THE BLOG

Tenure, Fairness, and Fear(lessness)

06/09/2015 11:34 pm ET | Updated Jun 10, 2016

Tenure is supposed to make people bold, but this summer it seems to be making them shy.

Wisconsin's move to strip tenure protection for state university professors from its statutes (and put it in the hands of the university's appointed political overseers) has stirred a muted and ambivalent response. The New York Times ran a piece musing on whether tenure has a future. Smart people are writing essays on whether higher education is an anachronistic scandal, a remnant of a corrupt old world. From the left, members (or former members) of the adjunct class, the great exploited mass of today's academia, are saying that, if tenure doesn't do anything for them, they have no loyalty to it. This is not to mention people on the right who have been hammering at "tenured radicals" for years and will take any chance to stick a shiv in a professorial flank.

Several trends are pressing against tenure. People who think tenure is worth defending need to pay attention to all of them.

- The class division within the universities. Radical adjuncts are right: their teaching produces value for their schools, which well-salaried tenured faculty get a cut of, and adjuncts basically don't. From their perspective, the tenured faculty are passive accomplices in their exploitation. Tenure is a class divide that they see from below: why should they feel anything but resentment for it?

- Tuition, debt, and university-as-business. Students load up on debt to pay high tuitions, both at private universities and at public ones, which are racing to catch up with the privates in their fees (and, therefore, their students' debt loads). They're sometimes accused of being spoiled consumers, but my impression is that they are earnestly anxious about whether they're getting their money's worth; after all, it is a lot of money, and they are entering a precarious and unequal economy. Students talk about "return on investment" in a way that was unheard of when most of today's professors were in college; but of course they are, literally, investing much more than we did, much of it not their own money.

The more these kinds of market pressures get into the capillaries of an institution, the more anomalous tenure seems. Surely anxious investors should have some say over the assets they are funding?

- The precarious economy generally. One senior and widely admired scholar recently opened some comments about the Wisconsin tenure reforms by saying that he wasn't going to defend a privilege that most American workers don't have -- that is, his job security. In an economy where so many people are subject to firing for any reason or none at all -- and where that is increasingly what is seen as normal, just the natural state of the labor market -- it is embarrassing to say that you have so much more security than the average worker. Do you think you're so special?

Tenure is less strange than it's made out to be. Across the developed world, many economies have much more job security than in the US: their faculty don't always have "tenure," but, like most other workers, and like tenured faculty here, they can be dismissed only for cause. It's true for some jobs in the US, too; but both the reality and the myth of our at-will labor market make tenure protection seem stranger and more extreme than it is.

- Privilege politics. The theme of privilege has helped to make visible many forms of unequal power that have been invisible, from sexism embedded in everyday life to police racism and violence. But, like any politics, it has its ways of misfiring. Especially because it often turns out to amount to naming and acknowledging differences in lived experience, it can, for example, create the impression that being treated respectfully by police and other public officials is simply "white privilege." It is that; but it is also citizenship. The real problem being identified here is not that many Americans are treated as citizens, but that many are not. Wherever that is true, the system is structurally racist. But being treated as a citizen is still the right relationship between a person and the government. No one should have misgivings about that. Everyone should be outraged that it is systematically denied to some people.

Most privilege activists understand this perfectly well. I suspect the confusion creeps in, mainly, among privileged people, such as white liberals like me, who are eager to "confess" their privilege, either because it's so darn easy to do, or in a certain sad bafflement that there is so little else one can do about deep structures of race and inequality. But the upshot is sometimes embarrassment about any status or power, an impulse to disown it symbolically (almost never in practice) in lieu of trying to find ways to extend it.

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Defending tenure should mean owning it without embarrassment -- and also pressing against those forces that tend to make it a source of embarrassment. Tenured and tenure-track faculty could do better in both respects.

First, we should make common cause with adjuncts. We should press our universities to use them less, and in less exploitative ways: in positions that are more likely to lead to permanent jobs, for instance. This is easier for rich schools, like Duke, where I teach, than for more strapped places, like the UNC system, whose flagship Chapel Hill campus is just down the road. But everyone should press on this point. Ask: does my school really need a new gym? Do we really need a new campus in Singapore? Or should we be investing in preparing young scholars and teachers for a lifetime of good work? In theory, universities remain self-governing institutions, with the faculty responsible for many of the major decisions. In practice, we have given up much of this, much of it because we can't be bothered to go to meetings. But here, the future of everything we do may be at stake.

Second, we should name the basic disagreement in the tenure fight. Is job security a legitimate goal for individuals, for professions, and for a country or a civilization? I think it is. When much of the modern American university system grew up in the mid-twentieth century, this was a mainstream idea for jobs of all kinds. Now it's regarded as cheating against the rules of the market. I understand why tenured professors who think that tenure is cheating prefer to shuffle around silently when tenure is in dispute. But if you think security is a legitimate ideal -- not a privilege to be ashamed of but one that should be extended -- then you should say so.

Third, though it's an uphill fight, we should press for re-funding public higher education. It used to be possible to study law or medicine at a first-rate state school without going into massive debt. That's true in very few places now. Someday, maybe it will be true again.

We should also refuse to take for granted an economy where everyone is hounded to maximize productivity at all times, and perennial insecurity is the key to the kingdom of efficiency. Our students should know that, even if the precarious economy feels unavoidable, it is the result of legal and political choices, which could be changed by people who want to live differently. Who else will tell them?

It's natural to ask why professors should want job protection while training skillful professionals (which is a paying market anyway) and insubordinate citizens (which is not), work that, as far as I can tell, most of us would do for free if we didn't have to worry about getting ourselves housed and fed. It seems to me you wouldn't want fearful and sycophantic people doing that work, and that, aside from certain miracles of temperament, it's only objective security that can make a person relatively fearless.

But that is not really something that makes professors special. Rather, it is good for people to make their lives less fearsome and their minds less fearful. Those of us who have some of that privilege in our working lives should hold our heads high and try to be allies to others who are working to get their share of it. There's no shame in having security, only in keeping other people from it.