I am a tenured associate professor at one of the largest (though, let me emphasize, not one of the highest ranked) public universities in the U.S. How can I explain why it is that this often makes me want to cry?
Don’t get me wrong. I love my work, and, although I am not an academic superstar, I’ve done reasonably well. In economic times when so many are losing jobs, my job is relatively secure. The work that I do has pleasant and meaningful aspects that I value, in spite of sometimes snake-pit politics and bureaucratic burdens that often make it very difficult to focus on the things that are actually my job.
However, the future of public higher education, and especially in my area of the humanities, is truly in question. Even though more than half of all Americans attend at least some college courses, and 30% over age 25 have a bachelor’s or higher degree, what we do in academia and the value of it is still largely misunderstood by the public. When the governor of the state of Texas can blithely call for higher education reforms that include “treating students as ‘customers,’ judging faculty by how many students they teach and how those students rate them, and de-emphasizing research that doesn’t produce an immediate financial return,” it becomes clear that our future is in the hands of people who either don’t know what they are talking about or harbor a truly vile and anti-intellectual agenda. Or both.
There are many angles on higher ed and its issues, and I hope to be able to sort some of these out in the blog in coming posts. But today I am inspired by yesterday’s article in the Orlando Sentinel that reported on Florida Governor Rick Scott’s agenda for the coming year, in particular his desire to abolish tenure for public university employees. (He’s already done it in K-12 education.)
Tenure is often resented by people outside the college and university system–because they don’t have it, after all, and therefore it’s unfair that anyone does. The largest complaint about tenure by the general public seems to be that it protects lazy and low-quality teachers. The laziness issue I will have to give its own separate post because it is one of the most offensive and false of all these claims. But part of that is the idea that tenure keeps in place bad employees.
This is an absurd claim on many levels. First, to become a tenured professor at any college or university requires years of investment. At numerous points along the way, those who are bad at what they do are drummed out of the system: they can fail to get into a graduate program; they can fail courses, which, unlike in undergrad programs, gets them booted in fairly short order; they can fail to complete language and other degree requirements; they can fail to finish or defend successfully their thesis or dissertation work; they can fail to get a tenure-track job or any job at all; they can work temporary jobs for a number of years, moving from place to place; and they can fail, after six years at a tenure-track job, to get tenure. If the system has not identified and excluded the poor quality work by this point, then something else is wrong with the system, not tenure.
In addition, the public perception of tenure is that it’s virtually impossible to be fired if you have it. That is simply not true. If a university has cause to fire a tenured person, then the university can do so. If a faculty member doesn’t show up for classes or turn in grades, if he or she behaves in unacceptable or unprofessional ways, if a faculty member violates ethics codes–or for numerous other reasons–a faculty member may certainly still be fired. Granted, it’s harder to fire a tenured as opposed to an untenured faculty member and requires a long process of documentation rather than an arbitrary decision by an administrator. Granted, it doesn’t happen very often. But maybe this has more to do with the fact that most tenured professors have already run the gauntlet mentioned above and have spent at least 9 to12 years on probation (in grad school and earning tenure) before becoming tenured than with the fact that it’s too easy for them.
There are many other reasons why tenure is important to the healthy functioning of colleges and universities, but I’m only going to mention one other here today—and that is the traditionally cited protection of faculty with unpopular or controversial ideas, aka academic freedom. Tenure was designed to protect faculty from arbitrary complaints by parents, students, and administrators who otherwise might paralyze their teaching and life-choice options. It’s only been around for about 100 years, and, I might add, it’s the 100 years when someone other than white men of a certain conservative bent could reach for the intellectual life. It prevented, among other things, administrators from firing female faculty members who married or got pregnant.
Many in the right wing these days claim that tenure, however, rather than protecting a diversity of ideas and opinions, now is a screen behind which liberal prerogative is preserved. From what I can see in the articles I’ve read, they don’t cite any real evidence for this except that professors are notoriously liberal. How it is that tenure produces this supposed effect, I’ve no idea, but it is certainly true that tenure prevents conservative politicians from exerting pressure on university administrators to just fire professors whose politics the politicians don’t like. And this is exactly why we need tenure right now.
I feel certain that if some radical right politicians have their way, and if they manage to make arbitrary, without-cause firing of faculty possible, they will create an atmosphere in which faculty will become fearful to speak their minds honestly and in which they will be punished if they rise above their fear.
Frequently, these men who speak out against tenure (they’re usually men) have spent some time in academia themselves, but have since moved on to business or conservative think-tanks for their employment. I don’t have access to the details of these changes in their lives, of course, but one of two things seems to have happened: either a) they didn’t get tenure and were thus excluded from further academic life, or b) they decided that the benefits of an academic career were not enough to offset the relatively low pay-scale and demands of the work. Either way, they are out for the blood of those who have made different choices and had different successes than they have had. Their goal is complete eradication of protections of any sort for faculty and the imposition of non-academic standards for academic work.
If I’m being alarmist, and the goal in abolishing tenure is not to clean house based on a political agenda, then the fact is that abolishing it would likely have very little effect at all. Perhaps some increased costs as faculty constantly seek to move to better positions and universities take on increased supervision, expanded evaluation tasks even for long-term faculty, and constant interviewing for new faculty. Mostly, though, we would keep doing what we do.
However, my fear is acute. It’s bad enough as it is right now. Much university funding already comes from private sources and cooperative efforts with private businesses abound. As it is, that’s often a mutually beneficial thing. But if these people get their way, public higher education will become even more a servant of private business interests, not designed for the public good.
People, private industry has one goal: profit. It and its CEOs do not have your best interest at heart. That is one reason why running universities like businesses is a bad idea.
Lisa Roney teaches at the University of Central Florida. This essay is reprinted from her blog, Joyous Crybaby.