Monday, November 23, 2009

Tenure, or Tilting at Windmills

This post by Dean Dad, response to this post by Michael Berube, created quite a stir in our household this morning. The tenured faculty member tried to defend himself to a Ph.D. who's never landed a full-time t-t job, and in fact, doesn't want one, but wishes there were more options for employment in academia. What kind of choice is t-t vs. migrant labor. Once in a blue moon, I see a continuing non-tenure-track position in my field. I have never seen permanent part-time work.

I don't have a dog in this fight as one commenter at Dean Dad's said, so I don't keep up with the literature though I do read blogs about "the fight for tenure and academic freedom." I think tenure at many places is misguided at best, detrimental at worst. At a few places, tenure works as it should. I think those who draw a hard line around tenure and claim there is no other way to protect academic freedom and employee rights have actually contributed to the current situation where more and more adjuncts are needed to teach the classes that some tenured faculty don't.

Tenure certainly isn't a way to recognize how hard faculty work at places where they're teaching 3-4 classes a semester, doing service, and have a research requirement. In fact, I would argue that as tenure requirements have gone up, the work load for faculty has increased dramatically. Is academic freedom so important that you would sacrifice any semblance of an actual life for it? That is, to gain academic freedom, you would work 60, 70, 80 hours a week? I know that not all places ask for that kind of work, but I know from reading enough academic blogs that many do. And that many academics have given up quite a lot for their work, sometimes intentionally, and sometimes not.

I just think that one could imagine another way, where work loads are limited, where requirements are clearly spelled out, where one would have recourse during disputes, and where there would be some transparency. And, yes, you could have academic freedom.

Mr. Geeky reminds me that in such a complex system, any one element, any small change, might have unintended consequences. And that there's no one plan that would fix it. True enough, and in fact, I think the whole system is what it is because of those small choices. One place decides to replace a retiree with two part-timers instead of hiring a t-t person. Other places follow suit. The original decision seems to work well, so the next retiree is replaced with part-timers. Enrollments increase. Now it's about adding positions--part-time or full-time? In tough economic times, you know what the answer is.

I have no idea which "side" is right. All I know is that the economics are not usually on the side of tenure and that when costs need to be cut, positions are looked at with greater scrutiny. But it seems to me that there are a lot of losers in this fight and it's not among the people who are doing the fighting. The losers are the students, the Ph.D.'s who can't find good work in higher education, and the public whom we owe an educated populace.

Lob your tomatoes now. :)