Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Conquest; Or, Why Do We Still Think Tenure Is A Good System?

The truth is that many of us don't think tenure is a good system, and would prefer to be in a union. Tenure is, in fact, a more or less abusive system, and one that reproduces power hierarchies as they exist in society and in the university. Many of us who make it through the tenure process with the lifetime sinecure that is promised often do so because we are really good at repressing what actually happened. It is true that women, queers and people of color are not always turned down anymore just because our presence makes others uncomfortable, or just because the kind of knowledge we produce is actually critical of what more senior people in the department do. But it is also true that the people who control tenure nearly always make us hurt for it, even when we get it. I was lucky: I got to put the hurt off until I was being reviewed for full professor.

Then I was not so lucky. And frankly, even though I have my job and my promotion, and I more or less have my career back, I am still angry about those three lost years. It didn't have to happen, except that some people who don't like me very much -- and others, who were insecure enough that they longed to be perceived as having "standards" -- decided it should. And that year, not a single woman was promoted, either to tenure or to full professor. There were five of us. And there are people who still think that was just a coincidence.

Go here for a wonderful post by Oso Raro at Slaves of Academe on the Andrea Smith tenure case at the University of Michigan. Oso inspired the thoughts that became this post. He is right: Smith will get tenure somewhere. She is brilliant -- I mean, really brilliant. She has written a book called Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide that many of us use, and she was once on a panel that I organized, and the rest of us were more or less blown away by the intensity and depth of her intellect.

But each complicated tenure case -- and we have had several at Zenith, to which I can only allude that much, since there are still people who are angry at me for writing pseudonymously about peripheral features of these cases -- leaves endless circles of damage in its wake. The number of walking wounded out there is staggering. I traded some email with someone this morning who told a familiar story: working in a department where so many people had been turned down for tenure, the senior people had forgotten how not to be abusive as a matter of daily practice. Not only does a tenure case gone bad hurt the person who has been denied, it creates havoc for supporters of that person. Furthermore, relationships crack open when an entire narrative is built up around the failed case by supporters and by opponents that, in the end, bears almost no relationship to the truth of what happened.

Years ago, when I still lived in Manhattan part time, I was out walking my dog one morning when I encountered a man, also with dog, and the dogs began walking around in circles sniffing each other's behinds, as dogs do. The companion man and I exchanged a few words, and in seconds he was blowing his stack -- not at me in particular -- but at Zenith, because 'lo and behold, he had not only failed to get tenure at Zenith, but had failed to get tenure in my very same department some ten years previously. What were the chances of that? And if he talked this way to strangers...well, you get the point. This guy's tenure case had changed his life forever. For the worse.

Who else is hurt by tenure? All the people who are friends, lovers, children and companions of those who come up for tenure. People who get tenure are harmed by tenure, often because they have had to bow and scrape for so long before The Man and the women who are also The Man that they don't know how to get back up again. Or they are so damaged by the process that they turn around and do the same thing to the next candidate coming up the pipeline.

Each tenure case, successful or failed, is an object lesson to the next cohorts coming up. Untenured faculty watch them like hawks, trying to glean information. What should I do? How many shall I write? Was K really turned down because s/he didn't live in Zenith -- went to the wrong dinner parties -- published in the wrong journals? Didn't publish enough? Did they count the articles that were out at journals when s/he was hired? Did the book come out too late -- too soon? Was s/he -- lower your voice to a hush -- "difficult?"

Of course, we are not allowed to tell. As Oso argues in his post, that would wreck the only thing that really makes tenure valuable: its mystery.

I have argued against tenure for several reasons: that it destroys mobility in the job market. That we would do better financially, and in terms of job security and freedom of speech, in unions. That it creates sinecures which are, in some cases, undeserved. That it is an endless waste of time, for the candidate and for the evaluators, that could be better spent writing and editing other people's work. That it creates a kind of power that is responsible and accountable to no one. That it is hypocritical, in that the secrecy is designed to protect our enemies' desire to speak freely -- but in fact we know who our enemies are, and in the end, someone tells us what they said. But here is another reason that tenure is wrong:

It hurts people.


Lab Cat said...

Tenure sucks. I'm one of the walking wounded from a failed tenure battle. I will never be the same again. But hopefully not as bitter as the man with the dog.

But still...

Anonymous said...

Wow--what did you sprinkle on your Wheaties this morning, TR? That is some passionate posting.

I don't think I can quite go all the way with you on the abolition of tenure--those of us who live in Red States/flyover country and/or work in public universities still need the protection of tenure, in the event we haven't been totally neutered in the process of seeking it. I learned that in 2002-2003, when teh war was still officially a Great Idea that Everyone Agreed with Except for a Few Commie Terrorist-Loving Professors. Also, 2003 was the year that the faculty at my university successfully fought off the Governor's suggestion that a political hack crony with a B.A. might make a great president of our university.

But, you're totally right that tenure hurts people, and too few of us make the most of it once we've got it. We all know that people are hurt by tenure, but we end up concealing this from others because of our own shame (if we were denied tenure), or because we want to deny the price that it has extracted of us even when successful. I'm sorry, lab cat, that you've been ground down by the system too.


Anonymous said...

I teach at the second-tier state university up the road from Zenith. We have both a union (AAUP) and a tenure system, so the two are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, at state universities, both systems work do keep management from undercutting basic academic freedoms and turning over all teaching to part-time contingent faculty members.
Yes, going through tenure is stressful, but how is eliminating it going to make things any better? Seems it will make things worse.

Kimberly Alidio said...

Thank you for this post. It helps me prepare myself as I go up next year.

anthony grafton said...

Thanks, TR, for another great post. The system is ridiculous. The process is destructive: people from my cohort who didn't get tenure are still smarting, and that's half a lifetime ago. And even the success stories are deeply problematic. At least in the elite private sector, where you and I work. But I really think the situation's different, as Historiann and Heather Munro Prescott argue, in other parts of the forest, from some church schools to some state ones. This is a very repressive country, and in a lot of it tenure still matters to anyone who wants to think, and speak, for him- or herself.

So how can we assure protection for innovative research and free speech and not grind so many people up in the process?

Brian W. Ogilvie said...

There are places where tenure doesn't suck. In my department, we hire people with the intention of helping them do what they need to do to get tenure, not trying to get in their way. And I haven't noticed the chase for tenure cowing junior colleagues. As an untenured faculty member I published a letter in the CHE criticizing the chairman of my state board of higher education, and I was involved in a march on the dean's office to demand authorization for a pair of searches. But then, we have a union; as Heather Munro Prescott noted, the two can go together at publics. Ours has negotiated a generous parental leave policy, among other things.

Frankly, in the job market that we've had for the last thirty+ years, I can't imagine why a department should not have a very high tenure rate. Sure, there will be the occasional problem, but when you have 50-200 bona fide applicants for a position, it's a pretty poor search committee that can't select someone who is pretty likely to get tenure--IF you then help whomever you hire do what's necessary to get tenure. I do know, from friends who teach at private institutions and at poisonous departments in public institutions, that things can be very different. But that difference suggests that reform--and some dope slaps to the many jerks who have power over tenure in some places--might be a better approach.

I've long thought that one of the benefits that tenure brings accrues neither to the individual nor the institution, but to the discipline. Once someone is tenured, their scholarly specialty is not going to disappear from their institution until they do. One of the missions of scholarship is stewardship. At least at large institutions, tenure insulates unpopular disciplinary specialties from extinction without, ideally, preventing new ones from joining the field.

And like Heather, I wonder what the replacement would be. I'm generally suspicious of slippery slope arguments, but if tenure were abolished, I wonder how long it would be until administrators drove us back to the one-year contracts that characterized American universities in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the abuse of which led to the present tenure system.

anthony grafton said...

Good point, Brian: flagship state schools often have a strong tenure-track system which works very much in the interests of junior faculty.

This is not so much the case at the private research universities I know: amazing people, who should get tenure, regularly fail to do so even though they have cleared every bar within reason and some without. The more ambitious the school, the worse the horror stories.

As to the old, pre-tenure system: you're absolutely right, we wouldn't want it back.

The Constructivist said...

To back up what Heather and Brian said, there are departments where being in a union and having a decent tenure system happen. I'd suggest that it's more likely to happen outside the R1 track than anywhere else. In fact, given that most of us off the R1 track were grad students at R1 places, we got to see up close and personal the damage f-ed up tenure traditions do (all my non-tenured dissertation readers were denied tenure the year before I defended, and I still remember walking home the day I found out literally wanting to kill several of the senior faculty I knew had voted against them).

Craig Smith and I have been discussing tenure intermittently at FACE Talk and CitizenSE--hope you join in, TR!

Anonymous said...

So, TR, you going to give up your tenure since you so oppose it? Go on, do something really radical!

Tenured Radical said...

Dear anonymous 6:05,

Not unless I give up my job: the terms of my job require that I work within the tenure system. And no, being jobless seems like a far too radical move at this stage of my life. But that does not mean I would give up agitating to have this job without tenure.

Are you going to give up your right to needle me anonymously?


Brian W. Ogilvie said...

I agree with Tony and the Constructivist that many R1s and elite liberal arts colleges behave awfully in their tenure and pre-tenure reviews. Some seem to deny tenure--or even pre-tenure contract renewal--just to encourage the others. (At least they don't shoot them.) Those places need reform. The problem is that those who do get tenured at places like that, and thus are in a position to change the system, tend to identify with it since they survived it.

Susan said...

As a victim of the tenure process 20 years ago at an SLAC not far from Zenith, I'm no longer angry. Sometimes I am relieved not to be in that context, because I was able to find work that has suited me well at a school without a tenure system. That was great until the school was in financial difficulties and we went from multi-year contracts to one year contracts. One year, they just terminated everyone whose contract made it possible -- a faculty defined not by ability, subject, or anything but the luck of hte contract cycle. So I guess I'm wary of alternative to tenure.

As for what difference not getting tenure has made, some (not all) of my ongoing insecurities are products of the experience. I suffered from mild depression for three or four years after the decision. On the other hand, going to a very different institution has been intellectually stimulating. I wouldn't wish the tenure fight on my worst enemy, but I'm glad I am where I am now. How is that for wishy-washy?

GayProf said...

The tenure process can make even reasonable people turn into vicious jail keepers.

Anonymous said...

I've been at places with humane tenure systems - the more transparent, the better; this gets back to Oso Raro's point about the value of mystery. The more you can reduce that mystery, the better off we are.

People who get tenure are harmed by tenure, often because they have had to bow and scrape for so long before The Man and the women who are also The Man that they don't know how to get back up again. Or they are so damaged by the process that they turn around and do the same thing to the next candidate coming up the pipeline.

Despite being someone who got jettisoned by the tenure process partway through, I think this is almost the worst part about the whole thing; the good thing about not getting renewed at 3rd year review is that if I had been renewed, and if I had stayed till the tenure review, and if I had made it through that successfully (all of which were pretty big ifs), I really think it would have made me a worse person. Really. I'm not happy about how it happened, but I'm glad to be out of the system.

The Constructivist said...

I respond at greater length over at CitizenSE, but since I ran out of time there and have a couple of minutes before a department meeting now, let me just mention that I believe there's a possible connection between the size of a school's endowment and the unreasonableness of its approach to tenure.

Anonymous said...

I am completely freaked out by the mysteries of the tenure process and have decided not to pursue a t-t job, but instead to work toward getting either a permanent lectureship or a split admn/lectshp position, many of which are held by people at my institution. I don't think I want to deal with the pressure and anxiety of not knowing how to court all the right people into my camp.

I am currently benefiting from the fact that someone else did not get tenure, as I hold a visiting position to replace someone who elected to take their "terminal" year as a leave year. I have "replaced," due to overlapping scholarly interests, a very brilliant teacher, a dedicated colleague in all the fields of experertise with which hir work crossed, and a highly respected scholar with numerous prestigious publications. Why this person did not get tenure has never been explained to me. It was very controversial, inspiring student protests. (I have no idea if the department waged any sort of protest. It's all part of the secrecy.) I sincerely hope this person is using this year to find a job where s/he will be appreciated. I don't think I could measure up. If s/he couldn't get tenure here, what must it take?

The Constructivist said...

In my experience, people do land on their feet. My advisors who got denied tenure on similarly mysterious yet idiotic grounds are at Duke, Bard, and back at Princeton (after a lawsuit). In fact, Princeton English has gone from being a dysfunctional snake pit full of mine fields to a well-run dept. Probably that's why one of our candidates this year chose them before we could make her a counteroffer!

Dean Dad said...

Preach on, TR!

The point about geographic mobility is almost never even addressed by the apologists for tenure. If nobody leaves, then no openings develop for new people, and nobody gets to move. That's fine if you landed where you wanted to, but for most academics, that's just not reality.

Keep fighting the good fight!

Craig @ AFT said...

Okay, getting to this late in the game, but as Bruce said, we have been working through some of this on our blogs. For me, I am just not convinced you can have a conversation about tenure outside of the whole staffing structure. The current structure simply exacerbates all of the problems with tenure and makes the arguments to keep/reform it harder. But pitching the institution as a whole just plays into the direction we are headed in terms of underpaid, term to term employees. Brian worries about a slippery slope, but for me, we are already a good way down the slope he worries about.

Anonymous said...

What if departments just had to publicly give the reason for denying tenure? Would that change things? (Or would they lie, find a way to come up with vague reasons, etc.)?

It might make people less angry, though, if it were possible to know. Maybe it isn't always politics. Maybe sometimes the person denied tenure was a really crummy teacher who canceled half their classes to go to conferences or something. Who knows...

I also wonder if the amount of people rejected for tenure would go down if getting tenure did not involve a high pay increase. What if universities just had a high starting salary and moderate increases? Could that change the number of people who get tenure?

Professor Zero said...

I don't think it's the tenure system that causes the abuse.

Professor Zero said...

...that is, it does cause it, but the abuse would be there in another form anyway, and I can't figure out another way not just to safeguard academic freedom but to have faculty with some kind of power other than labor power / collective bargaining power (if we could get that).

I am old fashioned: I think the university is the faculty and the library, and then the students except that they as individuals are more transitory. I like the idea of a university with empowered, longtime faculty that shape it.

Professor Zero said...

...and I say these things as a person who had trouble getting tenure, and had various forms of trouble afterward, too. Perhaps I am too kind in attributing the first causes of said trouble to factors other than the tenure system.

One thing I'm glad about though is having decided to be outspoken before tenure. This meant not getting as beaten down / denatured as I might have done. That, I knew at the time, was a tenure risk, but it's better to risk that than your character, I figured.

Rent Party said...

P.S. Anonymous:

"...if getting tenure did not involve a high pay increase. What if universities just had a high starting salary and moderate increases? Could that change the number of people who get tenure?"

I am not aware of any universities where getting tenure involved a pay increase (promotion involves a small one, but then merit raises are also pay increases). Normally, universities have low starting salaries (compared to other professions) and moderate increases, and that's it. I think you've heard of a couple of superstar salaries. Those aren't normal.

Brian W. Ogilvie said...

Rent party: some universities do have large raises on promotion (and promotion to associate professor usually comes with tenure). At my university the promotion raise is about $9000 for new associate professors, and about $11000 for new full professors.

Average salary data are available from the Chronicle of Higher Education's website, courtesy of the AAUP.

Anonymous said...

Could someone summarize the exact connection between tenure and academic freedom?

Tenured Radical said...


The idea is that if you can't be fired, you are intellectually free to speak and write (within ethical boundaries: Ward Churchill, etc.) without being punished for it by those who actually run teh university.

That we can't guarantee free speech without tenure is peculiar. But I think the US history of tenure's importance to academic freedom goes back to WWI, and the struggle between the trustees of Columbia and faculty members (Charles Beard prominent among them) who opposed the war. Contrary to common knowledge, Beard was not fired by hte trustees: they threatened to fire him and he left, helping to found the New School for Social Research in Greenwich Village. Ironically, now the part-time faculty at the New School have been unionized by the UAW.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the thoughtful reply. It does clear out some things, especially the historical context. I still have a hard time wrapping my head around the connections made by defenders of the tenure system. I'm certainly willing to hear more about these connections. They're simply foreign to me (raised in Quebec).
For the record, I'm not (yet) on the tenure-track but my wife is.

Anonymous said...

I got $600 per annum for promotion to assoc prof! Even here the average raise is higher but that average is high because of high raises in medicine / business / law, not arts and sciences. The university keeps telling us what average salaries are, but I don't know many people who actually make those averages. I have learned not to trust the data universities submit to places like CHE. More realistic info is in their own budgets (usually available at the reference desk in the library in public institutions). In my experience the big $ difference is between salaries / benefits of tenure track people and of instructors / adjuncts.

Academic freedom is also faculty *authority*. I've seen adjuncts fired just because they vote the "wrong" way on textbook selection. You need tenure to be able to actually contribute your expertise to your institution.

In our research park they have scientists working on long contracts. Get a good evaluation, get a 5 year contract. Problems, shorter contract, then it can move to longer again when you get more papers out. This is their alternative to tenure. This is the
industrial-type model of things. Perhaps worth considering but: who is in charge of these people, who decides about them, and on what basis? From what I gather it is the market; if your discipline isn't oriented toward creating useful technological equipment that sells well, then things are different.

I don't deny that there are problems with the tenure system but
I really don't think the answer is to throw it out. I.E., I'm not sure it's a first cause.

Anonymous said...

... and ... as I keep thinking about this: very many faculty I know can't afford summer places or children ready to go to college (except here, of course, but we couldn't afford to send them elsewhere). If we had to *also* give up tenure, in this state which does not even pay into social security, the whole thing would just not be viable. I'd go into business instantly for a higher salary if I didn't have a tenured situation.

I'd love to have a union and bargain for high pay so that we could have savings and then not fear the terminal contract, but we only have four faculty members in this large university who are willing to act on unionization. And I see the post-tenure world all around me and it looks like a Wal*Mart, not like a university.

My point of view is perhaps eccentric since the time I didn't get tenure, it had to do with things in my life, not the university, and it wasn't traumatic, and I had Prospects - and I was more worried about my health than anything else, and that, again, didn't have to do with the university.

But there is so much about the structure of universities that hurts people, that I don't think they can be fixed by abolishing tenure - something the CEO types in charge would *love* because it would fit right in with their plans for the creation of a totally flexible workforce.

So I guess in my long winded way I am agreeing with heather munro prescott's much more succinct comment.

I also agree with Ogilvie (up thread). I've worked in poisonous departments where people didn't get tenure because of the poison, and also in mismanaged departments where people didn't get tenure because negligent chairs didn't create for them situations in which a person could get tenure. But mostly, people do get tenure.

I think it isn't the tenure system, it's the workplace abuse which *does* seem to me to be endemic to academia, and I don't think abolishing the tenure system would stop that.

Having tenure means you can stand up for yourself. It means that if you grieve for harassment or abuse,
accomodations have to be made. That's why I'm for extending it and its protections to more people, not fewer. In an ideal world this would not be necessary, it's true, but the current world is so far from ideal!

Anonymous said...

My question would be how the union organizing is actually going. I worked on it in academia when I was younger and it was not always what people wanted (although I did). But the tenure system is one of the few protections you've got. If you are going to drop it, I'd recommend unionizing first. Then, and only then, consider dropping the tenure system if it's really that bad - not the other way around.

Also keep in mind that politics of unions can be tricky, too. I work union now and I'm glad, but it's no panacea, especially when you're dealing, as you probably would be in academia, with both NRLB and with whatever labor laws govern higher education in your state.

Anonymous said...

Clarification: I work union now in my *other* job - (yes I have a summer job like the students, to pay off old loans and also because state employees don't get social security in Louisiana, so I need a summer job that will pay into it, since I don't make enough in academia to really ever retire on just TIAA-CREF money).

As I say, I keep trying to get people to unionize, and I did successfully spearhead unionization of TAs in graduate school, but it is not an easy battle. And I really don't think that the abolition of tenure would cause a groundswell toward unionization.

Remember the 1930s in the U.S. They had to bring in the New Deal because things were bad enough that we could have had a revolution. It could have been a revolution to the left, but it could just as well have been a revolution to the right.

...So now I will finally shut up...

Anonymous said...

Hi Tenured Radical,

As someone who was denied tenure at Zenith I appreciate reading your thoughts.

But I have to say with several of the other posters: institutions often show just what they are made of when they do stupid and mean things. Tenure is just an occasion to do a particular terrible thing.

One check on this stupidity and meanness is that tenure decisions are also occasions for institutions to lose or change their reputations.

Zenith, for instance, is (in reputation) bleeding out,-- not because of any one case, say for instance, mine, but because of an atmosphere of ugliness that made my case possible.

A famous poet recently told me something I am taking to heart: rejection is protection. I think you are right with much you say, however, Zenith from my experience is perhaps one of the worst perpetrators of forthrightly stupid (and peculiarly acid) tenure decisions--the system can work differently and more humanely and actually does most other places (I have had occasion to talk to many people from all over due to my own case). My favorite comment from someone very senior in my field (I do not know this scholar personally) was: "Have they gone insane?"

I love unions and wish with you that they would clean up the shop a bit. But until then I like that *you* have tenure--I like that you can do what you want as you want. I'm also sorry that Zenith is going through a bad spell, that does hurt everyone. But at the moment along with hurting people, it is ripping what was a fine institutional reputation to bits. And it will have to be carefully and painstakingly rebuilt after this present crumbling stops. New President does seem to want to do just this--I think he has a fighting chance when the dust settles. But what I loved about Zenith is no longer there, so frankly I now see it (though this took a while) as a gift to be forced to leave. (Though the kick in the finances is a bit hard to feel great about.)

There are those of us, however, who like being happy enough that being amid so many miserable (some out of sadness some out of meanness) people for the rest of our career seems worse than leaving a career in which we've invested huge amounts of time.

In short, I wonder if Zenith's present failure to thrive isn't actually the cause of much of the badness you point to rather than the tenure system--after all, mobile associate and full professors and those who can retire early seem pretty eager to jump ship--maybe tenure is merely one particularly visible (someone is there or is not there) occasion for bad behavior and cowardice.

Perhaps the problem--though I usually think in more institutional terms--here is individual bad behavior going unchecked and an increasing shrill righteousness going unchallenged. Maybe?

I normally don't like anonymous posts but this one must be anonymous for obvious reasons.

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Anonymous said...

Tenure does not protect academic freedom. The process itself filters out anyone that thinks differently before tenure is attained. At three different universities, I saw the senior faculty homogenize departments through the tenure process. In a five-year period, my one former department lost or jettisoned eight junior faculty...in a department of nine.
The harm done by the tenure process is a harm done by captains of business posing as administrators that convince faculty to eat their young. The faculty that advocates higher standards than they attained for tenure are abusing unprotected people because a) they think that administrators will welcome them into their ranks with huge salary increases; and b) they can.
We do this to ourselves and claim that we must in order to keep out the fakers. It turns out the fakers are the ones we see in the mirror. I worked in industry before my Ph.D. with higher pay, better benefits, greater job security, and no union. Why is tenure such a good gig?