Reforming Graduate Education through abolition of tenure

This is a very nascent thought, and should not be viewed as a long-held, deeply thought upon position, but I cannot understand why the abolition of tenure is not considered more often, except for the fact that so many people who are contributing to this conversation already have it.

It seems fairly obvious that tenure serves many functions, and is of vital importance to the academic freedom of those who have it – it also seems obvious that there are an increasingly small number of people who are afforded the luxury of this freedom. I am not suggesting that all the rights that are coincident with tenure should be done away with, but if the ultimate result of extending these rights to certain professors is that universities will create far fewer positions that have them, then the end result is that fewer professors are being served by this system.

The participants in the tenure track lottery system are no more immune than anyone else to the human irrationality of aspiring to a position that they will, in all likelihood. spend many years preparing for and not receive. If there are fewer tenure positions a decade hence this aspirational discrepancy will still exist.

So why not simply do away with tenure, in favor of a strong academic union? Many other trades appear to have created strong unions; unions that afford protection to their members, and unions that these members join without the same level of resentment, worry, and public self-reflection that tenure engenders.

2 Responses to Reforming Graduate Education through abolition of tenure

  1. Mikayla Zagoria-Moffet October 10, 2012 at 10:16 am #

    Ammon– I think I would have absolutely agreed with you about a year ago. However, now that I’ve started teaching as an adjunct (at two different colleges, at the same time) I find myself fantasizing about tenure more and more often. I think the idea of a strong academic union is a great one; it has a lot of potential. However, I’ve heard of places that claim to have great resources for adjuncts and in reality, they’re paying adjunct instructors terribly, there’s no guarantee of a position from semester to semester, and you’re constantly under scrutiny or regarded as “less than”.

    Being under scrutiny, I think, is a great idea. Self-checking, self-questioning, and self-investigation is abolsutely necessary in the academy, in my opinion, and needs to happen more. But I think what the division between tenured and non-tenured labor has turned into is exploitative and generally unhelpful. In my mind, it privileges one group of people over another and creates this mentality of going after a carrot on a stick for those not in the privileged group.

    That being said, I think that there’s a place for non-tenured, contract based positions that are assumed to be relatively stable or permanent, and this might be a good in between. The downside, in what I’ve learned about them so far, is the lack of time for personal research or professional development (which would be less of an issue for me personally, as a Ph.D student who has always wanted, and still wants, just to teach).

    I think it’s a loaded issue, for sure, and I don’t know if there is an answer. All I (believe I) know right now is that the adjunct labor force in academia is bordering on exploitation and needs to be arranged somehow.

  2. Ammon Shea October 10, 2012 at 1:11 pm #

    Mikayla – I’m a firm believer in the concept of worker protections, and certainly am not advocating dispensing with them. I also agree completely with the notion that adjunct professors (and, to a lesser extent, term professors) are being exploited under the current system. Yet I also can’t quite see how keeping the tenure system in place is going to ameliorate this kind of exploitation, unless it is by greatly increasing the number of tenure track positions available, and how likely is that?
    As it stands now we appear to have a large number of graduates who want tenure positions (yet are unlikely to get them), a small number of professors who are on the tenure track (and who quite often complain about much of the process, such as the publish or perish model, the need to move to an onerous location, teaching loads, etc.), and a still smaller number of professors who have tenure (and who like it very much, to no surprise).
    As long as we’re concentrating on readings that use the word ‘apocalyptic’ more than is statistically probable, why not consider this? I’m not advocating taking away job security for all, but doesn’t it seem possible that rather than grant extraordinary job protection to a few and no job protection to many that it would be possible for college professors to abandon this caste system in favor of one that resembles most other occupations?

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