So I spoke yesterday by Skype to a graduate education class at Northeastern, and one of the questions was about tenure: the tradition of lifetime job security awarded to certain lucky members of university faculty, for the original purpose of protecting scholars with unpopular opinions.

I’m not sure that I agree that it’s important that I take a prescriptive, rather than a descriptive, approach. But I gave rather a convoluted answer to the class so I thought it would be a good idea to clarify, and then by coincidence a critic asked me to do the same thing this morning, so here goes.

The description of what’s happening with tenure is that it’s on its way out. The American Association of University Professors reported back in 2006 that as far back as 2003, part-time and full-time non-tenure-track positions accounted for 65% of all faculty positions in the US, and part-time positions alone accounted for nearly half the total.  That’s positions, not classroom time–if you look at actual classroom hours the percentage covered by non-tenure-track teachers is probably even higher than that. At community colleges, tenure is rarer still; at for-profits it’s unheard-of, so the future is not looking good for tenure hopefuls.

Before we play a violin for university profs, academic labor is not the only type of labor suffering “casualization.” I wrote extensively in Generation Debt about the general devolution of the American labor market toward “crap jobs.” The trend is away from secure, career-long positions with pensions and toward 401(k)s, diminished health care benefits, and freelance, part-time, and contract work. One in six Americans is unemployed or underemployed, and high long-term unemployment is likely to be the norm for quite some time.

Is this a bad trend? In part. It causes unneccessary suffering and anxiety for those who aren’t used to it. It’s unfair, as wealth gets ever-more concentrated at the top in this country and the middle class and the poor are hung out to dry. I also suspect that it’s inefficient, because when companies under-invest in their employees in this way, they are likely to get less productivity and commitment out of them in return, which means they’re leaving human capital resources on the table.

What should we do about it? Political action, perhaps organizing along the lines of the Freelancers’ Union. But even if it were likely to work, petitioning to return to the old system, for higher education teachers or anyone else, is not the best idea. Health care should be nationalized for the lowest costs and the greatest fairness to all, not provided through employers. For retirement benefits,  Social Security, 401(k)s and personal savings–local governments and private companies probably won’t be able to make good on all their pension promises to employees anyway. And all jobs don’t need to be full-time and lifetime-guaranteed to be good jobs. I think it’s a good thing in general for productivity and the sum total of human happiness for people to be able to work part time, quit if they don’t like it–or be fired if they’re very bad at their job.

That leaves the question of pay. I think salaries should be flatter across the economy, so I believe in both higher taxes and a higher minimum wage. Requiring the vast majority of our college teachers to survive on poverty wages–while it shows remarkable continuity with our earliest colonial history–probably isn’t the best idea if we want to elevate the craft of teaching.

How can college teachers make more money? If we could convince fewer people to get PhDs, it might dry up the supply of adjuncts and thus raise their wages. University teachers might be able to earn more by selling their services directly through platforms like Nixty and Knewton and Namaya. Or they might be able to earn more money by teaching more. BYU-Idaho, which is entirely focused on teaching undergraduates, has raised its faculty salary above industry standard but requires its professors to teach year-round–four credits per semester for 3 semesters. If we actually rated and compared colleges based on how good they are at undergraduate teaching, perhaps we could elevate the status of good professors as well as their pay.

Ultimately, if higher education succeeds in becoming more efficient, it will require fewer professors, because labor is the biggest expense in the system. But as David Autor’s work at MIT has shown, the jobs most likely to be eliminated by technology are midlevel clerical-type jobs. More prestigious, higher-paying jobs at the top of the scale can actually be created by increasing use of technology. In a world of increasing “unbundling” of the functions of the university, I could see the former job of the university professor splitting off into curriculum experts (who also have to be very good at the technology); mentors, or learner-experts; researchers; and assessment experts. In a world of increasing reuse and sharing of courseware, a good university should reward its teachers for creating course content that is adaptable, reusable, and reused.

What about academic freedom? I’m confused. I just don’t get it. I’m a journalist. Journalists, if they’re any good, air unpopular opinions all the time. Do they need tenure to protect their jobs, which are usually at for-profit publications that depend on the goodwill of advertisers? Is anyone worried that they get fired occasionally for disturbing the powers that be? It certainly happens. They even get killed sometimes.

5 Responses to “What About Tenure?”

  1. Martyn Smith says:

    But journalists do not actively criticize the institution in which they are a part. New York Times reporters may comment on strategy as news worthy point, but would not play a role in directly challenging management’s decisions.. or they would get in trouble. In many universities the school is faculty run, and that means there must be faculty who stand up and voice opinions unpopular with the president. I am not yet tenured, and you won’t see me sticking my neck out. But tenured faculty can do that.. and take the heat for an unpopular opinion. If all we did was show up and teach, then sure, tenure would be a lot less important. But then the institution of the university would be structured a lot more like a for-profit corporation, with an empowered CEO making market choices. The resistance to that model is in tenure.

  2. admin says:

    Ok, so tenure exists so the university professors will be protected from the consequences of making unpopular decisions about how to run the university itself? I still don’t get why they should receive special protection in that way.
    Managers of a corporation, including even the CEO, have to make decisions every day about how to run it. If the public/ shareholders/employees don’t like those decisions, the managers can be fired and the CEO asked to step down by the board. Same goes for legislators who make decisions and serve at the public’s pleasure. Why should university professors have more protection from the consequences of their opinions than senators?

  3. The movement to make universities seem (just another) corporations has been about undermining the powerful sense that they were abodes of safely ensconced, securely removed, very liberal professors, who were entitled to — who willy-nilly, presumptively, arrogantly would — go about reshaping the world in a liberal direction. It’s about a hollowing out of an opponent, an unnerving of them, a squabble of ethos: leaving us more and more with a world where there is NO escape from corporation ethics — who are “you” to expect anything different. Every last one of you is someone who can be fired on the spot — keep this is mind when you speak your mind: this is what the corporation model now is, not CEO accountability. Tenure does seem a bit old school, but in this climate, I’m more in the direction of wondering how exactly certain journalists could get tenure. If it’s just the market model, I have little faith that even now seemingly useful truth-tellers like you will avoid finding themselves banished to the nervous fear of Wall-mart existence, so we can sense a little more “thank you sir, may I have another” readiness to buckle in your subsequent journalistic forays.

  4. admin says:

    I think the true escape from corporate ethos is found in DIY. As a journalist I am free to air my most incendiary opinions here on this blog–under a pseudonym if I want–and they will attract a readership. I don’t need to be fed by the same hand I am biting.

  5. Ingolf Gruen says:

    While I generally agree with your analysis in your original blog, I disagree with your reply on the first commenter’s tenure comment: If you compare faculty to CEOs and legislators, and the universities’ administration to board members and the public who can “fire” CEOs and legislators, respectively, then you have it upside down! CEOs and legislators are on the top of the “foodchain” while faculty are at the bottom of their respective food chain (see the assistant prof comment!). The proper comparison would be if the middle manager in a corporation criticizes the CEO and the legislative aid criticzes the legislator, or to enter your world, the journalist criticizes the editors’ decisions. And I am not even getting started on who sits on boards of corporations and who are the CEOs of these corporations? Ever noticed that the board is made up mostly of CEOs or other corporations? And since you looked at the “ignorance” of faculty when it comes to using IT in the classroom, how about the level of “being informed about politics/ignorant of politics” by the general public that supposedly can kick legislators out of office, faculty are verocious IT adopters in that comparison.
    You are correct in your last comment though, “I don’t need to be fed by the same hand I am biting”; faculty try to do that too, by setting themselves up as consultants, but that’s for their research/expert knoledge not their teaching knowlege, and there is no good teaching venue yet (with some notable exceptions) where you can make money and be independent of an institution. Setting up “lectures on-line for people to pay for to see” is done via institutions but rather difficult to do on your own, and free blogs have to remain free – (as you know better than I do) the journalistic enterprise is greatly struggling with a similar issue of trying to sell hard-copies of newspapers whent the content is principally available for free on-line – attempts to get people to now pay for it is rather difficult.

Leave a Reply