Thursday, October 11, 2018
Chronicle of Higher Education op-ed: The Left-Wing Case Against Tenure, by William Egginton (Johns Hopkins):
Outside of higher education, tenure is a four-letter word. Academe is the only profession in which employees can hope for such thorough protection from termination. As such, tenure is a source of irritation for politicians like State Rep. Rick Brattin, a Missouri Republican, who in January 2017 introduced a bill to eliminate the practice at Missouri State and nullify the protected status of already-tenured professors. As he put it, "In the academic world, you can get away with literally anything and taxpayers are paying their salaries — not to mention students being burdened with millions and millions and millions of dollars of debt."
Such right-wing attacks on tenure are legion, so it might seem mean-spirited to pile on an already-beleaguered institution. But in the current period of extreme contraction — especially in the humanities — tenure raises serious concerns quite different from those of its conservative detractors. Tenure promotes unjust labor relations; discourages risky and innovative thinking during scholars’ most productive years; and intensifies the tendency of faculty to reproduce themselves, not only by area and interest, but also by gender, race, and class. ...
If we want to retain tenure’s vital mission, we need to ensure its fairness. We need to abolish those tenure review practices that encourage the hoarding of privilege and the abuse of the powerless. One way to do this would be to reform how assistant professors are hired and how departments are governed. Rather than have a separate, do-or-die tenure track, lecturers and assistant professors could both be hired on renewable contracts with the understanding that renewal rests on periodic and positive evaluations of teaching, research, or both. Tenure and a research-enabling teaching load would be earned by those who demonstrate sufficient quality and productivity of research as measured by a committee of external, arms-length readers. Likewise, a period of research inactivity would trigger a return to a more teaching-intensive status, without thereby removing the protections of tenure. Finally, the tendency of departments to be governed exclusively by tenured professors should end; teaching and research are equal partners in our universities’ missions and should be respected as such.
Safeguarding intellectual freedom is an indispensable goal, especially today. But in an age when intellectuals are increasingly demonized and when knowledge and truth themselves are under fire, we need to ask whether processes that give cover for arbitrary and politically motivated personnel decisions, reproduce arcane power structures, reinforce disciplinary insularity, and undermine our best attempts at diversifying the academy are really fulfilling the sacred mission of protecting truth from the contagion of power.