What Do We Do About Tenure?

February 7, 2007, 2:05 pm

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.


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