The End of Tenure
Via email, I’ve been asked my thoughts on tenure and the troubles it can cause, so I’d like to wade into that very heated debate. Hopefully, the piranhas aren’t biting today.
Okay, the argument against tenure is easy to understand. How many jobs have a milestone which, once one has passed it, makes it nearly impossible to be fired? And many students have encountered tenured professors who are somewhat hostile or arrogant. There are incidents of professors abusing their position in any number of ways. In particular, tenure critics site professors using their classroom to promote what they see as “correct” political opinions. This, conflated with the fact that a numerical majority of academics are registered Democrats, seems to indicate a situation rife with abuse. Add in the fact that academics are, to some extent, subsidized by taxpayer money, and the anti-tenure argument pretty much writes itself.
Here is the argument in classical form by Megan McAardle: to wit, professors are jerks and the system sucks; let’s get rid of tenure.
Those who are against tenure have reason to be happy too, since American universities are already phasing out tenure in what’s been called a massive nationwide structural change. As tenured profs retire, many universities are simply replacing them with adjuncts, part-timers, and grad students. This makes economic sense: you can pay grad students and adjuncts considerably less money per course. It’s easy to prevent abuse because it’s easy to fire an “at will” employee: you just don’t renew their contract. Administrators gain a great deal control over the course material and classroom environment in this way. In the future, university courses will rarely be taught by tenured academics. In fact, at present, the majority of American college courses are taught by instructors who are neither tenured, nor on the tenure track.
This adds a level of irony to the anti-tenure argument; the proponents often complain that lazy tenured profs offload their work to overworked, underpaid, exploited and disrespected adjuncts and grad students… which is the main outcome of getting rid of tenure. The problem with the anti-tenure argument, as with all arguments driven by anger or resentment, is that it offers no workable alternative model. I’m actually okay with getting rid of tenure, but why not find something better? Even if academics are jerks.
The unforeseen negative consequences of this structural change also seem obvious. Adjuncting is a difficult way to make a living: the pay is lousy, universities treat you with no respect or loyalty, tenured academics look down their nose, and meanwhile, you generally work 60-80 hours per week and schlep across the map trying to cobble together enough courses to make the money to pay your bills; even when you’re working a full schedule, you’re still making about as much as a manager at Wal-Mart. There are plenty of reasons they call it “adjunct hell”. It would be better termed “temping”.
Okay, sure, work sucks all over. But, how many “shit jobs” require about a decade of grad school? I fail to see how the system is supposed to endure once we ask the best and brightest students, en masse, to willingly give up a decade or so of their lives and take on thousands of dollars in debt, in order to be treated as temps. Right now, the system works as a sort of pyramid scheme: if even just ten percent of post-docs make the tenure track, everyone else thinks they have a shot and, should they fail to make it, see themselves as academic failures. However, when we reach the point that grad students realize this is the norm, I don’t exactly think they’re going to “go Galt”; but I do think they’ll realize that the corporate world is actually willing to treat PhDs like valued employees. I don’t imagine the adjunct pyramid scheme can last forever. I already tell intelligent undergrads asking about grad school that they should consider something more stable.
And how good can your teaching be when you’re a grad student trying to write a dissertation or an adjunct teaching whatever you can get in order to keep food on the table? In my experience, for all of the talk about teaching being a natural gift, it’s actually a skill that you develop over time. Part of the reason that admins are so willing to invest in temps is that they generally have no experience with teaching a course themselves and imagine it’s very easy- you just stand there and “deliver the information” to students. Consequently, some universities are asking older profs to copy their lecture notes so that grad students can “deliver” the same “information”. The logical next step would be hiring struggling actors to play instructors. I’ve already stated my concerns about the fact that the people in charge of universities care so little about teaching, and increasingly, I see their lack of concern reflected in the quality of their graduates.
Moreover, giving middle managers more control by replacing profs with temps seems, to me, to be an excellent way to institutionalize grade inflation. I know of plenty of temps who have received the email from the administrators at the beginning of classes: “Our experts inform us that ____% of students this age, in an average class, will receive an A. Something to keep in mind when making up your grades!” Or the one I’ve gotten (and deleted): “Educational experts believe that a young person’s self esteem can be damaged, in some cases irreparably, by receiving a failing grade in a course. This can condemn them to a life of serious psychological issues, as well as driving them away from the educational system altogether. Keep this in mind!” When an adjunct at SUNY Binghamton, who taught a popular course there for over a decade, was quoted in the NY Times saying the administrators were pressuring her to inflate the grades for the athletes in her course, her course was immediately dropped, by sheer coincidence no doubt.
Lastly, I’m not a believer that the sort of corporate politesse, in which everyone has the “right” to never hear an opinion that they disagree with, is good for young minds. If you look at everything that is mediocre, watered-down, banal, politically-correct, and above all therapeutic in academia, it’s guaranteed that an administrator somewhere thought it was a good idea. And the most pernicious sort of political correctness in universities is the unwillingness to admit that some students simply don’t belong in college and are wasting their time. As in high schools, the norm is becoming to pass them along. I’ve heard cynical adjuncts say, “Well, I can’t flunk them, but they’re going to learn their lesson when they get into the corporate world!” So will the corporate world. If you have any interest in academic standards, you have to keep someone on campus who can tell a failing student that they’re doing a lousy job without being fired for it.
Alas, honest assessment is seen as a faux pas. I am a pessimist; but I can’t be alone in worrying that society is now rife with mediocrity in every corner, and that the main problem is that we now respond to mediocrity by taking the mediocre thing and burying it under a pile of hype and bullshit. I meet entirely too many people my age whose greatest skill is “marketing themselves”. Academics should swim against this tide. They’re supposed to be gadflies, not therapists.
For all the stories of abusive professors, I’ve personally seen many more situations in which professionally-offended undergrads go on crusades to get perfectly reasonable profs fired. One semester, we had a mass walkout of our “World Civ” class because the professor dared to say that the Greeks were more accepting of bisexuality than we might imagine; when they demanded his head, they were told he had tenure. I’m okay with that. Frankly, I’d rather thwart the close-minded babies in their neverending crusade to make college ever more politically correct and boring.
In general, I do think there should probably be something in-between adjuncting and the tenure track to empower those who love to teach to develop their skills without having to run on the publish-or-perish treadmill in order to have job security. This two-track model makes no sense. But strengthening the current system, in which students pay thousands of dollars for a degree nearly worth the paper it’s printed on, and there are no middle managers left behind, does not seem like a recipe for reform.