A pair of columns in Inside Higher Ed has made me revisit a post from January 2020: the notion that tenure gets a bad rap not because of anything intrinsic about its protections, but because people who have it have a bad habit of talking about it in ways that sound like we’re declaring ourselves Exceptional in some way (see “Tenure isn’t the problem; exceptionalism is the problem“).
In the first IHE column, “Why I’d Gladly Exchange My Tenure for a Union” (Oct 3, 2022), Juliet Shields argues–she’s not wrong–that the way most tenure systems and TT/T faculty treat tenure incentivizes individual success and competition over the solidarity necessary to protect all of us. I both cheered the recognition that lots of TT/T faculty are self-absorbed if not maliciously selfish, and screeched at the assertion that tenure is the problem (see the 2020 blog post). This morning (October 13, 2022), AAUP President Irene Mulvey and AFT President Randi Weingarten published a response (“Why Not Both?”) that says much of what I wanted to say. In short, tenure and unions aren’t mutually exclusive or even inconsistent, so posing them as a choice isn’t helping. There are some edges of their argument that I could quibble with if I felt like it, but I’m happy that two powerful leaders of academic labor organizations said something largely laudable.
There are two points I want to add; I’m not disappointed that they didn’t say these already, but I think it’s worth saying them anyway (duh, or I wouldn’t be writing this….).
First, as I said in my earlier post on exceptionalism, we do the entire profession a disservice when we act like tenure is something special that only some of us deserve. I’ve been arguing for years that if tenure is necessary for doing top-quality academic work, then every faculty member who does any kind of academic work should be eligible for it, no matter the workload size or distribution. This position opens a Pandora’s Box of hiring and evaluation practices, which I’m happy to talk more about, but for now the point is, if we need to tenure to teach/research/govern/serve well, then nobody shouldn’t be able to get it. That doesn’t feel controversial to me.
Second, and this is a new way of putting this (for me, at least), maybe we need to quit treating tenure as a reward, or something you earn, or something that’s “granted,” and instead talk about it as something that’s withheld. Shifting the frame so that tenure is something everyone should obviously have instead of a magical prize that only some people deserve would go a long way towards deflating campaigns against it that correctly call out arrogance and superiority complexes among faculty who damage each other’s ability to work well in order to protect their own sense that they’re somehow exceptional. If you’re somebody who believes that education is a right (we can’t have a functioning democracy without an educated populace, so withholding education is an attack on democracy), or healthcare is a right (we have to stop people from dying for no reason, and withholding medical care from people who don’t have money is just punishing them for being poor), then you already understand the logic. The problem is getting people over the feeling that tenure is a marker of how special we are. The only reason it currently has that rhetorical power is that we claim it does. We could stop doing that tomorrow, and instead claim something much healthier for more faculty–we need protections to do our jobs, and anyone who withholds those is wrong.
There’s a follow-up post already brewing in my head that goes to Keith Hoeller’s arguments about tenurism, and how maybe this shift in how we recognize what tenure means helps with that. I’m only saying this here in hopes that it reminds me to come back to it.