Tenure: the Road Most Taken


Robert Frost came to a fork and then chose the road not taken, although he did confess that both looked to have been worn about the same. Both had been taken, though he would have preferred to think otherwise, because it would have made for a better story.   Frost looked down one road as far as he could before the view was blocked by undergrowth.  He couldn’t see far enough to tell how things would turn out.

So it is with tenure.  If you get it, things don’t necessarily get easier, nor, if you don’t, do they get harder.  They just get different. Either way, the path holds challenges.  Once tenured, you still face the fundamental problem of staying alive and leading a balanced life.

No doubt you’re asking yourself, “What can he possibly mean?  Doesn’t getting tenure mean success?  Doesn’t it mean a job for life along with the freedom, at last, to do what I want, pursue my own work, set my own priorities?  Doesn’t it mean I can finally relax?  After all, I get to belong at last, a permanent and bonafide member of the profession, with an institutional home and community to support my values and work.” Yes, that’s true, but it’s not the whole truth. Tenure does confer many privileges and opportunities, but with them come a host of challenges and temptations.  To get in and stay in, you have to buy in; that’s the deal.

Now that you are an insider, the club counts on you to keep it going.  You must now uphold the values, administer the organization, master the ceremonies, and keep the secrets.   After seven to ten years of aspiration and struggle, most of us don’t find this so hard to imagine.  But it’s not a one time thing; you have to keep doing it for the next thirty years. I remember a minister friend, a spiritual and balanced person who worked with the homeless and whose wife taught English at the college next door.  She was up for tenure and they had both gone into therapy.  When I asked how it was going, he just rolled his eyes. “The counselor says we have to break out of our workaholic mindset, but the college says she has to work harder to keep her job!”

So the question of balance comes first and foremost.  And the demands don’t stop.  Now the institution expects a return on its thirty year investment, and it starts piling on the committee work.  You dreamed about feeding your spirit, but instead you’re feeding the beast.  Moreover, you’re stuck with the same colleagues, the same students, the same campus, and the same issues.  Sartre was right to declare that “Hell is other people.”  It may not be long before you begin to sense a narrowing of options within the institution, where there is only so much pie to go around.  You have to make agonizing decisions about colleagues who apply for grants, go up for promotion, or stand for admin jobs, which, more often than not, go to outside candidates anyway.

Yet, despite all this bad news about tenure, we can hardly imagine anyone turning it down.  True, occasional reports do drift in from some superstar who has left for more glamorous opportunities, but for most of us that is the stuff of legend.  For most of us, tenure is the road taken, the only route to citizenship in both the institution and the profession.  To be denied tenure is like being banished or struck with a terminal illness.  It feels like receiving a death sentence.

But neither does getting tenure remove the fundamental challenge of staying alive.  Our profession would collapse if thousands of conscientious and devoted colleagues had not grappled with and solved this problem.  Despite the temptations and pitfalls that tenure brings, they seem to be leading a convincing life.  What can we learn from them?

Image source: http://kacabiru.wordpress.com/2010/08/24/the-road-not-taken/

Tenure and the Profession at Large

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.