Tenure isn’t the problem; exceptionalism is the problem

Making the rounds on Facebook currently is the article “Tenure is Not Worth Fighting For” in the Chronicle of Higher Ed.

The title is clickbait. Historian Greg Afinogenov isn’t arguing that nobody should have due process protections or academic freedom, or that we should just give in to the anti-intellectual forces of hegemonic neoliberal capitalism (the new normal!), that tenure is anti-innovation, or any of the conventional anti-tenure nonsense we’re all too familiar with.

Instead, he makes two points, one that shouldn’t be controversial, one I can see why it raises some hackles.

The uncontroversial claim: every worker deserves workplace protections against at-will firing and capricious discipline. I won’t invite you to “fight me” on this because I don’t even want to know if you don’t agree.

The more controversial claim: faculty don’t do anything all that special to confer/demand protections other people don’t get.

When we advocate for increasing tenure-track hiring, we do so in the hope of breaking down at least some of this hierarchy. But why should graduate students [and non-tenure-track faculty!] — who have been leading unionization drives and campaigning against abusive and harassing faculty members around the country — be left out of the charmed circle of academic freedom? What about other campus workers, such as janitors, administrative personnel, and food-service staff, who keep universities running and know more than most faculty members about what goes on behind the scenes? The idea that there is a neatly bounded group of people whose occupation entitles them and only them to speak to civic concerns is hard to sustain.

He doesn’t use this term, but he’s calling out tenured faculty for a kind of exceptionalism. I’m not going to spend a whole bunch of time unpacking the term exceptionalism; in short, it’s the idea that a class or group of people (often a nation) is special and thus excepted from rules/norms that govern everyone else.

Afinogenov isn’t calling on tenured faculty to forego the protections that tenure offers. He’s calling on us to stop claiming those protections for our own and not fighting for others to have them also.

Reversing the cancer of academic neoliberalism and upending the increasingly rigid hierarchy of faculty positions would require the kind of financial and political investment that can only be produced by a broad-based social movement with a much more sweeping agenda. There are signs that a movement like this is building today, but it is hard for academics to take part in it as long as we demand privileges that other workers won’t share.

You might buck against the term “privileges,” believing that academic freedom and due process are necessary for academic work. Academe needs them (I applaud the thousands of NTT faculty and graduate instructors who work without them and do well–but you shouldn’t have to). Again, the problem is when we make ourselves the exceptional class of workers who need and deserve such strong protection.

Maybe you, if you’re a tenured faculty member (or a tenured K-12 teacher), haven’t had this conversation, but I’ve had it dozens of times.

Person at busstop/gym/coffeeshop when they learn I’m a professor: Tenure is silly. Nobody deserves to have a job for life.
Me: That’s not really what tenure is. Tenure ensures we can’t get fired without due process, and that we have the autonomy to make professional decisions about our work. Why shouldn’t everyone have that?
PABGC: ….

A meme circulates on union social media feeds from time to time that says, basically, “Don’t complain about my union wages. Organize and fight for your own!” I feel that, but Afinogenov is helping me clarify some discomfort I’ve also felt with it.

The part I fully feel: don’t blame unions for the fact that your boss can screw you. The part I’m queasy about: go fix it yourself.

I’m not queasy about the claim that the protections of tenure are important. And to be clear, I don’t think many of us go out of our way to deny similar protections to other workers (although I’ve seen a lot of faculty claim that others “don’t need it”). But when we claim them unto ourselves and don’t fight for them more broadly, the practical effect is the same: we sound like we’re declaring ourselves exceptional, and thus shouldn’t be surprised when others think we’re being self-aggrandizing and arrogant.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: