Let’s Abolish Tenure

by on November 29, 2013

Nonfiction Takes

The American university is facing a dual crisis. First, students can’t pay off the debts they’re running up from their tuition. Second, they’re being taught by an underclass of radically over-educated adjuncts who are subsisting, with PhDs in hand, at near-poverty levels. It’s time to shake shit up.

The idea of tenure that we operate on right now projects a medieval vocational essentialism that’s kind of nuts within our cultural landscape. In a country where the average tenure of employment is four years, is it a good thing that professors (very few professors, in fact, and ever fewer) demand the express guarantee they’ll be able to perform the same job for life? More importantly, is there a model of lifetime tenure that doesn’t create rigid power hierarchies and wind up aligning the upper echelons of academia with the very expansionist and profit-driven higher education structure in whose side we should all be thorns?

As we know it, tenure made its first appearance in the American university towards the end of the nineteenth century, mostly to prevent wealthy benefactors from directly picking faculty hires. It thus endued the money bags deposited into the university with academic legitimacy. So far, so benign. In the early decades of the twentieth century, tenure became the norm as scholarship won autonomy from its financial patronage. After World War II, though, the GI Bill introduced a number of changes that not only turned the life of the American academic on its head but also rocked the place of the university within society. Having a Bachelor’s degree—any Bachelor’s degree—became the ticket into the professional elite. A college graduate earns far more in the U.S. than most anywhere else—and also far more than America’s uneducated. Up until very recently the American version of “knowledge for its own sake” stood for the fungibility of education (the any-ness of a Bachelor’s degree) as cultural capital. This positioning of the professor as class gatekeeper brought with it a salary—admittedly not an opulent one but one sizable enough to secure a level of comfort theretofore unknown to scholars (Kant and Hegel basically put out tip jars for the students who came to their lectures).

This state of affairs no longer exists. As we still don’t hear enough, student debt has spiraled out of control and only seems poised to get worse. The proximate cause is the ever-greater thirst for luxury on the part of seventeen-year-olds who pick the colleges with the nicest dorms, regardless of the bill to be paid years down the line. The broader trend, however, is the whittling away of the middle class, in which college graduates of previous generations would have sought to establish themselves. Academia is another place that grads can no longer reasonably look for employment, though not just another place. In an attenuated form, education continues to play a central role in propping up the country’s class structure. And this class structure looks increasingly like a Swiss-cheesed-up Jenga block tower.

Are tenured professors mustachioed fat cats drumming their fingers together and cackling over an unjust system of higher education? Of course not. I’m not attacking tenure holders. This is a problem not with individuals but with the university structure. Tenure has, as the American Association of University Professors recently characterized it, “been warped to the purpose of creating a multitier faculty.” In the upper tier are individuals with job security (and even prestige) all but unknown in other sectors of society; in the lower tier, exploited adjuncts who have endured a decade of training and who are paid subsistence wages that represent often about a tenth of what the university pulls in for the classes they’re teaching.

Tenure, because it shields its beneficiaries from heavy teaching burdens, anoints the chosen few who get to perform research. But as the AAUP continued to argue, “Tenure was not designed as a merit badge for research-intensive faculty or as a fence to exclude those with teaching-intensive commitments.” Those who teach are less and less to be those who research. In German this is called Verschulung—the process by which college is turned into an extension of high school, where knowledge is handed downwards rather than discovered cooperatively. In a way, tenure is still about academic freedom, though for some reason it’s okay to fire you for having the wrong ideas if you haven’t endured a six-year review process.

An argument like this is potentially dangerous, I admit. It certainly would play well into the hands of any number of university presidents who would love to cut loose all of this cerebral flotsam that’s keeping the university from its true money-making potential. No more tenure? Great—let’s jettison all of these toxic Marxists once their five-year contracts are up. The proposition, then, can’t merely be “let’s get rid of tenure in favor of anything else”—instead it has to be, “let’s de-sanctify this weird thing that we never bother to think about and that actually helps to intellectually legitimate a totally corrupt system.” When we dismantle tenure it must show that despite the similar work they do, some scholars are being treated far better than others.

Maybe the answer is to say fuck the university, which is screwing over both the majority of students and the majority of teachers. Maybe education should be entirely decoupled from prestige and should be conducted directly between teachers and students in a way that, while still within the market, would exploit both parties less (certainly there seems to be more experimentation with this kind of model recently—see The Public School, the Minerva Project or the BISR). But so long as we’re still working within the university, let’s just topple this crazy employment structure that so sinisterly redirects both financial and social capital from the many to the few. Let’s get rid of this whole hierarchy, which nobody can really even adequately explain any more (much less justify), that we call tenure.