Tenure, contingency, and academic speech, a maunder

A collection of thoughts from my friend Ellie Mackin Roberts caught my attention this morning scrolling through Twitter (not linked because she mentioned she might delete the thread). The higher ed union in the UK is currently on strike over pensions and EMR was reflecting on why she was having a hard time engaging with this strike despite being pro-union. The thrust of the thread was that her position as an hourly employee meant a) that she couldn’t afford to strike; b) that this employment and caring responsibilities largely cuts her off from full time positions, despite being an accomplished and published researcher; and c) that the full time faculty who benefit most from an improved pension scheme have, historically, not shown the same enthusiasm in fighting for pay equity for contingent faculty.

There is a vast gulf between the United Kingdom and United States on issues of organized labor, but the thread nevertheless struck a chord in terms of my evolving attitude toward tenure.

I am not now, nor have I ever been a tenured professor.

In fact, this year, my fifth out from receiving my PhD is the first that I had a full-year, full-time contract at one institution. I like my current job and would like to keep it as long as possible, but, frankly, I have all-but given up on hoping that I will ever win a tenure-track position based simply on how few of these positions come open each year. I will apply when I see good opportunities, of course, I’m just not holding my breath.

Perhaps because of this background, I am of two minds when it comes to the discourse around tenure. On the one hand, I have friends and colleagues who are tenured or tenure-track professors and attacks on tenure in Georgia, Texas, and elsewhere materially affect their jobs. On the other, the tenure system perpetuates a bifurcated system of compensation even though people at different ranks are largely doing the same job, particularly in the humanities.

(This is not just a matter of research expectations, either. People are different ranks will receive different per-course rates.)

The standard line about tenure is that it is an essential protection for free academic discourse. There is a kernel of truth here: tenure makes it more difficult to fire someone for teaching or publishing on potentially controversial issues. But I also find that defense rings hollow in a world where an ever-increasing percentage of the teaching is being done by people on annual, or even semester-by-semester, contracts. In a perfect world the solution would be to dramatically increase the number of tenured and tenure-track positions, but I have been hearing the same thing since I entered graduate school more than a decade ago and those positions only continued to disappear, even before Scott Walker kicked off the current wave of attacks on public institutions in 2015.

Faculty working conditions are student learning conditions, and contingent contracts impose challenges to sustaining departments and disciplines, for all sorts of reasons. Students can’t expect to develop relationships with their teachers, contingent faculty spend more time applying for jobs which cuts into the available time for teaching and research, and the looming threat of non-renewal shapes how faculty teach in all sorts of ways, from how to tackle controversial issues to what risks they take in offering creative and innovative pedagogy.

This is why I get frustrated when I see outlets like Lawyers, Guns, and Money respond to a speech where Dan Patrick, the Lieutenant Governor of Texas, proposes ending tenure in public universities by commenting that tenure will cease to exist in Red States in the coming years. This observation is clearly true and has been for a while, but Patrick’s proposal is a means to an end, part of a sustained attack on education and academic discourse divorced from the reality of what happens in a classroom and designed to teach a carefully curated vision of the world. While tenured faculty have long been a target of these efforts, they also represent a declining percentage of the overall faculty population.

My point is not to that we should strip anyone of tenure or the protections it affords, but that treating tenure as synonymous with free academic discourse seems to be asking a lot of people doing this work to defend a system that does not afford them the same protections. Should this not be reason fight for improved conditions of employment for contingent faculty and to insulate them the pressures of this current culture war? If nothing else, it might cushion the landing when politicians like Patrick succeed in destroying the current system.

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