Renovating Academia

Since the start of David Horowitz’s campaign to have his “Academic Bill of Rights” and “Student Bill of Rights” instituted by law for state-run institutions of higher education, academia has closed ranks against him. And for good reason.

That, however, doesn’t mean that there aren’t things needing reform in academia. One of these is the entire tenure system which is casting a pall over our universities and allowing for attacks that may be at least partially justified.

When I have brought up this topic in the past, I’ve been attacked by tenured academics as if I were reacting simply from sour grapes. I’ve been told that I’m angry because I just have not been good enough to achieve tenure. So that won’t happen again, let me give a bit of information on my background: for fifteen years after earning my Ph.D. in 1988, I did not try for a full-time career in higher education. I had other things in mind: Peace Corps in West Africa and opening a store, among others. Only in the last two years have I actively considered higher education as a career (and am now teaching full time for my first time ever in the United States). By no standard now in place could I have even been considered for tenure so far—let alone be turned down for it. I have not been in the field long enough (and I am happy with my progress, to date). I have had a book published by a reputable press (and have a contract for another), have seen a number of articles reach print, have made academic presentations, watched my dissertation appear as a book in translation in Europe, and have fine recommendations from students and peers. I also was awarded (and accepted) a Senior Fulbright Lectureship. Certainly, I am not writing as a disgruntled outsider, but simply as someone turning to the profession later in life. So, please, don’t dismiss my arguments on an ad hominem basis. What I am saying is important, not who is speaking.

Most simply stated, tenure is “the right not to be fired without cause after an initial probationary period.” Usually, the probationary period is five or six years. This allows the institution to be sure that the professor is committed to it and to evaluate her/his performance over a long term. In the ideal, it means the professor has proven his/her worth and can be granted the right to take intellectual and professional chances without fear of retribution.

Sounds good? Sure, and it is—in the ideal. But watch out for unintended consequences!

The first of these is a wall that’s been built between those with tenure and those without. Even if everyone is on a tenure track (which is not the case any longer—but more on that later), the distinction between those who have made the grade and those who have not is ever-present. As a result of this, the pressure to conform on those wanting to cross the wall is great: no one wants to put in all those years of effort only to be rejected. So, while those with tenure may have more academic freedom, those without, paradoxically, actually have less than they might if tenure did not exist at all. Often, they are investing too much in the possibility of tenure to be willing to rock the boat.

So, wanting to insure that their efforts are rewarded, many on the tenure track (consciously or unconsciously) adopt the views of those with tenure—those who will be sitting in judgment on them. This can (and does) lead to the perception that there are “party lines” that must be followed if one is to gain tenure. As a result, though there are other reasons why academia tends to be more liberal than much of American society, people are able to point to the tenure system as a means for keeping out those with more conservative viewpoints.

In the 1960s, in the wake of the Free Speech movement at Berkeley (and elsewhere), American universities did become high-profile magnets for the left—and certainly were focal points of the antiwar movement that followed. As a result, public perception of the universities (if not the fact) was that they were dominated by the left. The identity politics (and the perception of “political correctness”) of the seventies only ratified this belief. Today, many Americans see the universities as places where well-paid and comfortable leftists not only keep out those who might disagree with them but use their sinecures as platforms for brainwashing generation after generation of college students.

This perception (again, it is not the reality) has played into the hands of those who want to see the universities (at least the state run ones) come more under the control of the political system to make them reflect more accurately the mind-sets of those in power.

Sure, the perception is wrong, but our universities certainly do grow out of a humanist tradition that is increasingly antithetical to the political right in this country and that allows universities to be pegged as having an overt leftist agenda.

To make matters worse, because of expansion of the universities in the sixties and seventies, we now have both a top-heavy system of too many tenured professors (at many institutions) and many more qualified applicants for available positions than will ever be absorbed. Not only does this increase the pressure to conform, but it leads to resentments on the part of those not chosen—exactly the sort of resentments I have been accused of harboring. Even in a highly-competitive job market, it’s easier to say that one didn’t get the job “because they don’t like my politics” than it is to accept that another applicant might be better suited.

Another unintended consequence of the tenure system has been the growth of means of bypassing it. With higher and higher percentages of tenured faculty (and growing costs, as a result), the universities moved to create cheaper, non-tenure tracks for staffing classrooms. These have generally been of two sorts: first, the limited-term appointment and, second, the use of adjunct (part-time) teachers (either graduate students, those still trying to find full-time jobs, those without terminal degrees, those who teach part-time at a number of schools, or those who have turned to another career but would like to keep their hands in). This has led to what is, effectively, a four-tier system in a great number of universities: tenure, tenure-track, temporary, and adjunct. One’s value and ability is perceived as increasing at each upward step—which is both unfortunate and unfair (some of the best teachers I know are adjuncts). One’s income for the same work, certainly, is quite different at each level (though less so between tenure-track and temporary).

It has become harder than ever before even to get onto the tenure track, and extremely difficult to get tenure. This has led to another misperception (but also with more than a grain of truth), that tenured professors think “well, I got mine” and start to coast. They’ve made it, after all, to the top—so why bother to do more than they have to? The people in the job market today sometimes see themselves interviewed by tenured faculty with fewer scholarly publications and credentials than they (the applicants) have… by people who, in today’s job market, would not even be even asked to interview for the job. This is another source of resentment that the right, in its drive to gain control of the universities, can tap into. The pressure on young academics is so great today that they are publishing younger and more frequently than did the older generation—they have to, or must leave academia. The older, who came up without the same sort of pressure, can sometimes look like “dead wood” by comparison (more likely, they saw their careers as focused on teaching, not research—something young academics cannot do in today’s super-heated “publish or perish” environment). Once more, those who publish but cannot find academic jobs often feel they must find someone to blame—after all, they are more “qualified” than many of those passing judgment on them—so, if they are at all right of center, they can easily make disdain for their politics the culprit for their failure to make it to the “inside.”

Perception is the greater part of “truth.” And perception of the tenure system has helped lead to the calls for academic reform that have found voice in at least sixteen state legislatures. Tenure is (and should remain) an important part of academia, but that does not mean it cannot be modified. To me, its glaring problems are two, the probationary period and tenure’s use (all too often) as simply a system of job security. Why should a young academic have to go through a period of years where she/he cannot express themselves freely, for fear of not attaining tenure? Shouldn’t this system, meant to protect academic freedom, protect all academics, not simply those willing to wait it out? It’s understandable how universities are reluctant to extend tenure that way, for then (given the way tenure is administered these days) they would never be able to get rid of anyone. That brings us to the other problem: sure, in principle, even a tenured professor can be fired “for cause.” But how often does this happen?

Tenure should be an expanded and more limited right: every academic should be covered, but only for specific academic (and political) activities. If it were so, many of the misperceptions that allow academia to be so easily attacked could be dispelled.

If it were so, our universities might even be improved.