Saturday, February 23, 2013

Contingent faculty, tenure and academic freedom

Don & Suzanne at signing of
landmark CO legislation
…by Don Eron, originally posted to COCAL's contingent faculty email list, popularly known as adj-l, and republished here with Don's permission. His elegant and thoughtful examination of tenure and contingency in current higher education was part of a larger discussion on the COCAL listserv email that included Jack Longmate and Seth Kahn, among others. To access the complete thread, titled, "Contingent faculty, undocumented workers (and tenure)," subscribe online or by sending adj-l@adj-l.org a blank email with "Subscribe" in the subject line.

Dear Colleagues,

Jack [Longmate] suggests that offering tenure as a remedy to the problems that stem from contingency--in other words, to the problems that occur when faculty do not have tenure--is a "hard sell." As somebody who has long advocated that all faculty, at every rank and job description, should be granted tenure after the successful completion of a probationary period, I can agree with Jack that selling tenure as a solution is a "hard sell," not only to tenured faculty but perhaps to Jack and others on this list, although it shouldn't be so.


Jack is right when he says that the largest impediment to the expansion of tenure rights isn't necessarily college or university administrations, but tenured faculty. As he notes, some tenured faculty consider tenure to be a reward for their high accomplishment, and oppose an expansion of tenure rights because it might diminish the magnitude of their accomplishment. And some tenured faculty oppose the expansion of tenure rights because it might result in a backlash from state legislators and lead to a diminishment of tenure, if not its abolishment altogether.

Such tenured faculty are not protecting tenure, as they seem to think they are, but arguing for its demise. They are insisting that tenure is not necessary for faculty. And when tenured faculty insist loudly enough that tenure is not necessary, it will not be long before everybody else agrees. When I hear such arguments from tenured faculty, I sometimes agree myself. In fact, I have considered proposing to my board of regents that tenure be abolished — in its stead, I would suggest that a parade be scheduled to reward faculty accomplishment.

The reason that tenured faculty are awarded an extra layer of job protection not available in most other industries is not that they are so great, having achieved distinction in their discipline. After all, employees in all industries achieve distinction and are not rewarded with guaranteed lifetime employment—nor should they be. It is that, as the transmitters of knowledge, college and university faculty have unique responsibilities to society, and therefore require unique protections. Indeed, as the AAUP has articulated and I agree, we do not work for our employers (the colleges and universities that cut our paychecks) but for the good of society.

Perhaps because I do not belong to a union, I do not consider it fruitful to think in terms of "job security." Nobody outside my family and friends cares about my job security. But what everybody I talk to about these issues understands is that it is not a good thing, not for me and not for them, if I can be fired for raising my hand at a faculty meeting to oppose the policies of my director, because I believe those policies to be harmful to my students and to my institution. Everybody I talk to understands that this makes it less likely that I would raise my hand. 


Similarly, I don't believe I've ever talked to anybody who thinks it's a good thing that I am more likely to get fired for challenging my students than if I don't challenge my students. They seem to understand that such a circumstance might discourage me from challenging my students. In other words, nobody I talk to cares about my job security, but everybody I talk to cares about  the future of society, especially a democratic one that will fail if its citizens are not prepared to fulfill their responsibilities as citizens. Everyone, in short, cares about my academic freedom.

Everything stems from academic freedom, especially the right to agitate for improvements to our working conditions. Over the past hundred years, nobody has found a better protection for academic freedom than tenure. Tenure is the defining characteristic of our profession. To pursue something less than tenure, some other measure of "job security," is not an effective strategy because it leaves the "two-tier system" in place. Even if there were a way to obtain job security without tenure (and I don't believe there is), it would only perpetuate the perception that the overwhelming majority of our faculty are second rate.

Almost any idea to improve the working conditions of contingent faculty is a "hard sell," though of course for different reasons, to contingent and tenured colleagues both. But I believe that the contingent movement will never begin to achieve what we all want unless tenure is among the central objectives of every faculty group seeking to improve the working conditions of the majority of our faculty.

Thanks to Jack for including the link to Cary Nelson's 2010 article in Inside HigherEd. If you're interested, please also read the AAUP's magisterial "Tenure and Teaching Intensive Appointments", and documents related to the Instructor Tenure Project at Colorado,

Sincerely, Don Eron

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