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Tenure and Equity


Via Berube, Dean Dad uses the fact that a recent Supreme Court decision has been interpreted by lower courts in ways that have undermined the academic freedom of public university professors to…argue against tenure. Now, there are certainly good arguments to be made against the tenure system (especially in high schools, where research generally isn’t an issue), but it must be said that Dean Dad doesn’t really make them. The idea that the AAUP’s positions on academic freedom should logically lead them to oppose tenure is a transparent non-sequitur, and with respect to DD’s silliest argument — that “[t]he accountability built in to a renewable-contract system would go a long way towards defusing the cheap political shots to which higher ed is now routinely subject” — Michael shows more restraint that I would have:

I keep trying to imagine Roger Kimball saying, “I used to get all squicky about queer theory, but now that universities have scrapped tenure, bring on the fabulous challenges to heteronormativity.” Or Daniel Pipes saying, “I used to target anyone who didn’t toe the Likud line, but now that universities have scrapped tenure, let a hundred critiques of Israel bloom.” Or my old friend David Horowitz saying, “I used to have a list of dangerous professors, but now that universities have scrapped tenure, Bill Ayers is just all right with me, whoa yeah.” But alas, I have to admit that I’m just not that imaginative.

DD’s alternative to tenure is to have (after a 3-year probation) all academics on renewable 5-year contracts that would contain language protecting academic freedom. To expand on one of Michael’s other points a little bit, I think we need to return here to a point long ago made by James Madison — institutional protections tend to be vastly more effective than parchment rights. Tenure protects academic freedom not so much because of contractual language protecting academic freedom but because it places the burden of proof for termination on the institution. Except for academics that exceed a university’s standards for re-appointment to such a degree that their academic freedom is unlikely to be a practical problem anyway, proving that the neutral justifications used to justify a non-renewal were actually just pretexts for punishing someone for expressing unpopular views would be exceptionally difficult. Particularly since academics can’t be assumed to be sitting on a bankroll sufficient to hire an attorney and fund very complex litigation. I wouldn’t say that language protecting academic freedom for all academics would be useless, exactly, but any gain in security would be very marginal.

Perhaps recognizing that his argument that abolishing tenure could actually increase academic freedom is unserious, DD smuggles in a better argument: equity. It is true that a system in which only a quarter of academics are tenure-track is highly unattractive. A central problem here, though, is that DD’s response is a classic my-utopia-versus-your-grubby-reality asymmetry. I’m not sure why we should assume that abolishing tenure would lead to everyone on 5-year contracts, rather than people on 5-year contracts existing alongside adjuncts without any security or contractual protections at all. Even if we do, such a system wouldn’t necessarily address the more fundamental inequities, with are about money. For many adjuncts, the problem isn’t so much finding work as the fact that the work has abysmal pay and benefits — something that a multi-year contract inherently does nothing to alleviate. (And if we assume this particular can opener, there’s no reason that adjunct pay and benefits can’t be improved without abolishing tenure, or that more lines can’t be made tenure-track again.)

There’s a final problem we can see from looking at it in the other direction: what happens when a university (especially one that isn’t among the most prestigious and/or in the most desirable locations) wants to attract a strong scholar to help build up a program? Obviously, if you can’t offer job security, the only way of doing so is money: large signing bonuses, high salaries, perhaps punitive buyouts for non-renewal. And this money has to come from somewhere. So…I think the idea that abolishing tenure would significantly improve inequities in academic jobs where it counts most is pretty naive.

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