Rob Jenkins

Associate Professor at Georgia State University Perimeter College

A World Without Tenure? That’s a World Without Shared Governance, Too

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Over the past few months, a few of my peers at Vitae have weighed in on the future of tenure, and understandably so: Increasingly, we’re being asked to contemplate a world without it.

We’ve been reading arguments against tenure for a while, of course. But there’s a real corporatist edge to recent contributions to the genre. These broadsides envision an Orwellian campus where freedom is servitude—specifically, intellectual servitude to the whims of education technocrats holding up their forefingers to test the winds of supposed market forces.

What the anti-tenure crowd fails to acknowledge is that higher education, as an “industry,” is unique. In most industries—theoretically, at least—the bulk of knowledge and experience resides with management, so that’s where the decision-making takes place. Everything is top-down. But in higher education (and, one might argue, throughout education in general), it’s the “workers”—the professors—who know most about what should be taught and how. Thus it’s vital for them to be an integral part of the decision-making process. The process must be, if not bottom-up, then at least relatively collegial.

That’s why shared governance in higher education is indispensable. Without it, all the decisions would be made by managers—managers who just might be more concerned with the bottom line than with educational quality. We already see that happening all over the country, and the only thing keeping it in check is a strong faculty voice. (Witness the recent “battle” between San Jose State University’s philosophy department and its administration over efforts to replace face-to-face courses with MOOCs.) Without shared governance there can be no healthy debate over important issues, no free exchange of ideas, no checks and balances on administrative overreach.

And all of that holds true, by the way, regardless of the medium in which classes are being taught. The debate over shared governance has nothing to do with technology, which is merely a means, not an end.

The same logic applies to academic freedom. Faculty members, the content experts and knowledge producers, must be able to teach their subjects and conduct their classes (whether online or face-to-face) as they see fit, within the bounds of professionalism. Otherwise they become susceptible to all sorts of pressures, both internal and external: pressure from administrators to raise (or lower) grades, pressure from politicians to jettison controversial content, pressure from special interest groups not to “offend.” The local college campus is thus transformed into the local Wal-Mart, where management lays down the law and the customer is always right—even though, in this case, management has suspect motives and the “customer” doesn’t even know what he or she doesn’t know.

Which brings us back to the attacks on tenure. Without tenure, neither true shared governance nor true academic freedom is possible. Unless a significant portion of the faculty is tenured, there will never be enough people willing to question poor leadership decisions or speak out against administrative excess. (It’s hard enough even with tenure.) And contingent faculty members are never truly free to teach as they see fit; they’re always at the mercy of administrators who can simply take away their courses, and their livelihoods, without explanation. That’s what “contingent” means.

We already have too many faculty members in that position. Opponents of tenure evidently want us all to be there—and to like it.

I call upon tenured faculty everywhere to resist the deliberate corporatization of American higher education—the attempt to transform our system so that it serves primarily corporate interests, not students or institutions or even, ultimately, the public good. I call upon tenured faculty to champion the values of shared governance and academic freedom, to fight for those values (as our colleagues at San Jose State did) rather than sitting idly by as they are gradually replaced by pseudo-market-driven exigencies.

Remember, the corporatists don’t want faculty to have tenure for the simple reason that they don’t want us to have any power. Powerful faculty advocates make it more difficult for them to push through their agendas. If we don’t resist while we’re still in a position to do so—well, not to be overly dramatic, but if those of us with the protection of tenure, such as it is, are not willing to speak out—then the battle for the heart and soul of the academy is already over and the corporatists have won.

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