The university tenure system needs to be reformed. Saying this makes me anxious, because I feel like I’m putting myself on the side of lame, anti-intellectual, (usually) conservative critics of the academy, the people who love to proclaim that academic scholarship and criticism make no contributions to the culture at large, to howl about professors being “tenured radicals” who corrupt innocent children with their evil leftist classes, and to fantasize (implicitly) about a time before so many durn brown people and lesbians got into universities, gripes that are rarely supported by evidence or extended argument. Their whining is creepy and boring, and it belongs on the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal.
Now, it is the case that some academics are pompous ideologues, and it’s true that a lot of academic writing is pretty awful and that some professors avoid teaching at all costs. That said, most of the professors I’ve known during my time in a Ph.D. program are superb, balanced, sympathetic teachers, and many of them are fantastic writers whose prose is fun to read, or at least clear enough for any curious, reasonably intelligent person to understand. The flaw in the system isn’t the people who get tenure–they’ve worked real hard for a very long time to earn what they’ve got (most people are 40 before they even sniff tenure), and by and large they deserve secure jobs.
If they can get them. And most young academics can’t. The problem isn’t the tenured: it’s the tenure system. It would be difficult to survey an American university landscape that, over the past twenty years, has come to rely on armies of underpaid, expendable adjunct professors and graduate-student TAs instead of full-time teachers with real job security, and not come away deeply worried. When tenure becomes a lottery that only a minority of academics–however gifted–can hope to win; when it seems more like an advertising tactic to lure new students into graduate programs (students who will take several years to realize that they don’t have much of a shot at a good job); when everybody else slaves away at a doctorate for 5, 6, 7, or more years, only to finish and realize that there are few positions that give you health insurance and a livable wage; when a gift for teaching young people will not improve your chances of getting tenure at all; when the entire graduate-education system seems designed to provide cheap labor for increasingly huge lecture-hall classes; when getting the most “prestigious” degree in the land–a doctorate–ends up being a personal torment (try giving up a chunk of your youth to slave away in a deserted library or alone in front of your computer, writing something few people will ever read) and a huge financial mistake (you graduate with gigantic amounts of loan debt but can’t get a gig that will let you pay it down), something is seriously, well, fucked.
Some intelligent reform ideas have been batted around, but, as you would expect, most of these have been ignored. Tenured academics are skittish, because they realize how many “reform” proposals are tendered by people who despise academia as a whole, while university administrators have no desire to change a system that, from a fiduciary perspective, works quite well: the University of California might screw its undergraduates and most of its teachers, but it’s more and more profitable every year, despite all the political banging-on about (fake) funding crises. And most graduate students don’t have time to think much about this, and/or they realize that rocking the proverbial boat will damage your already slim career chances.
There are basically two theories for how to fix the teaching system. Some critics propose abolishing tenure altogether and replacing it with multi-year contracts that would be renewed if a professor turned out to be a good scholar AND a good teacher, thus preserving an adequate level of job security while getting rid of a system that clear isn’t working. This blogger, however, is skeptical about this ever happening, because it would ultimately mean that schools would have to pay contracted (but non-tenured) professors more money. In his view, the lawyers and investment bankers who dominate high-level administration have no economic interest in doing so. It’s hard to blame the vampires.
Other reformers have argued that we could replace the current tenure model, which only rewards professors who pump out critical work (the whole publish-or-perish deal), with a three-tiered one. Some faculty would be able to earn tenure simply for being good scholars; equal numbers would earn it by being great teachers, regardless of whether or not they produce scholarship; and an elite cadre composed of people who are skilled at both research and teaching would be able to get tenure, and would be paid more money, given their double-barrel skills. Again, though, the upper-echelon managers who run American schools have no financial incentive to switch to this model: it would mean giving the majority of your devoted faculty job security, which is expensive. Why not just keep relying on adjunct slaves?
Feeling terrible yet? Finish up with Thomas Benton’s “Graduate School in the Humanities: Just Don’t Go,” an essay that was published in the Chronicle of Higher Education last winter. As you might guess from the title, Benton is pessimistic about the ability of humanities programs to get out of their death-spiral. Then you can read an interview with Andrew Hacker, co-author of Higher Education?, another intelligent, depressing survey of what’s happening to universities and colleges.
Twelve more months (fingers crossed) until my Ph.D. and I are working the register at Borders.
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