Tuesday, July 12, 2005


Tenure: The Nuclear Option

With the Supreme Court up for grabs, and the conservatives looking likely to win the trifecta with their (admittedly well-executed) Br’er Rabbit strategy on Alberto Gonzalez, I’ve been thinking about the likely fallout for academia.

Picture a tenure-based, unionized, public college. Imagine, for the sake of argument, that it has chronic budget issues. (Hard to imagine, I know, but bear with me.) Imagine that a non-trivial faction of its tenured faculty are low performing, highly-paid pains in the neck. (Again, an obvious counterfactual, but let’s go with it.) Imagine that there are lots of good young Ph.D.’s out there looking for work. (Inconceivable, yes, but let’s try.) Imagine that the faculty contract is expiring, and the round of negotiations for the next contract is starting.

The administration makes the union an offer it can’t accept. (“Mandatory calisthenics at 7:00 a.m. every day, no pay raise, and every office computer will play the alma mater when you log on.”) The union tells the administration to perform an anatomical impossibility. The administration shows good faith by compromising a little (“Okay, 7:30. Sheesh, there’s no pleasing you people!”). The union goes on strike.

Here’s the good part.

With a rock-solid right-wing Supreme Court, and with the PATCO precedent on its side, the administration hires “permanent replacements” for all striking faculty. Presto, change-o, budget problems solved, low performers purged, faculty renewed with new blood. The tenured faculty are suddenly unemployed, the young freeway flyers jump at the chance for full-time employment, and budgetary equilibrium has been restored. With Republican appointees throughout the judiciary, and a solid conservative majority on the Supreme Court, the union stands about as much chance of winning as Harold Stassen.

This could actually happen (not the Stassen part).

Admittedly, it would take a pretty confident administration to try it, with a Board of Trustees willing to endure some pretty serious flak, but it could work. And if it works once, in just one place, the legal precedent would be set.

Your thoughts?...

It's thoughts like this that keep me working on the next thing -- in this case the Ph.D. -- just to make sure I have some options when the inevitable catastrophe (like this) happens. After all, Reagan was not all that long ago, right? Another excellent post!
When I wrote, on your earlier funding question, that when the Republicans are in power it may pay think like a Republican, I never expected this!

You are assuming that the PhDs will cross the picket lines, which might be problematic. State laws could come into play, so there's more to it than the U.S. Supreme Court composition.

Like the Congressional "Nuclear Option," I expect this would be a useful alternative to bring up, to improve bargaining leverage, to break a logjam, possibly with an eye toward reforming the tenure rules. And I think it could help. I doubt that the option would be exercised, but someone's bluff would be called.
My question is: When the new young people are hired, are they tenure track?
New hires tenure track? By statute, they'd have to be. But I could certainly envision something along the lines of Duke U's "Professors of the Practice" model, with endlessly renewable multiyear contracts as a model. Honestly, in this market, even those jobs would get taken.

Your scenario puts "good young PhDs" in a real rock-and-hard-place place.
OMG, You are sooooo frightening.

You could make Tom Cruise's War of the Worlds' publicity statements seem reasonable.

I wish this wasn't a plausible alternative. I wish that my first thought hadn't been -- "wow, the undergrads might benefit from this scenario."

Of course, it wouldn't be the obnoxious deadwoods who'd get laid off... It would be all the delightful Bitch PH.D.s of the world.

And, unfortunately, jubal harshaw, of course there would be Ph.D.s dashing accross picket lines.
As tempting as parts of it sound, NO. It is one of the reasons I support the idea of post-tenure revue. But I should think anyone who took such a job would be anathema, unless the current faculty had really made a bad name for themselves with their peers.

I once suggested a better option would to get all of the adjuncts to strike (we can't, we're state employees! -- No, we aren't if we don't sign those contracts that often show up AFTER the term starts, dumbass). Cue general hilarity, because the sad truth is that people are so desperate that they will not consider organized industrial action until they have tenure.
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