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What Tenure Gets You: A Reply to Naomi Schaefer Riley

All right already. I’ve ignored your posts suggesting that college girls should walk around with T-shirts proclaiming “lips that touch liquor shall never touch mine.” I’ve overlooked your screeds defending evangelicals “who act the way they think Christ wants them to” (as if they alone got the memo).

But as we say in Brooklyn, enough is enough.

Tenure doesn’t get you, anything, Naomi. But people who believe education is a Good Thing? It gets us a lot.

Students, particularly the best ones, benefit from it. Maybe even you benefited from professors who had tenure when you were at Harvard, although it doesn’t sound like it.

Here’s what tenure “gets” those of us who regard education as a Good Thing:

1. Tenure protects teachers, scholars, and writers who might otherwise be judged exclusively by rich and powerful  gimmick-driven parents, career-administrators, members of the board, and smugly self-righteous alumni who otherwise insist that their whims and manias (or, in some cases, extremist tastes) be regarded as worthy of sustained attention;

2. Tenure grants members of the academy the kind of status and security given in the world, say, of professional journalism, to those who have spent years under the protection of a publication or group of publications safeguarding their right to squat on a small patch of ideological turf and bark at those who happen to pass by;

3. Rather than ensuring scholars fumble blindly through a series of poorly-paid temporary positions at institutions named Joey’s Emporium of Education where the hallways of learning are distressingly reminiscent of a bowling alley on a slow afternoon, tenure offers both incentive and reward for the years demanded by doctoral study through its promise of a cohesive, stable, and mostly sane community.

4. Faculty do not have to submit to the crippling policies, sinister orthodoxies, or sexual overtures proposed by those in positions of authority—at least not without a fight. Lots of folks would like to think of themselves as the DSK of their institutions, but tenure helps prevent them from being able to act on the worst and most nefarious of their impulses.

5. To trade tenure for short-term contracts will turn the world of the university into a retail marketplace. What we would gain would be of no consequence and what we would lose would be incalculable.

Thanks for asking!

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