Tenure’s Tenure

professors debate whether to push for more tenure-track positions or better working conditions for non-tenure track jobs.

What is an academic higher education worker, exactly? Is a professor still even a professor, or even treated as a professional, these days? Are college faculty ultimately to be tenured scholar-teachers or just instructors? Are they to generate new knowledge in their respective fields as well as teach it, or are they merely teachers imparting to students what is already known? 

With potentially transformative changes to higher education funding rules under consideration in Congress’s 2021 budget reconciliation process, professors themselves cannot quite agree. Some dream of an unprecedented push for more tenure-track jobs. Others have given up the ghost on tenure—it’s tenure itself, they believe, has been denied. Forty years of neoliberal assaults on higher education, particularly public higher education, has led to a crisis of underfunding and overpricing, not enough support for institutions and soaring tuition for students. Working conditions have similarly suffered, with legions of precarious adjunct faculty far outnumbering more secure tenured professors.

What is to be done in this difficult situation? Some dream of a dramatic return to—or maybe more accurately an unprecedented expansion of—the ideal of tenure among the professoriat. Others fear this vision will ironically undermine the non-tenured rather than give them access to tenure-track positions. Academic higher education workers, they believe, should not seek more tenure lines; instead, they should demand better working conditions for non-tenure track instructors and lecturers.

To push for a greater percentage of tenure-track jobs or the improvement of non-tenure track jobs, that is the question. Of course, many push for both, and they explicitly seek to get legislators to embrace the conversion of adjunct and lecturer positions into tenure-track posts. So too, many see the crisis that is all around them in academic labor as well as in the affordability of a college education. They are keen to link an expanded version of tenure not to raising tuition for students, but rather, somewhat counterintuitively, to making the first two-years of public college or university education free for students and keeping access to it inexpensive. Check out, for instance, the recommendations of the the Scholars for a New Deal for Higher Education.

Others find these big dreams dubious. Those who have been through the wringer of precarious adjunctification are generally far more cynical, and who could blame them? Administrators keen to get ahead as university managers by cutting costs to the bone and producing a docile faculty labor force will seek out all the loopholes in new requirements for tenure track posts, many adjuncts protest. Worse, yet, maybe they will simply fire all the adjuncts and make tenure-line faculty teach more. Adjuncts distrust the tenured elites of the profession, whose own ability to conduct research or teach less now falls squarely on the backs of adjunct labor and who have repeatedly failed to confront the crisis of employment in the profession.

Behind these struggles lurks the effort to build solidarity across different positions within the dysfunctional, unhealthy ecosystem of today’s academic higher education labor market. Behind those are deeper and implicit (and occasionally explicit) visions of what a professor is and should be as well as what, exactly, colleges and universities are for in modern America.

If one clings to the ideal of the scholar-teacher as professor, both producing new knowledge and teaching it, then one tends to believe in the goal of expanding tenure rather than abandoning it. if one pictures tenure as a path to better experiences for students, one supports this position. If one imagines these kind of tenured posts as solid, stable, middle-class modes of professional employment, one wants to see more of these kinds of jobs. And if one imagines the university as governed by the faculty who serve as its stewards rather than being run by a detached class of administrators whose primary goals are to please boards of trustees and get ahead in their own managerial careers, then one tends to dream of an expansion of tenure.

By contrast, if one sees that vision of tenure as a bitterly vanquished dream, one shifts away from expanding the practice to a different goal: building better working conditions for non-tenure track jobs. Perhaps having been browbeaten into submission by the often harsh practices of employment that now dominate the higher education faculty labor market, in which the vast majority of courses and positions are taught by non-tenure track faculty, a person in this camp finds the current utopian dreams of the tenure-enthused unconvincing. One may even deeply resent those with tenure or on a path toward it. “Why them, and not me?” one might ask. The tenured still do not grasp just how awful the situation is, many adjuncts feel. Indeed, they do not want to grasp it, since they benefit from it, getting to do more research while adjuncts do take over their teaching duties. Tenure has run its course, those in this camp contend. It does more damage than good now. “Pie in the sky” plans of reinvigorating tenure will only cause the most vulnerable, precarious academic workers to lose even their tenuous hold on scholarly labor as adjuncts. So, these academic workers argue, why obsess about tenure when the fight is in developing better working conditions and wages for non-tenure track academic positions?

The differences here often have a lot to do with work experiences. They also have to do with something else: perceptions of the larger historical moment. Are we still in an era of neoliberal austerity, of a refusal by Americans to imagine government redistributing wealth in the name of the common good? Or are we passing out of that phase into something new—or maybe, better said, are we witnessing the return of something old: the New Deal?

How one interprets the horizon of political possibility in the United States at the start of the 2020s shapes which path one supports for going forward. If one thinks the country is at the brink of a new era of investment in the public good through government redistributing wealth, one may embrace the bold, idealistic plan for more tenure positions. If one is not convinced that this is the case, one may abandon tenure for the more practical goal of improving adjunct work under current conditions.

To stay in the arena of historical perceptions, this all seems a bit like age-old struggles in the American labor movement between trade unionists and industrial unionists. Yet today’s disagreements do not quite parallel the older tensions. In some ways they are even flipped around. The trade unionists of old—the AFL, the Samuel Gompers of the world at the turn of the last century—sought to close ranks around their skilled labor. They wanted to lock people out and defended the interests of their era’s equivalent of tenure-track employment. Today’s defenders of tenure, however, imagine the opposite. For them a dramatic expansion of tenure would, if legislated effectively, dramatically expand the ranks of the professoriat’s elites. It would open up the field. It would, in effect, create one big industrial union and overcome the current dividing and conquering that splits the ever-shrinking tenured and tenure track professors from the masses of adjuncts.

By contrast, those who want to shift toward improving adjunct working conditions now without focusing on tenure seem at first to be more like the industrial unions such as the CIO. They are like a larger working class of supposedly (but not really) deskilled workers who no longer can develop the specialized skills of scholars-teachers. They are teachers relaying that knowledge (no simple skill that!). Moreover, they lack the autonomy that the trades of yore idealized, and they no longer care about it. Pay me a good wage, they seem to say, and make my working conditions halfway decent and I no longer care about the autonomy that tenure imparts. Nor do I care anymore about being a steward of the university. We are but wage workers, they say, as in any other industry. What is odd, however, is that this seemingly industrial union position winds up seeking to circle the wagons. It sets out to defend the limited but precarious place in the higher education economy that adjuncts already occupy. In today’s academia, Gompers dreams of academic labor utopia for all; the CIOers call for a conservation of the existing order.

In this fraught situation, full of possibility, uncertain as to what direction the United States is headed, solidarity across academic higher education laborers is difficult to achieve. To boot, we are talking about professors. Go to any faculty meeting or conference and you’ll see professors disagreeing. That’s part of what professors do. They debate. They argue. If anything they are bound together by their belief in questioning received ideas. Are professors to remain professionals? On what terms? And who will even get to speak at the faculty meeting or have the resources to attend the conference in the future?

These questions point to how the working and learning conditions in the halls of academia are inextricably linked to the decisions made in the halls of state power. What kind of political economy might emerge in twenty-first century America? What kind of tax policy and vision of the public good shall become hegemonic? How students will access the world of college—and who, exactly, will be there to meet them at the campus gate, in the old brick building, or at the Cold War cinderblock hall when they get there—remains unclear.

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