The Tenured Report

Eight tenured, six promoted, effective July 1.

According to the Wesleyan Connection, eight Wesleyan faculty members have received tenure this month: Gloster Aaron, biology; Nadja Aksamija, art; Sally Bachner, English; Hilary Barth, psychology; Daniella Gandolfo, anthropology; Phillip Resor, earth and environmental sciences; Elise Springer, philosophy; and Deb Unferth, English. Go nuts, faculty friends. You’re free! An additional eight professors have been promoted.

Which brings us to an interesting query floating around popular media in recent months (and, well, decades): should tenure be abolished?

Not that, you know, those professors don’t deserve it. I can’t really speak for seven of them. The one I’ve studied with is indeed fab. But is tenure beneficial to students—or anyone—in the long run? Noting that as few as 31% of full-time college professors had tenure in 2007, a 2010 Slate article answers “No,” laying out the case with one snappy analogy:

Imagine you ran a restaurant. A very prestigious, exclusive restaurant. To attract top talent, you guarantee all cooks and waiters job security for life. Not only that, because you value honesty and candor, you allow them to say anything they want about you and your cuisine, publicly and without fear of retribution. The only catch is that all cooks or waiters would have to start out as dishwashers or busboys, for at least 10 years, when none of these protections would apply.

The dominant argument is that tenure values publishing and research over teaching. Or so goes the case against tenure in a recent Point/Counterpoint style feature in the Wall Street Journal. Tenure, Naomi Schaefer Riley argues, “has created and enforced a system that rewards research over teaching.” And students are suffering—at small liberal arts colleges as well as the Penn States and Michigans:

According to a 2005 study published in the Journal of Higher Education, the more time college professors spend in the classroom, the less they get paid. This was true not only at large research universities, but also at small liberal-arts colleges.

Professors have gotten the message, busily churning out research for a growing number of publications that in most cases are read by next to no one.

Riley’s solution is to reward teaching ability over publication record while eliminating any guarantee of job security altogether. Cary Nelson, Professor of English at the University of Illinois, rebuts. Tenure is “the ultimate quality check,” he claims; by keeping the best faculty in place, it actually ensures topnotch teaching. Most significant, I think, is Nelson’s  point that offers protection to those professors who do take risks and speak out against poor university decisions (perhaps in blogging form)—at least once they’ve received tenure:

Tenure doesn’t guarantee that every faculty member is courageous, but it protects those who are. Not every faculty member will speak out against bad plans proposed by powerful administrators, but tenure protects those who do from retaliation. Not every faculty member takes risks in challenging students, but many do. . . . The history of American higher education demonstrates that the quality of teaching and research is greatest when faculty are secure in their freedom to inquire, speak, teach and publish. No one has shown that anything other than tenure can produce that result.

Nelson’s argument focuses on the “protection” tenure offers. Riley questions whether that protection is always deserved, at least in the teaching sphere. Both make salient points. But neither gives an inch. I’d support more moderate changes—a revised tenure system that values teaching ability over publication record while still offering significant job security, perhaps with systematic check-ups along the way. (An interesting case from the annals of Wesleyan’s history: Professor Henry Abelove was initially denied tenure in the 1970s. The case made the front pages of the Argus, which I sadly don’t have on hand right now. According to the Hermes, queer students put up a fight, the decision was overturned, and Abelove became one of the most beloved English faculty members for decades.)

What do you say? Ditch tenure entirely? Revise the system? Here’s the full Wesleyan Connection report, with more information on the lucky faculty members.


[Wesleyan Connection]

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4 thoughts on “The Tenured Report

  1. Seth Grimes

    “Henry Abelove was initially denied tenure in the 1970s… According to the Hermes, queer students put up a fight, the decision was overturned”
    Hermes is wrong on two counts. I was a student in Abelove’s European Intellectual History class. I think that was junior year, 1979-80, not in the early ’80s as Hermes claims. I remember when Abelove announced to us that he had been “fired.” Almost every of the 40 EIH students turned out for a candle-light protest at Wesleyan then-President Colin Campbell’s house. I remember singing, “Love, love, Abelove/Won’t you grant him tenure?/We will stay here all night/For Abelove.” Campbell came out (um) after a while and told us he’d give the decision more thought. We went home, and Campbell reversed the decision.

  2. Former Wesleying Poster

    You left this out––imagine this hypothetical scenario. Let’s say you’re an economist who specializes in Keynesian stuff. (Obviously an oversimplification of an entire field of study but bear w/ me). Your boss is a Keynesian as well. In this hypothetical scenario, tenure does not exist. Your boss leaves and is replaced by a Milton Friedman-style monetarist, who is at ideological loggerheads with you and worries about what he perceives to be the quality of his department (or her or hir or whatever). He replaces you with a like-minded Monetarist professor for no real reason besides he doesn’t like your research and worries your politics seep into the classroom. If this happened to you, you’d rightfully call, “bullshit!”

    Tenure originally existed to help avoid this situation––especially during the Red Scare, when professors’ extracurricular interests in stuff like socialism could lead to their firing even when their politics didn’t inform their work or teaching at all. While McCarthyism is gone, you can easily think of various other potentially risky political situations at schools with less ideological homogeneity amongst the faculty and donor base than Wesleyan. Think of public institutions that receive money from state governments or the feds or the Pentagon, wealthy donors like the Koch Bros, and so on. Without some sort of job security, controversial professors could be forced out at the whim of political adversaries. Thus, tenure has a very important role to play besides giving professors jobs for life.
    However, one wonders if there’s a better way to maintain and reward excellent faculty besides making them bulletproof. If there was a faculty-administration negotiated pact––sort of like a CBA, though I don’t think the faculty is a “union” in the traditional sense––that would prevent the consideration of a person’s ideology, outside activities, or even a wealthy alumnus with a bone to pick as factors in the contract process, then tenure becomes less important. Even 5 or 10 year rolling contracts, which would reward senior faculty for service while still implementing the quality control mechanism of a renewal process, may be a better option. Many of the snooty NE prep schools that act as feeders to Wesleyan use this system––the best/most senior faculty members essentially are granted de facto tenure, but still technically need to have their contracts renewed (and older teachers who begin to slip at their jobs are quietly bought out or encouraged to retire).
    Good luck talking to the faculty about this, however. They are very, very good at obfuscating the issue and making tenure seem like the only viable option. Wesleyan’s professors are exceptionally good at playing the victim card (“at Williams they let their professors blah blah blah”) and portraying any sort of reform as an affront to their work. However, they would have a point that Wesleyan can’t really affect change in this issue unilaterally––a larger consortium of schools would be necessary to make any sort of progress on reforming the tenure system (if Wes abandons it, then professors may decide to look for more secure posts elsewhere).
    All told, when you throw the whole issue of sexuality/race/gender/etc into the mix (remember 2008 when Melanye Price was denied tenure? Holy shit!), the whole issue turns into the worst sort of tinderbox. Still––students should really interrogate the current system. When we’re losing need blind admissions, the concept of “jobs for life” for people coming from––face it––predominantly privileged and educated backgrounds is a difficult concept to swallow. While professors deserve job security, no one should want to make those positions impregnable.

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