“Now safely ensconced on the other side of tenure and part of the various institutions that decide how and to whom it is given, I find myself deeply conflicted about Fukuyama’s recent arguments in favor of abolishing the system. Admittedly, much of what he offers as justification is nonsensical. The proposition that tenure contributes significantly to the skyrocketing costs of higher education is preposterous on its face when even its most strident critics place the blame for rising costs at the feet of bloated administrative bureaucracies, the massive growth of non-academic programs such as sports, and the retreat of state support which has effectively privatized the once public good of higher education. Indeed, it seems more likely that tenure functions as a non-monetary economic benefit that is used to reduce the costs of education, especially in those fields where universities compete with the private sector (i.e. ‘certainly you can earn more as an accountant or nurse than a professor but the latter provides you greater long-term security’).
Moreover, I am convinced, as many have pointed out here, that the stability and protections offered by the tenure system are crucial for the preservation and maintenance of higher education. Teaching, research, and shared governance must be protected if they are not to devolve into base pandering, the production of market-oriented drivel and subservience to administrative dictates. The stories told by that majority who now labor in higher education without the protections of tenure, all those contingent academics shuttling between campuses or working toward their next short-term contract, should serve as a cautionary tale for us all: in the absence of the protections afforded by tenure, the entire higher education enterprise becomes little more than a matter of ‘trying to keep the customer satisfied.’
And yet, Fukuyama’s point that scholarship has become hyper-specialized and laden with obfuscating jargon seems correct. It is certainly the case that much of the research in the humanities and social sciences has become ‘unread and unreadable.’ However, the blame for this trend towards obscurantism seems not to rest with the institution of tenure but with the difficulty with which it is given. As tenure-line jobs and with them tenure, become more out of reach for those who work in the academy there is an inevitable pressure to ‘produce’ more in an effort to demonstrate one’s worth. Quantity replaces quality as a measure of one’s fitness to hold tenured jobs and the degradation of scholarship follows in its wake.
Moreover, it is hard to ignore the fact that in far too many cases, tenure is being used as a cudgel with which to discipline the professoriate. The seemingly inexorable ratcheting up of expectations as tenure becomes increasingly out of reach for so many produces nearly paralyzing anxieties in junior faculty which they carry with them into their post-tenured lives. My concern here is not that academic disciplines becomes hyper-specialized or conservative in their scholarship but that having been through the hazing ritual that has become the review process, faculty come to identify more with the institutional authorities that ‘grant’ this most sought-after goal. In other words, it is not conservatism in the conduct of research that worries me but a kind of conservatism in the practice of shared governance.
Others on this site have noted the important role of the AAUP in the creation of the tenure system and I join them in lauding this venerable and indispensible institution. However, I hasten to add that the AAUP serves as both a professional organization, securing the rights of academic freedom and as a labor union, organizing faculties for the purpose of bargaining collectively to preserve and maintain those same rights as well as the economic interests of the professoriate. It is in this latter role that I take greater comfort: as faculty work collectively to secure their interests they come to identify with one another as faculty instead of with the disciplines and institutions that the review process compels them to identify with. Thus organized as a collective, instead of as an atomized, isolated individual there is the possibility of a greater voice in the governance of higher education.”
Thomas A. Discenna
Department of Communication and Journalism
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