Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Tenure/Adjunct Dialectic

The New York Times published a colloquy on the future and desirability of the tenure system. Per usual for the Times, not a single contributor there has any experience actually managing in a tenure-based sysem. None. Not one. Nor does any of them work at a community or state college. Honestly, it’s like they’re not even trying anymore...

Anyway, the officially sanctioned view from on high misses the point.

Cary Nelson weighs in for the AAUP, contrasting “tenure and academic freedom together” with adjuncts, as if those are the only two options, and as if they were somehow opposed. The various other contributors note more rationally that other options exist -- Mark Taylor at least mentions renewable contracts, which don’t even exist in Nelson’s piece -- but none of them sees the causal link between tenure and adjuncts. Which isn’t all that surprising, given that none of them have ever actually tried to manage the system.

The cost of tenure goes far beyond the salary of the tenured. It includes the opportunity cost of more productive uses that had to be skipped to pay for a decision made decades earlier in a different context. (We actually have people for whom staff jobs were created when their tenured speciality went away. That’s a direct cost of tenure.) It also includes the cost of the various bribes that have to be paid to the tenured to get them to step up to acknowledge institutional needs: course releases (a direct cause of adjunct hiring), preferential scheduling (whether it makes sense for students or not), and even cash stipends (which have to be paid for somehow).

Whenever we allocate course reassignments for full-time faculty, we hire adjuncts to make up for it. Sabbaticals? Adjuncts. Grant work? Adjuncts. Someone has to teach the classes the tenured faculty won’t. (As one embittered adjunct put it in a department meeting, “I teach so you don’t have to!” Exactly.) Aristocrats need serfs, and the tenured need the adjuncts.

It starts earlier than that. The ‘bait’ of tenure is part of what lures so many young idealists into graduate school, replenishing the reserve army of the adjuncts. That oversupply allows the adjunct trend to continue. The crushed dreams of a generation of underemployed academics are a cost of tenure.

And that’s not even counting the absurd, over-the-top, you-wouldn’t-believe-it-if-you-hadn’t-seen-it procedures necessary to get rid of someone with tenure. Since the courts have interpreted tenure as ownership of the job, you need to meet what amounts to a standard of criminal prosecution in order to ‘expropriate’ someone. But the job doesn’t belong to the employee. That’s a fundamental, and egregious, category mistake. The job belongs to he who pays for it, not he who is paid. Most people understand that intuitively. Combine an ownership interest with the lack of a mandatory retirement age, and you get some pretty entitled, embittered, ineffective people lumbering around, their life support paid by the surplus value created by the adjuncts who teach they courses the cranky veterans would rather not. And do you know what those seventy-somethings are waiting for? Retirement incentives! Another cost of tenure.

Then there’s the cost in the world of public opinion. Given the increasing costs of higher education, the argument from impunity is getting progressively harder to make with a straight face. “Trust us, we’re experts” is not a winning argument, especially when it’s somehow combined with the claim that administrators -- that is, the people charged with actually managing the taxpayers’ money -- are evil and incompetent. (That’s why you need the protections of tenure, the argument goes.) Explain to the rational taxpayer why he should continue to pay progressively more for someone unaccountable (faculty) managed by someone incompetent (administrators). That is the AAUP’s actual position, and it’s insane on its face.

A more rational system would abolish the tenure/adjunct dialectic as a dysfunctional model, and would move to renewable contracts with academic freedom stipulated in the contract language. Contracts could shift over time to reflect the changing needs of institutions -- no more making up jobs -- and nobody would be forced into the artificial “up or out” moment that does so much to squelch real academic freedom. (Ask the typical assistant professor aiming for tenure how much freedom she has to explore where her interests take her.) Faculty incentives could be aligned with institutional incentives -- in any other industry, that’s so obvious as to be almost tautological -- so we don’t hire people to teach and fire them for not publishing. Jobs could change as institutional needs change. Nobody would have to try to guess how productive someone else would be in thirty years, which is the system we have now.

Bring the system back to earth, and we might start to see some rationality in it. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the appeal of grad school fade a bit, which would clearly be to the good. The unproductive could be put out to pasture, thereby freeing up resources for the productive. Colleges could staff for actual need, rather than to compensate for decisions made decades earlier in very different contexts. And nobody would be expected to be able to see decades into the future. It’s easier to get out of a bad marriage than to get out of a bad tenure decision, yet the supporters of tenure seldom crusade against divorce. If people can’t get marriage decisions right, why do we expect them to get tenure decisions right?

No. This isn’t about “lifetime earnings,” since people will accrue those either way. It’s about recognizing that the tenure system feeds the adjunct system, and that the only way to get rid of the latter is to get rid of the former.

Note to the Times: next time, just ask. Seriously.