also part of a broader effort to take governance away from the self-indulgent faculty and give it to administrators who supposedly know what they’re doing.
As professors become more vulnerable, top administrators are seeing rapidly rising compensation. Their jobs are, at the same time, becoming less contingent. Sure, a college president can be dismissed at the will of a whimsical Board of Trustees, but their “packages” now typically include deferred compensation and severance deals, thanks to the ascendancy of parachutes ever more golden.
We’re told that teaching contributes only minimally to students’ “value added,” and, by this token, administrators seem almost justified in focusing on the amenities—gourmet food in the cafeterias, dorms like luxury hotels, gyms that are really health clubs, world-class athletics facilities, concierge-like student-affairs programming. Give the kids what they really want, goes this reasoning. Meanwhile, give them a “good enough” education at the lowest possible cost. From this view, the small class taught by a tenured professor is a most dispensable amenity.
Lots of libertarian critics of tenure talk about those “tenured radicals” who are allowed to spout silly and pernicious theories. Well, there are tenured radicals, but a fair appraisal would conclude that many of them are responsible teachers nonetheless.
But the debate over tenured radicals overlooks the importance of the endangered tenured conservative in the humanities—devoted to tradition, God, the text as understood by its author, the true and the good (all those “reactionary” standards)—who is often just as critical as the radicals of the “disruptive” effort to reduce higher education to measurable competencies. In fact, the tenured conservative is likely to be distrusted by both his administration and his mostly liberal colleagues: He is most in need of tenure to do his or her job as he understands it. Conservatives are most likely to feel the pressure from which tenure was designed to protect professors.
Some may argue that doing away with tenure will cause lazy and out-of-reach professors to become more energetic and engaged (and to stop thinking of their jobs as entitlements). Well, that would be true in some cases. But taking out tenure is more likely to inspire professors at all levels to do more research and less teaching. They’ll do what they can to make themselves marketable, to produce what actually sells in their competitive marketplace. Next, of course, will be a readiness to generate a huge number of credit hours and retool according to the techno-standards devised by disruptive experts. Few of those incentives have much to do with real devotion to teaching.
It’s the conservative professor critical of the effects of the techno-optimization who’s most likely to fail to respond productively to such incentives. It’s that professor who will most likely not be able to convince himself that trendy, “disruptive” views of “best practices” and “powerful learning experiences”’ have much to do with real education at all.
Today the tenured have the solace of thinking that at least their hard work is rewarded with security, and their loyalty to their vocation is reciprocated by institutional loyalty (a loyalty that doesn’t depend on the current top administrators). The meaning of that security is really something like this: The professor is not a worker paid piecemeal for his productive labor—what he does can’t be wholly reduced to the standard of the marketplace.
Liberals and libertarians may often view conservative resistance to measurable productivity as “reactionary,” but the same such reaction is indispensable for defending liberal education against disruption, and for preserving a place for higher education as more than preparation for the marketplace.
It’s true that going the adjunct and online route can, in many circumstances, bring costs down, and in some cases the result is a cheaper and more efficient delivery of a good-enough product. But we conservatives are especially alive to what is lost when we transform all of our institutions according to the logic of the market. What’s under assault here, I want to emphasize, is the saving grace of American higher education: Its pedagogical, moral, intellectual, and religious diversity.
Peter Augustine Lawler is a professor of government and international studies at Berry College.