Thursday, February 6, 2020
Chronicle of Higher Education op-ed: Tenure Is Not Worth Fighting For, by Greg Afinogenov (Georgetown):
The collapse in secure, well-paid positions and their replacement with precarious teaching positions is a crisis that needs addressing. The answer is not more tenure, however. If we hope to succeed in making academic work viable, it can only be by joining a broader push for worker power and job security. Tenure does afford speech protections to a shrinking minority of academics, but why should such protections be exceptional? As long as some of us have something to defend that others never had in the first place, it will be difficult to build the kind of solidarity that leads to lasting and substantive change. ...
Even at its height, tenure covered only about half of full-time faculty members and an even smaller proportion of faculty members as a whole. Within and beyond the academy, workers are routinely fired and harassed for political speech or for organizing. The unique status of certain academics has become harder to defend on intellectual or political grounds now than in the mid-20th century: The tenured professoriate is much richer, whiter, and more male-dominated than the rest of academe, let alone the population at large. Humanist academics today recognize in a way their 1940s predecessors did not that socially marginalized groups have often developed ideas and political platforms that only later came to be legitimized by credentialed intellectuals. There is less justification than ever for treating the latter as a community in need of special privileges.
Even in institutions where tenure has been weakened, its status institutionalizes a hierarchy of privilege and impunity whose chief victims are other academics — as in the case of John Brady, a Ph.D. student in engineering at the University of Wisconsin at Madison driven to suicide in 2016, apparently in part by his abuse at the hands of the professor in whose lab he’d worked. Despite a profusion of reports confirming his behavior, the professor received only a brief suspension. ...
Decades ago, the professoriate could rely on its social prestige to protect the community of scholars from external intervention; today, as the status of faculty members moves closer to that of other service employees, like elementary- and secondary-school teachers, we need to follow their example and rebuild our power from below. Tenured-faculty work may, in the process, come to look very different — more like the job protections enjoyed by the vast majority of unionized public-school teachers than like the exclusive club of today’s academe.
In a broad-based push for economic justice, both the need and the justification for academic hierarchy will fall away. Graduate and adjunct workers have already taken the initiative in campus organizing, but it is up to tenured and tenure-track faculty members to ensure that we are not the beneficiaries of zero-sum economic calculations that benefit us at the expense of our colleagues broadly defined. Buying off some workers and pitting them against others is a time-honored tactic in the hands of bosses; we should recognize it for what it is and resist it. In the long run, we stand together or we all fall separately.