Josh Boldt

Digital Strategy at University of Kentucky

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99 Problems But Tenure Ain’t One

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Note: Earlier this month, the Vitae staff reread Kevin Carey’s argument against tenure, and we were struck by how quickly the conversation about MOOCs and the labor market is shifting. So we asked a number of our contributors: What’s the future of tenure? What discussions will we be having about tenure in 10 years? We’ll be sharing their answers over the next couple of weeks. Leading off: Josh Boldt.

Where will tenure be in 10 years? No adjunct professor should care. Here’s why:

Most non-tenure-track professors couldn’t even say where they’ll be in 10 weeks, let alone 10 years. Asking an adjunct to support tenure is like asking a homeless person to support a tax deduction for homeowners.

Sure, tenure’s a good idea. I hope it endures. I mean, it seems nice.

But I have a different question that I believe is even more important: not “Where will tenure be in 10 years?”, but “Where will professors be in 10 years?” Because as of right now, things are not looking good. While we worry about the erosion of tenure (which affects a very small proportion of academic labor), the entire profession is crumbling. It’s like painting your living room while the house burns down.

As I see it, the loss of tenure is just one symptom of the new, temporary academic workforce. If we don’t stanch the bleeding of the higher-ed economy and do something to help the exploited class of casualized labor, there will be no one left to care about privileged problems like tenure.

I suppose one might argue that the casualization of the academic workforce and the erosion of tenure are inextricably linked. It’s true that observers usually frame the two issues as codependent ones. Someone else might counter, though, that this narrative is a (probably unintentional) way to prioritize the needs of the privileged few over the needs of the underprivileged masses.

Okay, that’s not always a fair allegation. Tenured folk who support adjunct labor reform are certainly out there; I’m friends with some of them. But experience suggests that most tenured people care very little about the adjuncts who subsidize their research. Take, for example, Lee Skallerup Bessette’s recent experience at the Modern Language Association’s 2014 convention. A widely-publicized session on adjunct labor drew a whopping five people.

Lee’s incredulity is certainly reasonable given the emphasis our profession has placed on adjunct working conditions this past year. Is it all lip service? I truly hate to say this, but a turnout like this one does not encourage me to come running to help tenure-trackers next time they have a crisis like, ahem, the loss of tenure.

Now, I know some will say that fighting for the preservation of tenure is fighting against the casualization of academic labor. This would be true if most professors eventually got tenure. Or even if most professors had a slim chance of eventually getting tenure. But that’s just not the case. The vast majority of university professors will never have even the slightest chance of obtaining tenure. To this growing professorial majority, whether or not tenure exists is basically irrelevant.

The 70 percent of professors who are currently employed in contingent positions wouldn’t even notice if tenure were wiped out tomorrow. So why should its preservation be Priority #1 in academic labor discussions?

For the record, I've always been an outspoken proponent of collaboration between tenure-track and non-tenure-track professors. I believe we share (mostly) similar goals. But that does not mean I advocate placing the needs of the tenure-track above the needs of the non-tenure-track.

I'd much rather see adjuncts earn double the pay, get health insurance, or even be given offices before I'd worry about demanding icing on the cake for a full-time faculty member. It's just not a priority when compared to the difficulties facing adjuncts, and I'd rather use my time and energy negotiating more pressing issues.

Look, tenure for all would be great. I want to make it clear that I’m not antitenure. It’s valuable to those who have it, and it’s valuable to the academic community. In an ideal world, any professor who deserves it should be awarded tenure. If this discussion has your blood boiling, tell me how we can accomplish tenure for all and I will shake your hand. The person who figures out a way to make this happen would be a true hero.

But as of now, what we’re really talking about when we talk about tenure is a very small and ever-dwindling privileged group. Instead, I want to focus on the needs of the needy. Better pay, health insurance, longer contracts: These are the pressing concerns of the vast majority, and they should take precedent as we work to fix our broken system.

As for fixing that system, I’d advocate for arrangements that give decent salaries, benefits, and five-year contracts to most professors before I would negotiate to perpetuate a tenure system in which the poor majority works to support the more comfortable minority.

What I’m trying to say here is if we want to find a common interest in the fight to save our profession, preserving tenure is not it. It’s too narrow and too irrelevant to too many people. We should instead focus on goals that benefit more universal needs of the academic community. With the rise of adjunct unions, these needs will soon become the priority, like it or not. I hope our tenured colleagues want to work together and share our goals.

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