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Editor: Paul L. Caron, Dean
Pepperdine University School of Law

Thursday, October 11, 2018

The Left-Wing Case Against Tenure

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.

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Comments

"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"

Tenure encourages risk taking *after* tenure. If there was no tenure fewer scholars would take any risks *ever*--just like most people working in contingent jobs.

I'm not sure how a lack of tenure would make people more willing to hire diverse faculty. Wouldn't people who found their own jobs more at risk be even more inclined to stack the deck with people who they believed would watch their backs and wouldn't threaten their jobs?

Posted by: What? | Oct 11, 2018 8:26:47 AM

The very last thing the left needs to do is cede even more power in the employer-employee relationship, the imbalance of which is already at the very bottom among fully-developed countries. The left-wing *attack on tenure* should be to reclaim the mantle of populism from the faux pretenders who now hold it on the right (and use it to make unfunded tax cuts for corporations) by getting people to understand that in any other developed democracy, at-will employment is unheard of. I know, I know, that's actual populism and therefore the vilest Marxism, but it seems to me that the *economically anxious* that propelled Trump to victory might actually want their employers to have to give a legitimate reason for their termination.

Posted by: Unemployed Northeastern | Oct 11, 2018 9:18:08 AM

"But in an age when intellectuals are increasingly demonized and when knowledge and truth themselves are under fire..."

Academics are demonized because they are the ones waging war on truth and knowledge.

Posted by: Evan | Oct 12, 2018 5:31:29 AM

Evan makes a good point. Academics are demonized because they are acting demoniacally.

Posted by: Egg0 | Oct 12, 2018 7:26:58 AM

Unemployed northeastern says:

"faux pretenders" -- that would mean they are not pretenders, so thanks for the vote of confidence in the right.

"unfunded tax cuts" -- there is no such thing as unfunded tax cuts, only unfunded spending.

Posted by: Cloudbuster | Oct 12, 2018 8:07:04 AM

How so, Evan?

Posted by: Jack | Oct 12, 2018 8:23:27 AM

@Cloudbuster,

Of course "unfunded tax cut" is a term commonly used by economists but whatever. But yeah, the current admin is making such a hash of it that the deficit will nearly double by Trump's third year in office.

Posted by: Unemployed Northeastern | Oct 12, 2018 12:47:06 PM

Jack- For starters, with their embrace of socialism. After the last hundred years of failure, they have no excuse peddling such awful ideas.

Posted by: Evan | Oct 12, 2018 6:14:47 PM

"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."

That's a fine idea--for all professors, at all times.

Here's a tenure question for which I've never heard a satisfactory answer: Why should professors (or anybody else) enjoy a job guarantee that nobody else gets?

Posted by: Gerald Scorse | Oct 13, 2018 1:44:19 PM

@Gerald Scorse,

You are asking the question the wrong way around: it's not why profs get a job guarantee that no one else does, it's why do American employees (with the curious exception of Montana) still struggle under at-will employment when no other fully developed democracy on the world does? Why have American workers been sold out? And why isn't the implementation of worker protection part of MAGA?

Posted by: Unemployed Northeastern | Oct 15, 2018 8:56:14 AM

The nightmarish costs that would be borne by employers after the adoption of a national "good cause" requirement would easily be outweighed by the social benefits that would be gained by previously unemployed lawyers in the northeast and elsewhere.

Posted by: Mike Petrik | Oct 15, 2018 2:16:53 PM

"The nightmarish costs that would be borne by employers "

OH NO! Those poor corporations who had record profits even before the tax breaks that they used to shower themselves in >$700 billion in stock buybacks; why can't they ever catch a break in this country?!?! WHY WILL NO ONE THINK OF THE CORPORATIONS IN OUR SOCIALIST NIGHTMARE?!

- weeps copiously

Posted by: Unemployed Northeastern | Oct 15, 2018 11:48:23 PM