Tenure and Academic Injustice
Donald Sutherland as Professor Dave Jennings, Animal House, Universal Pictures, 1978
I inhabit two worlds. The first is where I work most of the time—the American academy or, more specifically, a state-funded university. What do I see here? A full-time faculty dwindling in numbers and whose salaries are flatlining; rising ranks of “contingent” and contract-based teachers who have little job security; and stressed students who face rising tuitions and ballooning class sizes.
The second world I inhabit, part-time so to speak, is the world of literary journalism and public-policy debate. How is my first world viewed by those in the second? As a place of coddled elites holding lucrative sinecures, protected by an outmoded practice of tenure. Of course, many in this second world attended Ivy League institutions exceptional in their old-fashionedness, the Harvards and Yales that changed little during the twentieth century. Carrying their own college experiences with them, numerous journalists and policy experts make assumptions that don’t fit the existing world of academe—especially the state and community colleges, as well as the online and for-profit institutions, that the majority of Americans attend.
It’s around the bugaboo term tenure that public-policy and journalistic arguments usually begin—and end. Take, for example, Christopher Beam’s “Finishing School”—subtitled “The case for getting rid of tenure”—that appeared in Slate in August 2010. Beam asks his reader to imagine being a posh restaurant owner who decides to “guarantee all cooks and waiters job security for life. Not only that, because you value honesty and candor, you allow them to say anything they want about you and your cuisine, publicly and without fear of retribution.” The analogy is preposterous, as pleasing a well-off diner and teaching a student don’t really compare. Even worse, Beam admits in the next paragraph that teaching done on the tenure track in America’s colleges—the practice that supposedly allows people to shoot their mouths off—is down to 31 percent and isn’t going to bounce back any time soon. In essence, Beam’s argument ridicules a practice already fast disappearing.
The fact that it’s made at all goes to show how academe still figures to those outside it as a peculiar institution. The right has been notorious in lambasting “tenured radicals” who try to indoctrinate their students with radical ideas (witness David Horowitz’s non-stop shouting and finger-pointing). But many on the left share with the right the idea that the academy is a refuge of privilege and insularity, a static place detached from the realities that most Americans inhabit.