Wednesday, February 07, 2007

What Do We Do About Tenure?

If you haven't already, go to Inside Higher Ed (a link is to your right on this page: I still don't know how to do links in the text with a Mac. Help, Combat Philosopher!) Yale has made the stunning announcement that it *may* institute a real tenure track for junior faculty, rather than the "use 'em and lose 'em" policy they have now. My colleague Steven Stowe, who occupied such a slot at Potemkin, called his the "Folding Chair of History." I think the word "nurture" was also used in there somewhere by Yale, although I suspect that probably won't be part of the plan.

I have never understood how Yale and Harvard got away with a policy of making tenure impossible for 99% of its hires without having been investigated by the AAUP like other schools are. Even Princeton had a policy 15 or 20 years ago when I interviewed there that it called the "pipeline." One's chances of getting tenure were part of a mathematical formula whereby only a certain percentage of the faculty could be tenured at any given time. It was a bit like a horse race: the odds changed from year to year as people left for other pastures, retired, died, and tenure cases above you succeeded or failed. And even though I imagine it was a bit hair-raising for the untenured folk (it certainly was for me, just listening to the description -- I dropped out of the search when another job presented itself), the theory behind it was sound on a certain level: that a tenured-up faculty is potentially less vigorous and less open to the new ideas that younger faculty bring with them. Also, unlike other schools, if you have been following the stories about Princeton in the news, it wasn't about tamping down the payroll, since that university is so successful financially it appears to be struggling to keep its non-profit status, to the extent that it is voluntarily treating graduate students like people with regular human needs that require a significant budget.

But here's what worries me about tenure: the huge amount of intellectual energy and human spirit that is consumed by it. At Zenith, we have recently gone through a period in which, for the first time in the history of the institution, people are not getting tenure -- sometimes people who have written enough that they could reasonably come up for full professor. This means that younger ladder-track faculty are unbearably anxious about their futures, and it means that those of us presenting tenure cases that would have been smack-down perfect less than five years ago spend hours making arguments that are then sliced and diced by our T & P committee, and then we have to go back in and make even better arguments. We spend a half hour addressing the four teaching evaluations that characterized the candidate negatively which some member of the committee on a wild power trip has identified as "a serious concern." I don't think it is going too far to say that it isn't just the intellectual energy we use in the tenure process now -- it's the spiritual energy. And getting tenure is less the celebration it used to be than a moment where people end up cynical and rightly self-absorbed because they have been put through too much. Or feeling like they got pulled off the embassy in Saigon while their peers waved their arms helplessly below.

People often ask the "dead wood" question, as if this is something that can be anticipated at such an early stage of someone's career -- and say "Well, do you want more people like that? And if occasionally the standards are set too high, isn't that ultimately a good thing?" And my answer (and I bet it isn't only me) is: "Hmmm. No, but -- ." And I think about what other line of work in the world puts people, productive or not, who are at the end of their careers in charge of judging the ideas of the young, which seems to me more to the point. If the computer indsutry were run like university faculties, we would all still be using electric typewriters.

Which is what leads me to think that we might want to get rid of tenure, and I think those of us who have benefitted from the Goose and her Golden Egg might want to stand up and say so. Why?

1. It creates a frozen job market, where the majority of openings are at the most junior ranks. This raises the stakes on tenure significantly, meaning that a person in a field like English or Philosophy, who has a book out and should be hired as an associate (must be, really -- or with the assumption that s/he will come up for tenure soon) has a minute chance of getting another academic job. It also means that people who tire of working where they are for some reason can't move at more senior levels, and can work virtually forever at a level of minimal effort and/or competence without being motivated to change professions or jobs. For this reason, we might also wish to abolish rank.

2. Tenure consumes the first seven years of a new Ph.D's life and almost ensures that that person will not take intellectual risks that might be held against her by anyone. Only the boldest and brashest young scholars, and those who are mentored by very powerful people, can take the chance of writing that field-changing book that is going to cause controversy. Look at someone like Richard Hofstadter, whose great dream in the 1940's was to publish in the New Republic. Indeed, one could argue that people like Hofstadter and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., and Hannah Arendt (who were in a tenure system, to be sure, but not the high-stakes one that exists now) would not have been the scholars they were without that constant engagement with the public sphere in their early years. Publishing to a wider public -- at Zenith, at least -- is not only not "counted" toward tenure, it is sometimes held against a younger person as an indicator that s/he is not intellectually serious. And God forbid you should write a book that really ticks off a couple of big names! People who are controversial are often in great danger of not getting tenure and -- at Zenith of late -- they don't.

3. The tension and quasi-legal quality of the high-stakes tenure process means that a tenure review is preceded by multiple reviews, often annually (at Zenith, a tenure track person is *not* reviewed only in the first year and the sixth.) The Zenith provost's office talks about this as an opportunity for mentoring, but in reality, it is a barrage of criticism aimed at young people who are constantly getting ready for a review, or getting ready for an observation, or recovering from same. Some of that criticism is aimed at "protecting" the department or university should tenure not ultimately be conferred, and can thus be erratic, meaningless and -- if followed -- push the scholarship in the wrong direction. It also means that the impulse is for young people to meet some standard for tenure at Zenith -- not find out who they are intellectually and act on it with conviction.

4. The trend at Zenith is for each reviewing body -- department, T & P, the Faculty board that reviews decisions, the Provost's office, and the Board of Trustees -- to outdo everyone else in their "high standards" so that they retain their "credibility." People talk like this, really they do. And as I may have said before on this blog, the problem with high standards is not that they are high -- it's that they are standard. And that the tenure decision becomes all about those who already have tenure showing off about the "excellence" they are promoting.



Sisyphus said...

Whuf! This is some heavy, depressing stuff.

All that you say about "professionalizing,""standardizing," and rigidifying sounds persuasive to me (I think I need an additional word to describe the timidity and lack of risks, but can't come up with another "ing" in the home stretch).

On the other hand, we have to think of tenure in relation to the universities rapidly becoming corporate --- interested in "excellence" and the bottom line. As has been happening with the humanities for 20 years now, universities have discovered that poorly-paid casual labor is cheaper and more docile than tenured, full-time faculty paid a comfortable wage. They are already quickly moving towards majority-adjunct faculty (in English, my field, something like 45% of all people teaching lit and writing are not on t-track), and their apologists on the right are calling for the end of tenure. If we were to abolish tenure I'm sure we would have complete adjunctification in a heartbeat.

So, even with the tenure system as perverse as it is, a lot of people feel that we can't criticize it or revamp it without risking the entire education system and our own jobs. (As a grad student, I'm not benefiting from it yet, but am incredibly invested in it.)

I guess the question is then: what is the tenure system for? And what can we imagine to put in its place that is humane and yet realistic?

Lesboprof said...

I do think that the Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Michigan, and Columbia jobs should be taken with a different mindset than other, what I would call, normal jobs. A friend I had at one of those schools called those jobs, "here or somewhere" jobs. Meaning, if you can work there for 5-6 years, you will surely be hired, probably with tenure, at a pretty good place. Now, that may not be true in all fields, but who wouldn't want to hire the person who didn't get tenure at these big schools? Usually, their portfolios are amazing and they are very impressive.

As someone who is waiting to hear about her tenure decision (she said, anxiously), I too believe in the tenure system. I think that it is necessary for free speech, goal-setting, creating a sense of an academic community, and providing some sense of consistency and leadership among the faculty.

That said, I do think it is flawed; it reminds me of the way we see student and pro athletes... Everyone has to be better, faster, taller, more impressive than ever before, if they want to play now! And the P&T committees can overstep their bounds, going beyond advising to basically tell pre-tenure faculty what to study, how to study it, where to publish, what grants to pursue, and so on. Then they punish faculty who do not do what they said. These actions seem to me to be outside their purview--especially if they actually do not do similar research--but it happens a lot.

I also agree with sisyphus that abolishing tenure can also lead to other problems, like an all-adjunct workforce, along with a fearful faculty who could not speak out on academic and other issues.

The Combat Philosopher said...

The timing of this post is facinating. I have just finished a post arguing for post-tenure review. If you get a moment, your thoughts would be welcome. I think our situations are rather disimilar. As best I can tell, we give tenure to lamp posts. Just recently, the pointy heads discovered tenuring people, but not promoting (thus we have assistant profs. with tenure -- go figure!).

Before ranting further though, let me help you with the technical issue. To add a link into the text is actually quite easy. In what follows, I will use '[' and ']' to stand for angle brackets (this will hopefully stop blogger getting confused and displaying stuff in an unhelpful way (we shall have to see if this works).

First principle, you have to link to something -- a word or a phrase. Suppose you wanted to add a link to the name 'Yale'. In order to do this, before the term you want to link to you have to place a tag to tell the browser that a link is about to start. You then have to tell the browser when the link needs to stop. This code goes around the word you want to link to. So, in the Yale example, the relevant commands would be (remember to replace the [] bits),

[a href=""]Yale[/a]

That is it! The first bit opens the link and tells the browser where to link to. The second bit (after the word linked to) tells the browser that the link is over. This code should just be typed into the text (it works best in html mode, in the editor).

A good trick, in case you forget, is to find a simple looking web page and then, using the relevant command on your browser, look at the html code and see how they do their links. Of course, this is assuming that a Mac will let you look at source code. On Firefox, the command is 'Page Source', which is under the 'View' menu. I hope that this helps.

For what it is worth, I quite like tenure and I think that it is useful. However, my case was easy. Not least because I had twice as many publications, in good places, than did the only person who voted against me! That being said, I have seen some very predictable tenure 'mistakes' since then.

The CP

anthony grafton said...

Great post, in every respect, and great comments. I feel very ambivalent here. On one side, the fight for tenure is not only miserable to go through, but also well designed to stamp out originality and quirkiness. On the other, I too fear the full adjunctification of an academic labor force that's already halfway there. As a historian, finally, I wonder about the fate of long-term, research-intensive projects in a world of rolling 5-year contracts. Tenure let me spend 10 years researching and writing a book that didn't look like anything I had ever read--and I can't imagine being given the kind of freedom I had as an associate professor in another system. It may well be, though, that the harms the system does outweigh such advantages.

In any event, I suspect tenure will disappear in the next couple of decades, as security has in the rest of the economy--except perhaps at rich schools, which will continue to offer it as a means of competing for the faculty they want. If that grim prediction is right, the current situation will look like bliss in retrospect.

Thanks again!

Dean Dad said...

Nicely done.

My personal view is that we have to kill tenure dead. Drive a stake through its cold, black heart, and dance on its grave.

Too often, thoughtful people (like lesboprof) jump to the assumption that the alternative to tenure is an all-adjunct, all-the-time workforce. Not the case. A system of multiyear renewable contracts for full-time faculty would allow people to make adult livings without being trapped forever in a location they chose only out of desperation in the first place. It would allow for greater risk-taking intellectually, since it would displace the 'electric typewriter' crowd from the seat of power (and LOVE that metaphor!), and yes, it would let us put some very dead wood where it belongs.

I've been reading lately about a brain drain in Germany, where many companies are organized like the academy is here. Talented professionals in their 30's are leaving in droves, since they're stuck behind aging boomers who have no intention of letting them advance. You can have seniority or meritocracy, but you can't have both.

The ratcheting-up of tenure requirements is a perversion of meritocracy. People who wouldn't come close to meeting the standards they set for others get to bleat on about 'academic standards,' while incredibly hard-working younger folk scrounge for jobs. That's insane.

In a true meritocracy, incumbents would have to defend their positions against newcomers. In a tenure system, incumbents judge newcomers. Should we be surprised that their judgments are often self-serving?

The irony is that I say all of this as a card-carrying lefty. I'm not out to gut the colleges. I want the colleges to stop gutting the young. The outsize costs of the tenure system are driving the move to adjunctery. A system that exploits the young so the deadwood can live forever is not a fair system.

Sorry to go on so long. This is one of my pet obsessions, and you addressed it thoughtfully and well.

LumpenProf said...

Thanks very much for your post on tenure and for the thoughtful responses it generated. It has been very helpful for me this week as I work through the aftermath of my own grotesque tenure process. It also inspired a blog entry that you can find here:

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