Monday, February 15, 2010


A lot of commentators are using the Amy Bishop story to flog their "Tenure must end!!!" beliefs.

Okay. There are some problems with tenure, particularly the fact that at some institutions, people with tenure can (theoretically) get away with teaching from crumbling 20-year-old notes, can refuse to ever again serve on a committee, can be openly rude to students.

But tenure as a concept, is a good idea. In part, so folks with differing political views (not that there are many of us, and most of us are not "out" about it) on campus don't see repercussions. Or, so that a whim-driven administration decides that The Future Is Nanotechnology and decides to sweep away all the chemists and biologists not doing nano-research. (An exaggeration, but there are some campuses that are dealing now with a surfeit of people in some disciplines and a lack in others, because of past hiring fads).

The other thing about tenure is that it prevents colleges from, for example, terminating people, or letting them attrition out, and then re-hiring adjuncts to fill the slot. Adjuncts are, by and large, poorly paid, receive few benefits, "worked hard and put away wet." I know people who adjunct who drive several hours a day between campuses - or who wait tables at night to make ends meet - and who wind up very bitter because they worked as hard as, say, I did, but because of changes in hiring practices, they now are being paid something like $1000 a month less for MORE work than a tenured prof would do. It leads to a lack of loyalty, and adjuncts are (rightly) unwilling to do things like committeework - meaning, in adjunct-heavy departments, the tenured folk have to pull a heavier load there.

And it can be VERY hard to get good adjuncts, especially in certain areas. Sometimes you have to accept less-skilled people - or people with attitude problems. Some adjuncts are fantastic but some are not.

It's kind of like the difference between, say, a dedicated computer store that has computer "guys" working in it - people who know computers, who care about making things work right, who take it as a challenge when you bring in a malware-infected laptop and say, "I don't know if you can fix this for me but I'd like you to try" and a place like any of the big-box stores, where there's less of a loyalty for the employee to the employer (and vice versa). Where if you bring your laptop in once, you may get Vince the Wonder Repair Guy who fixes it perfectly, and then the next time, you learn Vince has moved on, and you get someone who doesn't know a transistor from their elbow. Or you get people who give you the distinct impression they don't care about your problems, because they're a short-timer.

So you wind up not necessarily hiring the best people, but the most convenient people. The people who need a buck. (In my part of the world? You have to have a real reason to stay around if you don't have a job.)

And while some "training" can be done that way, I rebel against the thought of college teaching becoming another McJob, where people are interchangeable and there's no plan of having someone teach at a place for more than 3-4 years at a go.

Also, for some areas - genetics, computer science, engineering, some of the chem fields - people can earn more in industry, and tenure is a nice carrot. A way of saying, "You won't come in to work and be told your job's been outsourced."

(Incidentally, the shooter in question - from all I've read - could have earned MORE outside of academia in industry. So it was some kind of screw-loose, malignant-narcissist thing)

I consider tenure to be one of the great attractions of academic life. Granted, I saw getting it more as a vote-of-confidence: "You're doing fine. Now just keep it up" than a laurel: "Okay, you can relax and stop working now." And I think that's how the rest of my department is - we all work pretty hard, I don't know of anyone refusing to do something (e.g., unpaid overload) for the good of the department just because they had tenure.

Of course, the problem is, as with all good things, there will be deadheads and freeloaders. People who quit trying as soon as they have job security. Or who let the "nice" exterior drop, and what is really inside come out. But I think that's the exception rather than the rule - and I've spent all of my adult life around college campuses.

I guess what I'm saying is that there are expectations on both sides, when you're a prof: you have the expectation that you will keep up with recent advances and research, and will teach your students, in addition to do research and committeework. But on the other hand, there's the expectation that your administration can't come to you and go, "You know, there seems to be a downturn in people going into ecology. Yes, I know you also teach all these other classes but we've decided to replace you with another cell biologist instead."

Now, I wouldn't be averse to tenure review - and in fact, we do something like that here. Oh, you can't lose your job, but I do think if you slack too much you are strongly counseled to pick up the pace (or so I assume; I've never been told anything but, "Keep doing what you're doing now."). But to teach in an atmosphere where job security does not depend fully on your performance - which, I think, could be the case if tenure did not exist - would be very insecure and uncomfortable. (I could see, for example, half a department being swept away and the remainder being told, "We're going to an online teaching model. You can stay if you want, if not, hand in your library access pass.") I don't like the idea of academia becoming more like the prevailing business model - because there is too much chance for people who don't really understand how academia works coming in and saying things like, "Oh. So you teach 120 students a semester. Well, we can increase your efficiency by having you teach 240. We won't have to pay you any more; we'll just put you in a bigger room."

Already, as I talked about, there are little bitty things being added on - the latest being the textbook-request procedure for the bookstore: it has suddenly become twice as involved and complicated, because someone over there decided it would be more "efficient" to do it this way. More efficient for them; more work for the profs.

And tenure is part of how academia is not like business. As I said, I would welcome a post-tenure review...I would welcome some pressure being brought on the people who refuse to do committeework because they have tenure and "don't have to any more." Or the people who refuse to teach Tuesdays and Thursdays because they've always gotten those days off. But I don't want to see a situation where faculty could be terminated or moved around or dicked with, and lose their jobs for reasons unrelated to the quality of their work.

Is the tenure process stressful? Sure. But with appropriate transparency (like my school has), you pretty well know where you stand. (Also, here, I think if you miss tenure the first go, you have a couple years to polish your record and try least, that's what I was told. You don't have to leave, you can keep teaching and publish a bit more and try again. I think some other schools have that?)

So I twitch a little when people try to blame the evil act of this woman on big, bad tenure review. Or act like tenure is this dirty secret of academia that should be abolished. (A lot of the tenure abolitionists seem to be people who are either untenured lecturers, or who were refused tenure at at least one school...). Most of us aren't unionized (yes, some campuses are, and I shudder to think of what those meetings are like) and tenure does provide some levels of protection that unions do for some folks. And I also think it's a realization, on some level, that universities aren't like Initech - jobs are a lot less portable, there's a certain value in people who "know the ropes" of an institution, who know its culture, sticking around.

But I expect there will be increasing hand-wringing about tenure, what it means, and what tenure review is. And maybe a push to "protect" people from the horrors of tenure review, but winding up throwing the baby out with the bathwater on that.

I don't know. I admit, as a somewhat libertarian-leaning person, I recognize that I should be opposed to tenure on certain principles. But on the other hand: when it works well, when you have people who don't take having tenure as a license to slack off, it works VERY well.


Heroditus Huxley said...

I have to say I agree with you, in principle; however, more than half of the people in the English department where I teach used acquiring tenure as "I can stop doing what works, and start experimenting with the latest pedagogical fad," or, like you said, as an excuse to stop being nice. Most of the rest just quit actually teaching. I think, out of a department of 16 full-time faculty, maybe two to four are still actually making an effort to help students--it would be five, but the department head is too busy with bureaucratic nonsense thought up by admin to be able to do what he loves.

The senior adjuncts are just as bad, given an adjunct shortage bad enough that any adjunct still interested in teaching isn't fired unless they flat stop coming to work.

I think I might be the only "senior adjunct" that actually tries to help students learn to write coherent, focused, organized papers through direct instruction on how to do that little thing. The rest assume that they should be learning through osmosis from reading good writing without having to teach how the good writers achieve their ends.

I'm also the one that's the most likely to be fired for my political views.

Cullen said...

The recent fad that's been hitting me hard lately is the anti-government-employee fervor. For much the same reason as a tenured educational employee, conservatives and libertarians love to lay into us. And they have a lot of good reason to. I'll be the first to admit that working as a DoD civilian is many times a sinecure for retired military folks. But that's not all of us. The few departments out there that give gov't service a bad name makes it hard for those of us who really believe in what we do.