Will Tenure Survive? On Cary Nelson's No University Is an Island

08/19/2010 01:24 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Cary Nelson's book No University Is an Island brings together many of the different issues currently facing universities. While his main theme is academic freedom, he is able to locate this central educational value at the intersection of several interlocking forces: privatization, casualization, corporatization, and globalization. Nelson, the current president of AAUP, asks the essential question of what happens to the ability of faculty to teach, research, and communicate when profit has replaced the public good, and when public institutions are being privatized, while job security is being casualized. By invoking the general concept of neoliberalism, Nelson shows how even the most secure and privileged faculty are threatened by the growing power of business-oriented administrators who have wrestled most aspects of shared governance away from professors. From his perspective, without tenure, there can be no academic freedom, and without academic freedom, there can be no shared governance.

In reading Nelson's book, I was surprised to note that virtually all of the examples of corporatization and privatization that Nelson documents from around the world have recently occurred in the University of California system. This includes administrators pushing expensive, untested online programs, faculty having their emails read, Right-wing groups trying to censor teachers, the creation of ad hoc committees to circumvent normal shared governance, the push to defund the humanities, the creation of false budget emergencies to enact hidden agendas, and the persecution of university whistleblowers to name just a few. Not only have I discussed all of these issues in my blog, [] but my own program, where I teach at UCLA, has been victimized by all of these destructive processes.

Not only did I discover this year that some administrators were receiving all of my emails, but, a couple of years ago, our campus had to fight an outside Right-wing group that was paying students to record teachers saying anti-conservative and "anti-American" things. If this was not bad enough, UCLA recently decided to set up their own internal web site so that students and other community members could report acts of bias. This type of digital surveillance system surely has a chilling effect on academic freedom.

Of course, one of the greatest threats to academic freedom that Nelson discusses is the growing use of contingent faculty who often have no academic freedom protections. While the union contract regulating the lecturers in the UC system gives the non-tenured faculty the same academic freedom rights as the tenured faculty, lecturers often have to self-censor themselves because many of them rely on getting high student evaluations to keep their job; furthermore, most of these contingent faculty members around the country can be fired without just cause. Moreover, as more faculty members join the ranks of the untenured, the loss of academic freedom is coupled with an increase in administrative power.

The greatest strength of Nelson's book is that it constantly returns to the idea that only the faculty working collectively can defend the university as a public good. By chiding some of his colleagues for focusing too much on their own careers, he makes a strong plea for all faculty members to take back their institutions, and by documenting cases of effective faculty resistance, Nelson provides a glimmer of hope in these dark times.

One area where Nelson has been a national leader is in the fight to secure better pay and job security for non-tenured faculty. In his book, he floats the idea of providing tenure for all, and recently the AAUP has come out with a specific plan to provide tenure for instructors. While we need to applaud Nelson's courageous stand, one has to wonder whether this proposal has any chance of being adopted by major research universities.

While the conversion of non-tenured positions to tenured positions might not cost that much more money, it would radically limit the budgetary flexibility of university administrators. Furthermore, many tenured faculty will resist the idea of pouring more permanent funds into teaching and not into research. However, we need to acknowledge that Nelson's plan does counter the call to get rid of tenure and research made most recently by Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus in their book Higher Education?.

Whether it is through granting tenure to instructors or providing secure long-term contracts to teachers, it is clear that American higher education can only be saved if universities and colleges make instruction a central priority. Not only is no university an island, but no faculty member can teach and research as an isolated individual. Nelson's call for solidarity should be supported by all people working in higher ed today.