15 Comments
Sep 4, 2023Liked by Jenn McClearen

I don't think abolishing tenure all-together will help, but I think tenure-line folks need to do a lot better.

We should not put all of the problems of current faculty work at the feet of tenure-line faculty, but I see tenure as a kind of golden book rather than a meaningful representation of merit, potential, or ability.

Tenure-line jobs are constructed with the assumption someone has no responsibilities outside of work, which punishes caregivers of all kinds. Tenure-line folks get a lot of perks and access denied to other faculty, and tenure-line folks keep advancing because institutions throw resources behind them. There are a lot of internal and external grants and programs that are tenure-line only, so NTT looking for a tenure-line job have to work even harder.

I remember our institution's fastest response to the pandemic was ensuring tenure-line faculty that the tenure clock was paused, and the institution announced this publicly as if it were a boon to all faculty rather than a very small subset. Watching tenure-line hires from the outside, I found the best way to get a tenure-line job is to already have a tenure-line job elsewhere. Tenure appears like an exclusive club that someone enters from grad school rather than an upward promotion.

IME, tenure-line faculty are the hardest to organize into any kind of labor union. I somewhat understand the not-yet tenured afraid of losing tenure, but the already tenured are no better. If someone has tenure and doesn't use it to fight for better labor conditions, what is it for?

Very few academics want to abolish tenure, but it's fair to say that tenure affords an extremely inequitable two-tiered system without a lot in between. When tenured people ask for help in protecting tenure, they are surprised that no one is around to help them (and shouldn't be). Tenure-track folks did not cause all of the problems, but they did not do the radical work necessary to fight these bad trends because, well, the set-up benefitted them in the short-term. If tenure is to survive, the tenure-line folks need to treat their colleagues with greater dignity, fight for people not like themselves, help construct jobs that meet the basic needs of all people, and recognize that protecting academic freedom means protecting it everywhere and not just for themselves.

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I think tenure protections should be expanded, but so should mechanisms that correct abuses of power within academia. Graduate workers should especially be professionalized/ given better protections. So I guess I think these protections should start at the bottom, not the top.

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Sep 4, 2023Liked by Jenn McClearen

The argument that no one should have job protections because some people (who deserve them!) do not have job protections is so misguided and puts us in a race to the bottom. Tenure is how we guarantee freedom and security—which all workers deserve—in academia, and more of us should have access to it.

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Sep 4, 2023·edited Sep 4, 2023Liked by Jenn McClearen

As a person who reads slews of workplace research I think the structure of academic jobs is so different than the rest of the world the it actually skews the research in a lot of fields.

For example, research about two-career families is nearly useless when it comes from the perspective of academics who can job search together and stagger their work hours to complement each others' schedules.

Another example of where the academic research is skewed is gender gaps. For example, no other field gets extra time to produce results once they come back from maternity leave. No other field has so many women in positions of power and authority. No other field allows you to progress to the top of your career without going into the office every day.

Also, there are many jobs that give tenure but do not also confer authority and accolades. For example, orchestra positions. Members of orchestras are so notoriously unhappy that the Philadelphia orchestra is studying the problem. Or grade-school teachers. You can have tenure but it's such a difficult job in most school districts that most people quit. Or doormen in NYC. The union is exclusive and once you're in, you're in for life, but the learning curve is nearly flat.

When it comes to tenure, it doesn't seem necessary to confer so much security to someone who has such a pleasurable job. And if you really want to publish and have a voice, you can still do it after you lose your job for what you said. Just like everyone else.

So, I guess I'm suggesting that you try to see yourselves how everyone else sees you. It's very difficult to contribute to a healthy discussion about work from a single perspective.

Penelope

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Sep 4, 2023·edited Sep 4, 2023Liked by Jenn McClearen

Tenure has moved into the crosshairs of the anti-union movement and will have a difficult time surviving.

There is plenty of blame to spread around. The academy must share some of that blame with tenure-track research that is very inward looking based on "impact factors" of how often research is cited within the academy. Administrators and boards also share in the blame with the penchant towards fund raising for capital projects that produce stunning new assets for outdated programs lacking economic sustainability.

My suggestion is that faculty should turn to a different model of moving towards the university or faculties as worker-owned cooperatives. It will not work everywhere but it can offer a substitute for some HEIs. Mondragon University in Spain has operated as three faculty cooperatives since 1997. https://www.mondragon.edu/en/meet-mu/cooperative-university There were cooperative structures even earlier but the reorganization in 1997 brought the university up the standards of a modern European technical university.

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I think this is also (not only) a US issue because in some other countries there is more job security generally. In Austria, for example, once you are past your initial notice period in any profession (typically a few months), you can only be fired with due cause. For things like mat/paternity leave this is also really important, but I think it can be changed and extended. So basically I think there should be some kind of job security especially for academic jobs so that researchers are not afraid to share knowledge that might not be hip or in sync with the university’s views (ie the board) but I think it needs to be reimagined and maybe this kind of more general job security is a good starting point to consider.

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As someone who has been bouncing between contingent positions for several years, I'll say that it has been extremely frustrating feeling like tenured colleagues can use (or abuse) tenure to do the minimum at their jobs. I know several tenured faculty members who haven't published anything in 10 or 15 years, consistently have poor teaching evaluations, and don't contribute to the intellectual life of the department. The fact that the university has almost no recourse whatsoever to challenge those attitudes—especially when there are scores of bright, eager, over-qualified young scholars who would be happy to perform at a much higher level, but can't—feels to me like a structure that rewards mediocrity.

This isn't necessarily an argument against tenure. But I do think we need to consider whether, at times, tenure can actually be detrimental to the intellectual life of the university. (It's also worth pointing out that tenure emerged initially in a historical moment when there were mandatory retirement ages. Most tenured faculty members had to retire at 65, and were strongly incentivized to retire at 62. That feels remarkably young today, and it would be ageist and problematic to reinstitute a similar policy. I do wonder, though, if we could develop some kind of system for transitioning more fresh, young talent into tenure stream jobs. What about, for example, a semi-retirement position, where a senior colleague takes a pay cut, teaches 1 or 2 classes per year, and the university uses a portion of that person's salary to hire a new colleague? I'm sure there are lots of issues with that suggestion that I'm not equipped to think about fully!)

And thanks, Jenn, for raising this topic! I think it's an important conversation.

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