How does tenure look from the viewpoint of the profession as a whole? Some common features extend across disciplines, departments, and institutions. Because merit is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for approval, the tenured ranks resemble a guild or a club whose members cherish a sense of eliteness, exclusiveness, and privilege while, at the same time, believing that these are all natural, logical consequences of ability and performance. No one who has received tenure feels it was undeserved.
To the profession at large, the tenure review performs a vital gate-keeping function. It’s the final barrier to mediocrity, the last chance to weed out slackers and underachievers who have somehow managed to slip through. It protects the profession by enforcing standards of rigor, brilliance, and hard work. Call it a quality-control mechanism if you like. But notice that the principle of peer review, which is commonly invoked in justification, embodies a fundamental contradiction. For a peer is an equal, but here those doing the review are already tenured. They may consider themselves peers to one another, but certainly not to the candidate. In practice, the designation of peer simply means holding a Ph.D. in the same field; it obscures the power relations that really govern the situation.
The main justification for tenure given by the profession, via the AAUP first and foremost, is that it protects academic freedom. No doubt this is true to an extent, as anyone who has worked at an institution without tenure (including myself) can attest. But it is not only reason that tenure endures, nor, in my view, even the primary reason. Academic freedom has the same oxymoronic, obscuring quality as peer review. If your ideas threaten or contest those of a senior colleague, you had better keep them to yourself, or else they may put you at risk for tenure. If your research challenges existing paradigms, you will find it hard to get a fellowship or a grant; just think for a moment about who gets to sit on the committees that review proposals and applications. In short, academic freedom does not apply equally. In practice, it’s a privilege largely reserved for the tenured.
From inside the club, tenure is also justified as a form of compensation. We all know how fond academics are of complaining about their low salaries in comparison to those of other learned professions. But in fact academic people seem to prefer privilege, status, and security to income. If they wanted real money, they’d go into administration or business. As one senior colleague admitted, “They pay me with tenure.”
Tenure, it seems, is both a meal ticket and an admission ticket. Without it, you not only don’t eat, you don’t get to stay at the table. From the inside, denial of tenure is viewed as a terminal diagnosis, a death sentence. Anyone who has looked for a job after tenure denial — or, for that matter, considered hiring such a one — knows how hard it is to overcome the stigma of damaged goods. Some, it’s true, do manage to find other teaching jobs, but most will take a lateral arabesque into administration or leave academia altogether, becoming part of the gray, exiled, undocumented mass of the Disappeared.