Despite its wider reputation, tenure is vital to preserving the republic and fostering productive discourse; American academia hasn’t proved it’s earned it.
In my time as a faculty member at two different universities, I’ve learned that academics don’t like to talk about tenure. We avoid defending our lifelong employment contracts to the public for fear we conform to our stereotypes as pretentious frauds who live an endless summer. We evade serious discussions of tenure because we want to repress how similar its workings are to the Greek life hazing rituals occurring across the quad. Once we reach such lofty status, we don’t discuss it with our other sanctioned colleagues because of the dissonance that successfully navigating such a cesspool yet still feeling unworthy causes. Broaching tenure is unacceptable unless shrouded in the proceedings of a tenure-vote meeting, which usually resembles a Dollar-Tree Bilderberg. We also make exceptions for new graduate students vehemently defending their idealized but increasingly unlikely futures in academia as they play defense against uninitiated relatives at the Thanksgiving table.
Yet, when employed within proper parameters, tenure is the most effective quality-control measure for the production of public knowledge and a potent safeguard for the functioning of a democratic republic. When the American Association of University Professors published its Statements of Principles in 1915 and 1940, it saw tenure and its often misunderstood compatriot academic freedom as fundamental to protecting the “free search for truth and its free exposition.”
Tenure’s fiercest critics use its abstention from market demands as its primary vulnerability, but, in reality, that attribute is its greatest asset. Contrary to some perceptions, a professor’s occupational duties and public responsibility extend beyond teaching undergraduates into the realms of research and university service in an environment insulated from special interests and lobbying forces. According to Stanley Fish, the professor’s obligations fall under the imperative of “academicizing,” which detaches scholarly work from polemical calls to action and subjects all areas of study to rigorous examination.
For the professor, a life of critical inquiry requires years of training that exacerbate the profession’s serious risks. Professors must complete a bachelor’s degree and 6-10 additional years of graduate work to earn a PhD and relevant certifications. Consequently, a faculty member beginning a tenure-track position in their mid thirties and not reaching tenure until their mid forties is far from abnormal.
Despite its accurate reputation as the quintessential den of leftism, the academy is home to perhaps the most rigid class system still intact in America. In most cases, a professor cannot “write their way” to a more prestigious position, especially since 70-90% of new PhD’s never earn tenure-track jobs—much less tenure. For those fortunate few, Ivy Leaguers and their West-Coast and Southern counterparts fill most entry-level tenure-track positions within their own caste and at flagship state schools where starting salaries often begin at $60,000 for research duties and two classes a semester—even though they regularly have far less teaching experience than their state-school counterparts. In turn, the handful of successful candidates with flagship state-school PhDs generally earn tenure-track positions at regional state campuses or liberal arts colleges that pay 10-20% less for double the courseload. The bulk of candidates end up at community colleges or as untenured labor in adjunct pools. As a result, a faculty member failing to achieve tenure at any tier receives a rarely commuted career death sentence while stigmatized as irrelevant and unadaptable outside the academy. That universities typically only hire tenure-track faculty from October to February and operate on yearlong contracts contributes significantly to potential financial and career ruin.
When functioning as intended, tenure facilitates interrogation and insulates faculty from the bi-partisan cancel culture and witch hunts that often come from speaking actual truth to power. Unfortunately, tenure hasn’t worked properly for years. Fish coined “academicizing” in 2008 in response to the wellspring of personal political advocacy enmeshed within professorial duties that has only deteriorated higher learning’s reputation in the intervening decade. The university should remain a place where controversy and seemingly impractical ideas encounter a regimented analytical framework—even if conservatives balk at research on the postcolonial undercurrents of AC/DC or queering the 17th century corn market. The problem arises when professors eschew academicizing by reinforcing their own ideologies, abandoning the standards of their disciplines or wilfully annihilating them for the convenience of their beliefs.
Contrary to some professors’ denials, current tenure protections do allow faculty to devote more time to the instant gratification of political proselytization instead of the cumbersome research process. I’ve seen job candidates list work with Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, and March for Our Lives on their CV’s on their way to securing job offers with nary an objection—and even outright admiration—from my previous colleagues. In the wake of the lucky few millennials reaching tenured status and displacing the scholars of Fish’s generation, the pressure for faculty seeking the same status to tow the party line and outwardly conform to activist demands is great. The pressure not to personally offend these tenured colleagues either via interpersonal interaction or outpacing them in research and teaching is far greater. Accordingly, tenure’s greatest fault lies in its safeguarding of already established academics over the emerging scholars whose potentially iconoclastic work leads disciplines to evolve and makes them more vulnerable to sabotage by threatened colleagues.
However, a faculty member conflating the political and personal with the academic is only as damaging as the vast bureaucracy exploiting their whims. While some tenured professors continue their research upon reaching academic immunity, many opt to shift into the far more lucrative fields of administration. Given that faculty pay has remained relatively flat for the past 50 years (adjusting for inflation), becoming Vice Provost of Research with its solidly six-figure salary holds an appeal over conducting actual research and sharing it with students even if it feeds the administrative bloat driving up tuition. What results is a faculty that consists of 50-80% non-tenured lecturers and adjuncts making as little as $1500-3500 per course who have less time to engage in the research required of tenure-track scholars and thus none of its cultural contribution, an administrator-sanctioned move further away from higher education’s intended role in public life.
If the NCAA can regulate college sports, then universities can will into being a mechanism that nationally standardizes tenure requirements and enforces limits on adjunct and administrative positions. Professors should be held accountable for their politicisation of the academy and willful ignorance, especially when deliberately positioning controversial issues like UNC-Chapel Hill’s denial of immediate tenure to The 1619 Project journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones not as a debatable, yet legitimate, concern over the rigor and veracity of her popular work and its place at a research institution but as a reductive cornucopia of outrage and -isms to which they know Twitter does no justice. Moreover, they should leverage their institutional authority to form bi-partisan alliances with government officials to challenge the all-consuming administrative apparatus that most directly benefits from such unrelenting culture wars. The general public and the representatives they elect must also work to understand the purpose and mission of our academic institutions in order to level criticisms that directly address deficiencies rather than dismiss outright, which may take more than a pinch of civic duty considering the arrogance academia often exudes.
The academy has long served as the incubator for the groundbreaking ideas and pursuits of truth at the center of questions concerning freedom, quality of life, and human rights. Its protections and standards have cultivated the conditions that allowed renowned academics like A.I.-pioneer Andrew Ng, psychologist Steven Pinker, literary critic Henry Louis Gates Jr., and animal scientist Temple Grandin to apply their specialized knowledge for the betterment of society. Its marketplace of ideas forged the careers of brilliant yet contentious figures such as gender theorist Judith Butler and clinical psychologist turned conservative sage Jordan B. Peterson, allowing their disparate positions a forum to flourish and challenge preconceptions. Whether or not it retains its current form, the university and its dedication to inquiry must survive. But the process of academicizing must breach the yellowing artifice of the ivory tower if we expect any outcome beyond our current decline.