Wednesday, November 11, 2009
As the AAUP Turns...
As regular readers know, I've argued for some time that the tenure system is unsustainable and even unethical. I've proposed as an alternative a system of long-term renewable contracts with academic freedom stipulated in the contract language. (For the record, I envision an initial contract of three years -- consistent with current practice for most tenure-track lines -- followed by renewable five-year contracts.) That way, if academic freedom is attacked, a complainant wouldn't have to rely on an extra-constitutional and undefined legal doctrine; she could bring action as breach of contract. Academic freedom could also be stipulated in institutional policy. To the extent that employee handbooks and/or institutional bylaws are given the force of contract, the objection from 'expiration' is rendered moot. (The recent decision that non-renewal is tantamount to termination further buttresses this argument.) Contract law is well-established, so the claim wouldn't rely on the good graces of any particular justice. What might sound, at first, like a retreat would actually be a significant advance for academic freedom.
Whether you buy my interpretation of tenure or not, it seems clear that outside of the elite institutions, tenure is going the way of the typewriter. If the only alternative to tenure is temp gigs, then academic freedom becomes de facto the exclusive province of the elite. But if tenure can be replaced with a more sustainable system featuring long-term contracts and academic freedom, then we can keep the best elements of it without chaining ourselves to a dying system. And the accountability built in to a renewable-contract system would go a long way towards defusing the cheap political shots to which higher ed is now routinely subject.
What struck me in the AAUP announcement is that it implicitly acknowledges the core of my argument. By pushing for discrete policy language on academic freedom specifically, even the AAUP is implicitly admitting that it's simply not plausible anymore to argue that tenure is the sine qua non of academic freedom. And once you make that move, the strongest argument against a contract system collapses.
To be clear, I'm not saying that the AAUP would agree with my interpretation of its initiative. It almost certainly wouldn't. But the logic of the new initiative leads in this direction, and I'd argue that that's a good thing. We could put academic freedom on much more solid legal ground -- if the current legal ground were solid, the current initiative would make no sense -- and dispense with no-win arguments with the public. I'd guess that the AAUP would respond that this new initiative is a 'second-best' position, but the fact that it needs one proves the point. The link between tenure and academic freedom is contingent at best. And we could put academic freedom on a much stronger legal foundation without trying to turn back the tide of history.
Of course, there's a larger issue of the proper definition of academic freedom, but that's for another day. For now, I'm simply arguing that it's better protected by relying on a well-established body of law than by relying on enlightened justices.
(Anticipating the flaming: "Aha! So you're anti-faculty!" No. I just find it implausible that the strongest protection for academic freedom is to be found in a withering system with tenuous legal underpinnings. "Aha! You just want to get everyone fired!" No -- if I wanted that, I'd argue for employment-at-will, such as Proprietary U had. Alternately, I'd embrace tenure with my words, while quietly adjuncting-out openings by attrition, just like, well, most of American higher ed. The goal here instead is sustainability.)
For now, I congratulate the AAUP on belatedly, and perhaps accidentally, recognizing that contract law is a much stronger foundation for academic freedom than some extra-constitutional notion that it thinks inheres in tenure. I couldn't agree more.
The argument that tenure is not required for academic freedom needs to consider three issues vis-a-vis academic freedom. One is at the level of the individual, and you're engaging the AAUP at this level to argue that one can preserve the individual rights to academic freedom through contract law (or collective bargaining and grievance work). Maybe that's true; I think that's an open question. The system of rolling contracts at Florida Gulf Coast University (the closest practice to what you're proposing) would be a good place to examine as a reality check... but be aware that Bennington College is always sitting out there as a counterexample.
A second issue is whether an institutional environment is better or worse for academic freedom with a core of tenured and tenure-track faculty. I think that's separate from the individual-rights issue, because when there are institutional crises, it may be much better for the institution to have a core group of faculty who cannot be touched without due cause and can speak up without fear.
The third issue is about the attitudes of faculty themselves towards academic freedom. Is it possible that if an entire country's tenure system is abolished, it would affect how faculty view each other, and how politicized they might become? I think one could make a plausible case that the Thatcher-era stripping of tenure in the United Kingdom (the 1988 Higher Education Reform Act) is one underlying cause of British academics' proposals for a boycott of Israeli academics. Without tenure and a stake in the system, are British faculty less open-minded, less magnanimous in their views of academic freedom? That dynamic concerns me greatly, and I am very, very grateful that we have almost no calls for political boycotts in American academe.
But I don't see how implementing a system of rolling multi-year contracts will address the systemic inequities in the faculty ranks. When universities hire adjuncts at $1000/credit hour, they're not trying to avoid giving out tenure; they're trying to avoid paying a living wage or benefits, which your 5-year contracts would presumably still obligate them to provide...
What has aided -- I said aided, not caused -- in the establishment of a such a huge adjunct faculty population are full-timer's faculty unions. Union contracts often stipulate how many courses over a set period of time an individual may teach before they must be included in the bargaining unit -- i.e. hired on as tenure track or full-time. To get around these provisions, institutions usually cap the number of courses an adjunct may teach. Similarly, when it comes to full-time term appointments, union contracts often set the number of years one may teach under these contracts. Go over that number, and the individual or the line has to be converted to tenure track.
I would argue tenure has done as much to create adjunctification as the economic incentive to lower costs. Faculty unions handed administrations the loop-hole, and lo and behold, the administrations took advantage of precisely what the unions gave them.
In my experience, faculty unions are hell-bent on protecting tenure. They may claim they're interested in expanding tenure, (who knows, maybe they are) but until they cease providing administrations with the adjunct loop-hole, I'm hard pressed to believe them. I mean, they can't be that naive or stupid ... can they?
Now this is pure speculation, but I don't think anyone, including administrators, actually believes adjunctification is good for the institution. Sure, the institution saves money on them, but there are other costs that might be eliminated were something like DD's or the AAUP's idea to go into effect. In the end, though, it's the cost of tenure that forces institutions to adjunctify. their faculty
Anyway, at most institutions I am aware of, tenure is itself a matter of contract law. It can, and has been, revoked simply by closing down a unit for financial reasons.
I don't understand the points made about adjuncts vs tenure, since it is the administration that decides whether to make a t-t hire or contract hire or use single-term adjuncts when a position becomes vacant. Having watched the budget process up close, it is clear to me that this decision is made 99% on financial grounds with only a tiny input based on what is good for the students.
It makes sense to me that tenure should be offered to researchers, particularly those who work in fields prone to controversy. But do faculty members who only teach need it too?
Realistically, I suspect schools who eliminate tenure would find it difficult to pay that much more than existing academic positions. So realistically, I think what would happen is that tenure would be eliminated, salaries would remain similar, the best people would look elsewhere for employment, and the quality of new hires would go down. Of course the impact might be variable: in engineering and hard sciences, leaders might have more alternatives in industry, and the brain drain might be more pronounced; in some other fields, the effect might be less pronounced. It's hard to know.
In any case, I think that arguments for eliminating tenure need to address this concern, if they want to argue for eliminating tenure based upon financial/economic grounds.
(To be clear, in this comment I am setting aside issues of what leads to the best intellectual environment, and focusing purely on the financial and economic considerations, from the perspective of a school considering eliminating tenure.)
Actually, the argument for tenure protecting faculty in their teaching function may be stronger than the argument for tenure protecting faculty in their research function (at least in some disciplines).
Teaching is a more public act, and teachers who take controversial positions, or who present controversial interpretations, are more easily identifiable. In economics (my discipline), I suspect the number of profesed marxists would be even lower than its current almost-at-the-zero-bound number if most of the remaining marxists didn't have tenure (and, in respect to that, see Notre Dame's closing down its department of political economy). But the likelihood of people plowing through academic journals to out marxist researchers who don't make a nnuisance of themselves in the classroom is, I think, small.
In the sciences, what really "buys" academic freedom for research is bringing in research grants. Even without tenure, what institution is likely to fire a researcher who regularly brings in large grants (with their associated overhead bucks)? But a teacher who professes really unpopular views, and who isn't generating $$$$$ for the institution is likely to be in serious danger without tenure.
And I say that as an advocate of long-term (my preference is 6-years) rolling contracts.
Now, that is not necessarily undesireable. But I think that is where some of the resistance to getting rid of tenure comes from. At least, I'll cop to it. It isn't even like I have some huge idealogical reason for it, but I put 6 years in school and 4 years of a postdoc into my training, for quite a bit less of a salary at the end of it (compared to, say, doctor friends of mine), partly because job security made up for the pay differential.
I think eliminating tenure would be particularly problematic for those colleges that are located isolated small towns, since faculty would typically have zero employment prospects in the area if they were to lose their current job. This would make it (even) harder to convince faculty to come to such locations, and so you'd need more money or other perks to get them to come...
Also - without tenure, there isn't the "why did you leave someplace when you have tenure?" question...thus, changing jobs would be easier.
Well, as a teacher and researcher of human evolution (holy controversy, Batman!) at a major public R1, it has been the teaching more frequently under attack than the research. Honestly, unless you really make an effort, no one seems to know what anyone else is researching anyway (which I do see as a problem). But teaching? That's 300-500 students for me each year, each of whom seem to have between 1 and 4 parents. Someone ends up freaking out about my "disrespect of god's Truth or similar." I'd prefer not to be fired for teaching facts. So however it comes to me, I'm for academic freedom!
"Rolling contracts are a much better idea than fixed term ones. Every year you have a review, if your work has been satisfactory your contract is extended so that it ends six years later, and so on. If the work is NOT satisfactory, you have to be told WHY it is not satisfactory, and you have a chance to remedy the situation. If you do, at the end of the next year, you have a new six year contract. If you mess up six years in a row you are gone.
If it is good enough for basketball coaches it is good enough for faculty"
Plus at the R1s you need Eli Rabett's plan for deadwood
Academic freedom should be the right of students, teachers and staff in higher education (not absolute personal freedom to do crazy things, of course -- but academic freedom to voice arguments and to pursue controversial subjects). Tenure or its lack shouldn't be an issue but notice how much some academics get targeted even with the protection of tenure. Those without it are often sitting ducks, especially if they teach in "controversial" fields or research on hot-button topics. And this decision is going to make academics in these same fields even more reluctant to engage with the public.
Now isn't that sad? That's supposed to be our job but if I'm a life-sciences researcher, I can be targeted for defending vaccines. Or if I'm a historian of the slave trade, someone can get their complaint heard if they feel I'm maligning their ancestors. Why aren't more people raising hell about the absolute insanity of this legal argument?
Now, my Collective Agreement (which is very, very long and detailed), does define academic freedom. And I have tenure. And academic freedom is also specified in the part-timers jobs and adjunct contracts, here. So I don't see how your contract system is any radical revolution from a well-administered university with tenure and contracts. I'm rather shocked that any place leaves such a matter to chance!
AnonEngProf? I agree that some in your field would see a salary bump if tenure was eliminated because we always have a hard time finding profs in those fields given the serious competition from industry.
At my U, even though we're unionized, and at many others with or without unions, faculty in engineering, some pro schools and life science programs get paid a fair bit more than the rest of us, all other things being equal such as years of experience or record of publications, because of that same demand. I knew of a well-respected and small engineering department that had to run annual searches because of the constant allure of industry offers.
Most faculty in the evergreens would see severe salary drops (excepting for a few "prestige" profs at bigger schools) since many managers believe that you can always substitute another history or English or philosophy professor for the last one when they start to get expensive. Five-year contracts that rise too high with repeated cost of living adjustments could lead to a lot of 50-something academics having to go all gypsy again. Or we can all plateau our salaries at 42k a year because that's what the market will bear. Even if they were great teachers and respected researchers -- why pay six figures for something you can get for half that or less, eh?
In the context of the current supply for such persons, I don't know how supportable that concept is.
"I keep trying to imagine Roger Kimball saying, “I used to get all squicky about queer theory, but now that universities have scrapped tenure, bring on the fabulous challenges to heteronormativity.” Or Daniel Pipes saying, “I used to target anyone who didn’t toe the Likud line, but now that universities have scrapped tenure, let a hundred critiques of Israel bloom.” Or my old friend David Horowitz saying, “I used to have a list of dangerous professors, but now that universities have scrapped tenure, Bill Ayers is just all right with me, whoa yeah.” But alas, I have to admit that I’m just not that imaginative."