Should The New York Times exist?
Ha—you’re thinking, “What an unfair question!” Or “You’ve framed the debate in an obviously unfair or careless way.”
And right you are. But since I’m a rich and powerful chunk of media capital with a stake in the answer, I don’t care what you think, and I’m free to compound the injury by holding a false “debate” on a question that unfairly asks one side to argue for its existence.
Enter The New York Times and its latest bungled attempt at analyzing higher ed, which just riffs on a piece reported by Robin Wilson for The Chronicle. As if framing a loaded question weren’t enough, they stack the deck, a couple of different ways. In the more obvious manipulation of the lineup, opponents of tenure outnumber proponents 3-2.
More importantly: In a debate about the “demise” of tenure, the debate’s framers don’t include any voices of persons who are living the circumstances they purport to examine: the life of career faculty, full time or part time, with a teaching-intensive load and a nontenurable contract. One participant is on a nontenurable research contract—for a Harvard outfit that does management consulting for higher-ed administration, natch. But that’s like dressing up the testimony of someone who’s always driven a Rolls as the honest voice of straphangers—the near-volunteer faculty on freaking food stamps, like Monica, Andy, and many others.
As it turns out, 95 percent of the sense made in this debate is contained in the 40 percent assigned to the pro-tenure folks. AAUP president Cary Nelson patiently explains the centrality of tenure for academic freedom, and USC’s Adrianna Kezar points to the real debate we should be having—about the high cost of nontenurable hiring in higher education, especially for the majority of faculty whose appointments are teaching intensive, and the students they try to serve in the unsavory conditions management has created.
In the Opinion of L. Ron Hubbard…
Excepting a couple of minor points by the nontenurable researcher/management consultant, the anti-tenure side had little to offer beyond witless praise for The Market. Remember the Planet of the Apes sequel where the surviving mutant humans live in a cave and worship the Holy Bomb that destroyed them?
It’s like that, including the gallows flavor to the campy humor, once you rip off the masks of the robed ritualistas:
Batting first for the NYT education-capitalist home team is Richard Vedder, perennial flack for the neocons at the American Enterprise Institute. His line here, that tenure “reduces intellectual diversity,” is just warmed-over David Horowitz, long debunked by any serious study. The fact is that more academics fear for their academic freedom today than in the McCarthy era—because they lack access to tenure, not the other way around.
Playing new kid in the lineup is Mark C. Taylor, a distance-education entrepreneur with books and interests ranging from religion and organization theory to management and—I am not making this up—stealing dirt from the graves of famous persons.
Taylor’s data-free ruminations bear as much connection to the actual world of higher education as Scientology does to particle physics. He’s the fellow that bemoaned per-course salaries “as low as” five grand (!) and basically acts as if you could still arm-chair analyze the academic labor system, which is nearly 80-percent contingent, as if it were a “market” in tenure-track jobs.
Taylor’s retread analysis is straight outta 1972: “If you were a CEO,” he begins, and races downhill from there. Dunno, Mark: If I was the CEO of my neighborhood… If I was the CEO of my marriage… If I was the CEO of this poker game… If I was the CEO of your church… If I was the CEO of the planet… If my dad were my CEO… If I were the CEO of this one-night stand… If I was the CEO of this classroom… If I was the CEO of this audience at this Green Day concert…
Gosh, Mark. Seems like some social organizations and relationships shouldn’t have CEO’s at all.
Wait, there’s more. Taylor goes on to, like, use math and stuff because it sounds good when you’re talking about money. He figures out the lifetime cost of paying tenured faculty and boggles, claiming that funding this commitment “would require” $4-million in endowment now and $30-million 30 years from now. Et voila! Clearly, then, paying faculty anything at all is impossible! QE freaking D, lads and ladies.
Of course the fact that most faculty aren’t paid out of endowments at all but, like, from tuition and appropriations and grants and stuff, does create some stumbles among the seraphim in Taylor’s elegant pin-top choreography.
I did say that the anti-tenure side contributed 5 percent of the sense out of the 60 percent of the space allotted to them.
That modicum goes to Cathy Trower of Harvard’s COACHE, like the handbag, with an elegant E for education.
Her project is like a higher-ed stepchild version, less mean and less well-funded, of Harvard’s toxic b-school/ed-school partnership—you know, the folks that brought you Arne Duncan.
Unlike her comrades, Trower actually thinks about tenure and correctly advocates for a less-rigid understanding of it. Somewhat overdramatically, she proposes blowing up the tenure system and starting over with a new constitutional convention:
Some features of a newly imagined faculty workplace might include variable probationary periods, with extensions for parenthood, rather than a fixed seven-year up-or-out provision for tenure; a tenure track for faculty members focused on teaching; a non-tenure track that affords a meaningful role in shared governance; interdisciplinary centers with authority to be the locus of tenure; broader definitions of scholarship and acceptable outlets and media to “publish” research….
Most of these notions, of course, are very sensible, and versions of them are in place all over the country. No need to lug jerrycans of petrol to the bonfire. It’s not until we get to Trower’s stealthy last two suggestions (“tenure for a defined period of time; and the option to earn salary premiums while forgoing tenure entirely”) that we see that the NYT was perfectly fair to run her piece under the headlines “How to Start Over” and “Get Rid of (Tenure).” Trower conveniently left these out of the version she published two years ago in AAUP’s Academe.
Most Tenured Faculty ARE on a Teaching Track
If Trower were better informed about what’s actually going on, she’d be aware that all of her reasonable suggestions have distinguished histories as well as plenty of contemporary reality. Rendered most invisible by Trower’s crowing from the business-administration battlements is the suggestion that we need to invent a “tenure track for faculty members focused on teaching.”
In 1970, the overwhelming majority of tenured faculty were on teaching-intensive appointments. Even today, after four decades of hiring teaching-intensive appointments nontenurably (full-time and part-time), tenured teaching-intensive faculty outnumber tenured research-intensive faculty as much as two to one.
The idea that “tenured” equates to teaching six hours a week or fewer is just silly propaganda. And I for one am sick of liberal bastions like Harvard and the NYT passing off propaganda as scholarship.
Including propaganda that has numbers in it: for crying out loud, my math-avoidant friends, the whole meaning of the expression that “there are lies, damned lies, and statistics” is that any paid mouthpiece, windbag or liar can claim to be “data-driven.”
I mean, Cathy, let’s be real here.
MANAGEMENT has spent the last four decades actively dismantling a long-existing “tenure track for faculty members focused on teaching.” Now you lean out from the windows of your Lear jet to shout that we need to hold a constitutional convention to invent it?
You folks at Harvard ought to know that “data driven” should mean something more than running a bunch of surveys. It should mean some reasonable attempt at a connection with the facts.
Regular readers know I’ve been pointing out the epic badness of New York Times reporting on higher education for some time now. For what it’s worth, I have it on good authority that more than one academic journal is interested in taking a closer look at media bias in higher-education coverage.
Of course this is a little like saying I know several clever Davids prepared to flip the bird at slow-witted Goliath. On the other hand, one of them might prove to own a slingshot.