Tenure Talk: Thinking Again

“What are the implications of the decline of tenure?” A recent forum in the New York Times began with this question and generated an extended blog conversation. Responses ranged from defenses of tenure to reductive critiques of a so-called academic “system” to theories about the labor market. A tenured professor, I found myself rallying around arguments for tenure as well as wondering about the opportunities that might be emerging given the decline of tenure. More importantly, the forum led me to think again about the relationship between a system of promotion organized around the desire for tenure—and the relative economic security and professional acceptance— and the personal costs of that desire.

Just what tenure is—its definition(s) and its value—is elusive in the forum postings. Yet the personal costs of the normative timeline for tenure, the practice of working toward tenure, and the granting of tenure (or not), is clearly problematic for a number of participants. Here is one example:

In my experience, tenure does not provide, or secure, freedom to do anything. How does a person who successfully endures tenure retain any personal integrity whatsoever? Tenure is, in fact, granted only after a professor is successfully indoctrinated into a particular institution, and department. How can professors submit to such pressure to conform and then proceed to “be free” to teach students? After six years of frantic publishing and pleasing those in power is it possible to remember who we are, and what drove us to teach in the first place? Are we able, after tenure, to go back to who we really are, or is that person lost to us after six years of conformity? After tenure are we transformed, instead, into a kind of Stepford Professor that fits nicely into a particular institution, or department? Or worse, are we so damaged by what we have endured to achieve tenure that unknowingly we transfer similar abuse to the new crop of tenure seeking assistant professors?

This comment succinctly summarizes the pressure to conform (“pleasing those in power”), the loss of integrity that comes from conforming to external motives (“frantic publishing”) and the resulting neglect of one’s students and, more importantly, one’s self.   To earn tenure, in such a system, faculty members are encouraged to force intellectual projects into a fixed timeline; they are drawn to low-risk committee work rather than pursuing a more risky department or campus project or initiative; and they spend the minimum amount of time on campus and with students as they chase the gold standard of professional success: publication.

Experiences of the tenure and promotion process vary widely across institutions, for sure. In my experience, the process of tenure invites conformity and too many tenured faculty are content with the idea that untenured faculty members’ careers are in danger from their tenured colleagues to fester. Too often there are smart and well-intentioned junior colleagues showing restraint and caution and senior colleagues perpetuating a system that promotes the kind of intellectual and personal growth we purportedly value.

Changing the system would require senior faculty to promote the idea that working toward tenure, and the awarding of tenure, should involve taking intellectual risks. Quantitative measures of scholarly production may work in some institutional settings; however, a more flexible qualitative measure of a teacher and scholar’s work, as it relates to the mission of the institution and the department or program, would ask junior and senior colleagues to create conditions for innovation and creativity rather than perpetuating a six year period of professional life a junior professor must “endure.” In my experience, the tenure process can promote a professional life with purpose and integrity. The trajectory of intellectual work should not be constrained by a six year period but rather should demonstrate unambiguously a professional life marked by a clear sense of purpose and significant growth. (The best proposal for faculty promotion I know is by the former professor of English at the University of Chicago, Wayne Booth, that I wrote about last year in the posting titled “Scholarship and Competence in the Curiosities.”)

I would argue that we need tenure to assure the freedom of faculty to teach and design curriculum unfettered by prevalent assumptions and ahistorical motives that are all too often reductively imposed upon people trying to do their work well. The alternative (that would retain tenure, and for good reason) would be tenured professors working together to rebuild a system to promote professional integrity and a commitment to meaningful contributions among those who aspire to receive tenure. We would all need to work, institution by institution, to dispel the lore that inevitably breeds fear and restraint. We would create the conditions for fresh intellectual ventures, challenging discussions and vibrant classrooms where professional integrity is cultivated and rewarded as the sine qua non.

If this all sounds too idealistic or naïve, we can continue to let the system move in the direction it has been moving for the past thirty or more years. Gradually and inexorably, tenure is going away, and it is up to the tenured faculty to make a better defense of this powerful and transformative idea.