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

March 18, 2008, 8:51 pm

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.

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