Josh Boldt

Contributing Editor at Vitae

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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19 Comments
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  • Nicely done Josh!

    THOMAS SHIRLEY
  • Yes to all that, but I would place more emphasis on getting adjuncts into the system of shared governance. As a tenured professor, I have watched the steady erosion of faculty power, and this is directly related to the decline in the number of tenured faculty. The use of adjunct labor is also a way for administrators to gain power over everyday decisions in higher ed. Empowering adjuncts in substantive roles in shared governance is vital to the future of higher ed, and something that the tenure track people should advocate.

    Gregory Jay
  • Solid commentary. Except that tenure remains the sole protection of the academic programs from total business control, the protection keeping SOME faculty voices in the academic institutional conversation. I have thought about such structures as five-year contracts etc., but nothing confers that authority. I lost my own tenure striking to protect tenure, and I still support it in spite of a dead-end "career" as an adjunct. Still, it sickens me when tenured faculty don't use their own measure of security to fight for the rights of those who have none, regardless of discomfort, inconvenience, or risk. From my tenured full-time position back in the last century I was an active advocate for part-time faculty rights, and I expect no less from those who are tenured and full-time now. Step up.

  • i've long wondered why this hasn't been said out loud in these pages. maybe i'm seeing the glass half empty, but given the way things are going:

    why wouldn't the end of tenure just mean that all faculty are underpaid and under-benefited? Teaching in college evidently remains so appealing that people, even when they know the stats, continually get phd's in hopes of landing a (tenure track?) job. Would that change if tenure went away? As long as there's the oversupply of phds, and people who'd rather teach in college than not, even for low wages, then why wouldn't the system just keep doing what it can do, what it does for nontenure faculty now: paying as little as it can?

    as i said, the glass half full scenario
    tony e jackson

    tony jackson
  • "With the rise of adjunct unions": really? Please itemize. I see no evidence of massive, national success on this front, though I dearly wish it were so.

    By the time adjuncts presumably and sufficiently unionize, the game will have changed again, no doubt leaving them where they are now: screwed, blued, and tattooed, to quote Dan Ackroyd from SNL.

    Ray James
  • How about all of the above? Shared governance, health insurance, better pay, better conditions, ability to plan ahead.
    I'm not sure how to solve the teaching/research puzzle, without re-privileging research. I do know that there is this secret world of the tenured, with money and opportunities, that even "permanent" adjunct status--which I have as part of an administrative job - cannot get or earn, that reinforces the divide between "standing" faculty and the majority of faculty. For adjuncts trying to keep up with a research agenda, this would also make a huge difference.

    Ann Greene
  • I absolutely support adjunct unionization and a complete overhaul of the contingent academic labor system. I am not, however, a fan of the tenured vs. non-tenured divide as a mode of comparison because is obscures the differential representation of and rates of tenure among people--particularly women and queer/trans--of color in TT positions. And in those positions, the differential service and mentoring burdens these folks shoulder are in fact raced and gendered forms of devalued labor that also subsidize the research of their (often white, male) colleagues, provide vital yet absent or underfunded university services, etc. I am very committed to building alliances across university faculty, and I absolutely agree that too few tenure track faculty have participated in such efforts. At the same time, I want to warn against mobilizing a rhetoric that suggests parity among TT faculty or among contingent laborers. University faculty are still overwhelmingly white and male, and people of color are disproportionately represented among adjunct ranks.

    Kirstie Dorr
  • Well put Josh. I will say though, that tenure is probably one of the most easily abused privileges in academia today. excepting the tenured faculty out there that are still busting their hump to keep the workflow going, there are plenty who obtain the coveted status and drop out on productivity. I met a good example the other day when I spoke to a tenured professor at my university who was on his way out at 11 to do his ride along as a sheriff's reserve officer (really, I'm not making that up).
    Having joined the 85% club of PhDs who are no longer on the academic track last year, seeing folks abuse tenure like that is very hard to swallow. I concede that this is a single person at a single institute, but it doesn't take many apples to spoil the bunch, especially seeing and experiencing first hand the troubles of making it in academia.
    My own opinion is that tenure is a great model when times are good, but given the changing times it might be something better left to the wayside as a means to keep a steady flow of novel and diverse ideas coming in.

    Jonathan Phipps
  • As a long time adjunct having taught at countless colleges/universities (now down to 3) I love love love what I do. I've been offered f/t here & there over the years & politely turned them down. The reason I left corporate america & started adjuncting & running a small business is because I don't want to be owned by anyone. However, that's me. I realize that most adjuncts would love to be f/t & on the tenure track. Here are some of my observations & feedback I've gotten from students over the last 13 yrs:

    1. F/t tenured professors have a propensity to sit in a chair & show PPT to their classes. They don't interact w/ students, would rather do research than teach, have nothing to lose since they're 'set' (this is so the antithesis of corporate world where any day could be your last & you'd better perform to keep your job).
    2. F/t tenured professors "profess" their subjects. Rarely do they actively work in their fields. If your field is math I guess that's OK, but if your field is anything related to business or a subject in which your students will one day be working themselves, then this is a problem. It's one thing to have deep technical knowledge & another to be able to advise students.
    3. This leads me to my last point of contention. I have been begged by so many students over the years to be their advisor but adjuncts are not allowed. This seems like such a terrible disservice to students especially in this day & age of high unemployment, etc. I work in the fields in which I teach & am always told by my students that my real world experience is exactly the reason they're in my classes (business, marketing, advertising, communications). I'm on top of the industry, do it every day, live it, breathe it & have for 2 decades.

    True story: I recently met a professor who teaches Entrepreneurship so I asked him what kind of business he owns & he replied "I don't." Huh?!?!? I would never ever stay in a classroom as a student trying to learn how to start/run a business from someone who is pretty much just reading a textbook to me & has no clue!!

    We're invaluable to our students & bring the very best of teaching combined with real life experience to the classrooms. If anything, the parents of students should demand adjuncts so their kids can get jobs when they graduate!!

    Ugh! Don't get me started on my adjunct soap box.

    Randye Spina
  • Gad, you don't get it.

    1. The benefits and pay of tenured faculty at the top are NOT supported by adjunct labor. That's bullshit, especially since sports coaches, sometimes even at the assistant level, make more than any professor makes or ever will make.

    2. The problem, as you begin to identify it, is with the elimination of the professoriate as a group with any university power. Advocating for higher pay and benefits for contingent faculty is just to demand more table scraps from your corporate masters.

    If you want to arrest the complete decomposition of education in the US, you need to preserve faculty governance, and that only comes with the preservation of tenure.

    J Q
  • @JQ
    So how is tenure helping adjuncts at your school? What are you doing with your platform to make life better for your colleagues?

    Josh Boldt Josh Boldt
  • @Ray James
    Check out Adjunct Action and SEIU to see the rapid growth of adjunct unions. 2013 was a huge year for adjunct organizing.
    http://adjunctaction.org/

    Josh Boldt Josh Boldt
  • How does an adjunct union truly solve the problem, vs. creating a third tier of professor-ship? Tenure, Union, Freelance.

    I'm not seeing the trigger that will get hundreds of colleges and universities to agree to unionized adjunct faculty, nor do I know of any models outside of academia where a union provides good pay and benefits to a workforce of part-time, freelance workers.

    Then again, perhaps there are really two problems that get muddled when talking about adjuncts. First, there are those adjuncts who are teaching a full load, who are really full time, but not paid or treated as such. That seems to be where this problem overlaps tenure, despite the great argument Josh gives about ignoring that issue. Second, there are the masses of adjuncts (like myself) who teach one class, once per school year.

    It seems unlikely a single solution is going to solve both of these problems. How would an adjunct union for the full-timers deal with the fact that part-timers like me already have benefits from our full-time jobs, or that we are fine if our class is cancelled with little notice, or that the current adjunct rates for teaching one class once per year are acceptable?

    All of which in my thoughts winds up at a three tier-ed solution. Tenure. Union. Freelance.

  • All good points made. It demonstrates the diversity of opinions and experiences we bring. Bottom line regardless of where this ends up and I'm all for fair pay for adjuncts as I have been one for sometime. What I've experienced is what someone mentioned earlier. I bring the 30 years real experience to the table and make the students learning experience real. That is what the students really find add value to their education. So regardless of our perspectives and opinions, let's not forget why we're here. To teach and educate the present and future workforce. I hope things do change for adjuncts. Because those of us that good should be compensated and rewarded for our passion and contributions for preparing a better future workforce.

    Edwin Mourino
  • Josh this is an excellent analysis. Of course the harried adjunct has more to worry about than someone else's tenure! Tenured folks, in general, do not use (and have not used) their greater protection from dismissal for the greater social good. Had they, in the past forty years, as a group, not accepted (even rejoiced, at times) in the cheap labor of the army of adjuncts, we might feel differently. Of course, there are exceptions to the general acceptance of the working conditions of the "bottom half" of the professoriate--even at times the smug sense of deserved entitlement , but those tenured faculty who are genuinely opposed, in both word and deed--year after year--are few and far between. The first myth that must fall, or one of the first, is that the bottom "half" of the professoriate, the army of PTF, is the "inferior" half of the HE faculty. I think it might be more accurate to say the bottom half, economically and in status, are the least "selfish" and least individual-career oriented of the professoriate. And that might be a worthy and socially-valuable quality, or set of qualities.

  • Well said above! If you have tenure, be grateful as you will be the last generation to enjoy it. The profession, however, is dead. The model we're using is over, slowly being displaced by various experiments that are mostly inferior. BTW: 70% of the faculty cannot be inferior. They are just unlucky. The academic job market is a sham; graduate programs should be more truthful about "career" placement and no one should go to graduate school with the idea that there is a TT job out there. It is a myth.

    Diane Bowser
  • How can we accomplish tenure for all? Insist that no one who teaches at any college or university does so without having tenure, being on the tenure track, or being a graduate student. It seems quite simple to me. It's basically unionization.

    Kathryn Weber
  • I originally shared with the Soc of Ed. blog but I wanted to post it here as well. Thanks for saying this out loud... I think this speaks to the inequality and other problems inherent in the current educational system. While all of the problems in higher ed. cannot be blamed on tenured faculty, they should acknowledge their role in the problems. This discussion is about more than tenure. It is about how tenured Sociologists, and tenured faculty in general dropped the ball in their own profession.
    1. They didn’t speak out at the shift to publish or perish, which set up a false and foolish state of competition between teachers and researchers. They cosigned on the push to publish, only in appropriate journals, regardless of the contents use value to anyone in the larger society.
    2. They didn’t speak out at the evilness and absurdity of the tenure process. For many faculty going up for tenure, is like going to the dentist without Novocain. Rather than being a celebration of accomplishments it has become a celebration of political alliances, and an opportunity for racism, retaliation, and hazing.
    3. They didn’t speak out about the unnecessary old school gate keeping. Rather than embracing new ideas and innovations, they complained and argued for the good old days. I once heard a senior faculty argue for not needing computers because PowerPoint was going to destroy the classroom. They helped leave the door wide open for “for-profit” educational institutions to come in and provide the innovations they resisted, like online teaching.
    4. They didn’t speak out when good teachers lost their jobs for focusing too much on teaching and student success. (How many of you out there have heard or been told that you spent “too much time” with your students.) They watched good teachers become second-class citizens, making less money and having less advancement opportunities.
    5. They didn’t speak out at the poor treatment of adjuncts and instructors. It was ok for them to teach students but not ok for them to be treated as colleagues and professionals with dignity and respect.
    6. They didn’t speak out at the continuation and expansion of racism in higher education. They published all day about inequality structures all the while knowing that minorities in offices two doors down were making less money and getting fewer resources. And they watched silently as African Americans were systematically locked out of the tenure process.
    7. Finally, they didn’t speak out when students became consumers and teachers became facilitators. They watched our education, training and experience just thrown out without so much as a mass protest.

    Who was in the best position to speak out about these things? The answer is tenured faculty, but they didn’t speak out. This helped lead to an educational paradigm where “teaching” and “learning” is secondary to politics, status differentiation, and apathy for others in their profession. So for new teachers, the tenure process and tenured faculty hasn’t set a very positive example.

    A few words to remember:
    “First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out-- Because I was not a Socialist.
    Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out-- Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
    Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out-- Because I was not a Jew.
    Then they came for me--and there was no one left to speak for me.

    Who is going to support and value tenure and tenured faculty when they did not support and value others?

    Sharon Squires
  • Lately I've been been getting the latest NYT tenure blah blah forwarded rather a lot, so I reply with this

    Vanessa Vaile Vanessa Vaile