Tenure: Why it Matters

What is it?
Tenure is a contractual agreement between a particular faculty member and a school, college or university. After a probationary period and a series of reviews during which the faculty member demonstrates his or her value to the institution, that faculty member is offered a permanent position, or tenure. Exceptions usually apply in cases of financial exigency on the part of the college, or illegal or unprofessional behavior on the part of the faculty member.

Why was tenure invented?
This system originally developed at the beginning of the twentieth century in order to insulate researchers and teachers from the influence of university donors. The intention was to keep academic research independent and free from the pressures of financial interests. This is why academics are not paid for books or articles or reports that we write, but rather receive a basic salary no matter what the content of the knowledge produced. ‘Disinterestedness’ has become more an ideal than a reality these days, with heavy corporate investment in research universities, but the goal is still to avoid the obvious problem that if research is directly funded by DuPont it tends to find that all that dioxin in the water isn’t really so bad, and by that state commission, that the party is power is indeed making effective inroads into problem X.
In 1915, The American Association of University Professors issued a report which explained the function of the professional scholar as such: to deal at first hand, after prolonged and specialized technical training, with the sources of knowledge; and to impart the results of their own and their fellow-specialists’ investigations and reflection, both to students and the general public, without fear or favor…..it is highly needful, in the interest of society at large, that what purport to be the conclusions of men [sic] trained for, and dedicated to, the quest for truth, shall in fact be the conclusions of such men, and not echoes of the opinions of the lay public, or of the individuals who endow or manage universities. To the degree that professional scholars…appear to be subject to any motive other than their own scientific conscience and a desire for the respect of their fellow-experts, to that degree the university teaching profession is corrupted…
The system of tenure also protects the freedom to pursue the research of one’s choice, and therefore ideally enables a thriving intellectual community where a range of opinions and perspectives can flourish.
Tenure became a fundamental cornerstone of U.S. colleges and universities after World War II, for the above reasons and because it provided institutions with a stable cadre of professionals to manage matters of curriculum, educational standards, and governance. The tenure process also works to ensure academic quality control. As a faculty member, our work is subject to peer review–art or scholarship has to be evaluated by other experts in one’s discipline or field of specialization. Peer review occurs at the level of the doctoral dissertation (or MFA degree), at the time of hiring, and at various pre-tenure and tenure and post-tenure reviews. Anyone can claim to be an expert, but do other experts, other members of your discipline, recognize your expertise? I, as a specialist in literature and literary history, can’t tell a master chemist from Dr Frankenstein. So the theory is that chemists should be involved in hiring and evaluating other chemists–these jobs should not be left to administrators who know little or nothing about chemistry.

And, by granting faculty members a degree of economic security, tenure serves as a strong incentive for people of talent to enter a relatively low-paid, labor-intensive field.

What does this have to do with Antioch College?
The continued existence of this standard academic practice at Antioch College (assuming that the College survives) is under serious threat. A quick recap: Just after the Antioch University Board of Trustees’ June announcement to suspend operations at Antioch College, all Antioch faculty, tenured and tenure track, received notification that due to financial exigency our contracts will be terminated June 2008. Proposed plans for the new “Antioch Yellow Springs,” tentatively scheduled to reopen in 2012, describe a technologically-connected university system with a virtual library, courses which can be broadcast to all the units, and a very few “Core” faculty–without tenure.

“What we are seeing, of course, is the impact of neo-liberalism on the professoriate”

Currently the College is the only unit in the University whose faculty work on tenured and tenure-track rather than short-term contracts. The absence of tenured faculty in the new proposal, along with the fact that the University leadership has attempted to close the College for the three years necessary to permanently break tenure contracts, suggests that the goal is the destruction of the last vestige of tenure in the University system.
There are obvious financial advantages in ending tenure–the University would then not have to make long-term commitments to faculty or pay benefits to nearly as many employees. And presumably the University leadership sees tenure as an unnecessary fixed cost which impedes managerial flexibility. According to today’s business-minded educational experts, a tenured faculty with control over curriculum means that the institution is “inflexible” and “inefficient.” The argument is that colleges have to operate more like businesses, and be constantly ready to adapt and cater to different kinds of ‘customers’ in order to stay competitive. The problem with this argument is that colleges have a very different mission than most business enterprises. Antioch College, with its emphasis on a liberal arts curriculum supplemented with participatory governance and experiential education, may in fact be ‘inefficient,’ but that says nothing about its effectiveness at its real mission: producing educated and critical citizens of the world.

Why is tenure worth protecting?
Most centrally, there is the principle of academic freedom, which does not, and cannot, exist in systems without tenure. Faculty need to be able to write and teach and research without being subject to political censorship, without the risk of being fired for unpopular views, and without being forced to tailor their research towards commercial interests. There are at this moment many serious attacks on academic freedom emerging from the Right: scholars and artists have been denied entrance into the United States; fundamentalist Christians oppose the teaching of evolution and the existence of fields like women’s studies and gay and lesbian history; so-called patriots want to whitewash all the unpleasantness out of US history; the provocateur David Horowitz has cultivated an organization of undergraduates who spy on faculty with supposed “UnAmerican” views, etc. I recently met a former Political Science adjunct who was fired from his community college for showing his class Michael Moore’s Farenheit 9-11. The shameful existence of McCarthy-era blacklisting, which resulted in the silencing of many writers and academics, should provide all the evidence one would need that academic freedom in the U.S. can never be taken for granted.
Censorship occurs within institutions as well, as we are seeing at this time with the gag order on the Macgregor faculty who are literally being forbidden to speak about the closure of the College. This dramatically demonstrates the inadequacy of long- and short-term contracts when it comes to the protection of dissent and the right to criticize administrative policy.

“The absence of tenured faculty in the new proposal, …suggests that the goal is the destruction of the last vestige of tenure in the University system. “

Further, the new plan for “Antioch 2012” represents a deliberate de-skilling of the academic profession, a move which will have major consequences for future students as well as faculty. The University is firing highly-trained ‘chefs’ who deliver individualized ‘dishes’ to individualized audiences, and substituting them with ‘line cooks,’ much cheaper labor able to deliver prepackaged, easily reproducible, standardized course ‘recipes.’ ‘Line cooks’ are paid by the course and have no job security whatever. They receive few or no benefits and often work for several universities simultaneously. Clearly they have less commitment to student development and much less reason to put in the energy and effort required for educational excellence. ‘Line cooks’ also cannot be invested in college governance; they have no decision-making authority, and do not constitute any kind of power base within the institution. And perhaps it is the latter fact which is the most relevant: in our case, the University leadership has opted to close down the one educational unit in which significant authority is invested in the faculty, as well as in staff and students, leaving only the University model in which authority is centralized in the administration.
The current disagreement between the College and the University is really about two different visions of education. The vision which has been put forward by Chancellor Murdock is an administrative-heavy model which relies on part-time labor as opposed to a professional faculty who have had to meet rigorous standards in their discipline. It’s a model which utterly disregards Antioch’s long tradition of participatory governance. It’s a model which ignores the tremendous loyalty and deep institutional memory of the current faculty and staff. And it’s a model which relies on high-tech gadgetry and educational consultants as opposed to what we know (and all educators know) works: committed, well-trained teachers who identify with the institution and who know their students as individuals.
What we are seeing, of course, is the impact of neo-liberalism on the professoriate, which has managed to remain partly sheltered from these effects, but is now being downsized and downgraded in the same way that those in more vulnerable non-professional jobs have been for the past 20 years. The University administration is absolutely correct that the high-tech, adjunct-intensive model is being touted in managerial circles as the wave of the future–but that doesn’t make it a logical choice either in terms of educational quality for the students it serves, or in terms of the working conditions of the people it employs. It’s a terrible step backward for both of these constituencies, and therefore must be fought.