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Florida Governor Rick Scott Takes Aim at Tenure

Margaret Haley, an early supporter of rights for female teachers, including decent pay and job security.

I am a tenured associate professor at one of the largest (though, let me emphasize, not one of the highest ranked) public universities in the U.S. How can I explain why it is that this often makes me want to cry?

Don’t get me wrong. I love my work, and, although I am not an academic superstar, I’ve done reasonably well. In economic times when so many are losing jobs, my job is relatively secure. The work that I do has pleasant and meaningful aspects that I value, in spite of sometimes snake-pit politics and bureaucratic burdens that often make it very difficult to focus on the things that are actually my job.

However, the future of public higher education, and especially in my area of the humanities, is truly in question. Even though more than half of all Americans attend at least some college courses, and 30% over age 25 have a bachelor’s or higher degree, what we do in academia and the value of it is still largely misunderstood by the public. When the governor of the state of Texas can blithely call for higher education reforms that include “treating students as ‘customers,’ judging faculty by how many students they teach and how those students rate them, and de-emphasizing research that doesn’t produce an immediate financial return,” it becomes clear that our future is in the hands of people who either don’t know what they are talking about or harbor a truly vile and anti-intellectual agenda. Or both.

There are many angles on higher ed and its issues, and I hope to be able to sort some of these out in the blog in coming posts. But today I am inspired by yesterday’s article in the Orlando Sentinel that reported on Florida Governor Rick Scott’s agenda for the coming year, in particular his desire to abolish tenure for public university employees. (He’s already done it in K-12 education.)

Tenure is often resented by people outside the college and university system–because they don’t have it, after all, and therefore it’s unfair that anyone does. The largest complaint about tenure by the general public seems to be that it protects lazy and low-quality teachers. The laziness issue I will have to give its own separate post because it is one of the most offensive and false of all these claims. But part of that is the idea that tenure keeps in place bad employees.

This is an absurd claim on many levels. First, to become a tenured professor at any college or university requires years of investment. At numerous points along the way, those who are bad at what they do are drummed out of the system: they can fail to get into a graduate program; they can fail courses, which, unlike in undergrad programs, gets them booted in fairly short order; they can fail to complete language and other degree requirements; they can fail to finish or defend successfully their thesis or dissertation work; they can fail to get a tenure-track job or any job at all; they can work temporary jobs for a number of years, moving from place to place; and they can fail, after six years at a tenure-track job, to get tenure. If the system has not identified and excluded the poor quality work by this point, then something else is wrong with the system, not tenure.

In addition, the public perception of tenure is that it’s virtually impossible to be fired if you have it. That is simply not true. If a university has cause to fire a tenured person, then the university can do so. If a faculty member doesn’t show up for classes or turn in grades, if he or she behaves in unacceptable or unprofessional ways, if a faculty member violates ethics codes–or for numerous other reasons–a faculty member may certainly still be fired. Granted, it’s harder to fire a tenured as opposed to an untenured faculty member and requires a long process of documentation rather than an arbitrary decision by an administrator. Granted, it doesn’t happen very often. But maybe this has more to do with the fact that most tenured professors have already run the gauntlet mentioned above and have spent at least 9 to12 years on probation (in grad school and earning tenure) before becoming tenured than with the fact that it’s too easy for them.

There are many other reasons why tenure is important to the healthy functioning of colleges and universities, but I’m only going to mention one other here today—and that is the traditionally cited protection of faculty with unpopular or controversial ideas, aka academic freedom. Tenure was designed to protect faculty from arbitrary complaints by parents, students, and administrators who otherwise might paralyze their teaching and life-choice options. It’s only been around for about 100 years, and, I might add, it’s the 100 years when someone other than white men of a certain conservative bent could reach for the intellectual life. It prevented, among other things, administrators from firing female faculty members who married or got pregnant.

Many in the right wing these days claim that tenure, however, rather than protecting a diversity of ideas and opinions, now is a screen behind which liberal prerogative is preserved. From what I can see in the articles I’ve read, they don’t cite any real evidence for this except that professors are notoriously liberal. How it is that tenure produces this supposed effect, I’ve no idea, but it is certainly true that tenure prevents conservative politicians from exerting pressure on university administrators to just fire professors whose politics the politicians don’t like. And this is exactly why we need tenure right now.

I feel certain that if some radical right politicians have their way, and if they manage to make arbitrary, without-cause firing of faculty possible, they will create an atmosphere in which faculty will become fearful to speak their minds honestly and in which they will be punished if they rise above their fear.

Frequently, these men who speak out against tenure (they’re usually men) have spent some time in academia themselves, but have since moved on to business or conservative think-tanks for their employment. I don’t have access to the details of these changes in their lives, of course, but one of two things seems to have happened: either a) they didn’t get tenure and were thus excluded from further academic life, or b) they decided that the benefits of an academic career were not enough to offset the relatively low pay-scale and demands of the work. Either way, they are out for the blood of those who have made different choices and had different successes than they have had. Their goal is complete eradication of protections of any sort for faculty and the imposition of non-academic standards for academic work.

If I’m being alarmist, and the goal in abolishing tenure is not to clean house based on a political agenda, then the fact is that abolishing it would likely have very little effect at all. Perhaps some increased costs as faculty constantly seek to move to better positions and universities take on increased supervision, expanded evaluation tasks even for long-term faculty, and constant interviewing for new faculty. Mostly, though, we would keep doing what we do.

However, my fear is acute. It’s bad enough as it is right now. Much university funding already comes from private sources and cooperative efforts with private businesses abound. As it is, that’s often a mutually beneficial thing. But if these people get their way, public higher education will become even more a servant of private business interests, not designed for the public good.

People, private industry has one goal: profit. It and its CEOs do not have your best interest at heart. That is one reason why running universities like businesses is a bad idea.

8 responses »

  1. The politicians and pundits who clamor against tenure dislike the privilege that academics earn in academic environments. The only privileges they like are those of race, religion, and class. They think they earned them, and that academics don’t earn anything, but merely spout ideology. See Rush Limbaugh discussing Douglas Rushkoff: Because these politicians and pundits have been rewarded by one system, they think that that system is the best model for everyone in every system.

    The megalomania would be funny (like Vince McMahon, who was certain that football fans really wanted football to BE more like pro-wrestling), except, you know…

    • Yes. I often think how it would be greeted if we started claiming that we should tell businesses how to run themselves. Of course, we can “vote” with our purchasing choices (when and if we really have any), but students can “vote” by not attending a certain university too. I’m perfectly happy for that to happen. But I don’t understand the logic of people not listening to experts in the field about how to run the field. We will end up with a twisted hybrid of a very deformed and dysfunctional nature. But, then, that may be what certain parties have in mind.

      By the way, I’ve also been thinking about titles. I mean, many companies and private enterprises have employment systems that do have systems of seniority. Many of them probably have just as many “guarantees” as tenure. They just don’t call it tenure. Let’s do away with “senior partners.”


  2. Tenure is one of the trench lines preserving tons of research time and less-than-truly-full teaching loads. Additional primary research, after the experience of a dissertation is under the belt, is of negligible benefit to the instruction of undergraduates and arguably master’s students, too. Staying on top of others’ primary research and secondary synthesis is what is important.

    The tenure system also drives out a lot of talent. There is an immense amount of teaching talent outside academia and available to enter, because tenure preserves far too much mediocre and inferior teaching talent in place. Initial hiring decisions are made by committees with less than optimum teachers having a strong voice, and also those decisions involve a lot more going on — is the applicant’s dissertation just what some colleague wants, when that topic is very little bearing on the job of undergraduate teaching?

    I have an Ivy League Ph.D. in Modern European history; my teaching is both popular and very effective (as judged by colleagues); I voluntarily left a tenure-track job to parent very small children; and I published a book reviewed well in Germany’s version of the New York Times / Washington Post — and at any of 50 or more colleges in this country (those with stable finances and easy 3-3 loads or lighter), I’m willing to underbid an average tenured professor’s by at least 30 percent, for a five-year annually renewed contract (i.e., short of tenure). And there’s an army of unemployed and under-employed qualified academics willing to do the same.

    You can’t tell public university taxpayers about my offer (and the hundreds of comparable offers you’d get if you asked) and expect them to endorse the tenure system that charges them for higher salaries and sometimes for less teaching output.

    • Jeff, I suppose we can respectfully agree to disagree, but a couple of points about your email confuse me.

      First, I don’t mean to present tenure as a panacea. But to say that research has no value is to deny one of the truly important aspects of academic life, one of the main reasons that faculty members go into academia in the first place and one of the larger benefits of academia to society. It’s hard to say what is of benefit long-term, but your concept of undergraduate and master’s education seems to be preparation for students to become widgets rather than have as examples those who think for themselves.

      It’s also strange to me that you accept academic colleagues’ assessment of you as a “very effective” teacher, but note that initial hiring decisions are made by “mediocre and inferior” teachers. I’m not sure how both can be true. Again, it’s not that there are no mediocre or inferior teachers in academia, but it’s highly questionable whether that would be less so without tenure. It sounds as though you think the ones that assess you well are competent whereas those who assess you not so well are incompetent.

      The tenure system is not what drives out talent. What creates the surfeit of qualified people is the shrinking of percentage of tenure-line jobs and the system that graduates more PhDs than any type of jobs. The graying of the American workforce is not particular to those of us with tenure, nor is competition for jobs. There is still plenty of talent within academia, even if it is true that there is plenty outside it, and plenty of those eager to get in.

      I will also note that if you are willing to “underbid” an average tenured professor’s salary by 30 percent for a 3-3 load for 5 years, you must have some other source of income with which to support yourself and your children. That would give you and your children less than $52,000 a year to live on, just barely more than a plumber makes. (And a plumber can start making nearly that early in his or her career, whereas a faculty member must live on stipends of $10,000 to $18,000 per year for several years first.) Attorneys average $110,000 and physicians between $137,00 and $322,000, depending on specialty. Most faculty members are not getting wealthy doing the job.

      I could expect the public to understand that offers that look like bargains are often fool’s gold and not bargains at all. When an entire field becomes inhabited by those desperate rather than those satisfied, you are not going to get the highest quality instruction nor the kind of creativity that is vital for the survival of our society. And it is very doubtful if public universities would save any money in the long run with this kind of plan anyway.

      Let me say that I am sorry for your pain and for your sense of exclusion, whatever the cause of it has been. Academia does indeed have many problems. But tenure has just become a hobbyhorse of complaint. It saddens me that the tenure process evidently failed you, but you are exactly the kind of person who I would think would support its concept. Otherwise, what is to keep you in 5-year contracts when an administrator thinks that anyone who has kids isn’t devoted enough to the job?

      Recently at my university a new department was established that has a new kind of structure. Every single one of the tenured faculty is also an administrator with course releases and so forth. But the other tier is now comprised of “permanent” (that is renewable) non-tenure-earning instructors. The latter felt a great deal of improvement over some being adjuncts. Yet now there is complete admission that none of these lines will ever be a full-fledged tenure line. These instructors have only minimal control over what they teach, what books they use, and any direction their department will take. They are only involved in governance to the extent that the administrators are in a mood to include them. Their curriculum is dictated to them. It is not a pretty prospect in the long run.

      I fear that you have no idea what the real consequences would be of the abolishing of tenure. You imagine that it would give you a seat at the same table where tenured faculty now sit. You are very wrong about that. The table would be entirely different.

      • No pain or sense of exclusion here; you might have projected others’ bitterness about the job market onto me. I’m trying to make objective observations.

        “It sounds as though you think the ones that assess you well are competent whereas those who assess you not so well are incompetent.” Where did I say I was assessed not so well? I don’t believe I did. I did observe hiring processes while I was on faculty where teaching qualifications were very much undervalued.

        Alternatively, it could be that I’m quite content living at the US median income (per entire household), which is about what $52k is, for an eight-month job with so much autonomy even during those eight months. If the professoriate thinks it’s unreasonable for people to make less than median income, then the professoriate is … I don’t know what. As it happens, if I’d stayed in the job that I left, $52-55k is the range of what I’d now be making, several years into tenure. Congratulations on working at a much more affluent place.

      • Jeff,

        Don’t congressmen—the job you’re applying for now—make about $174,000 or more a year? Aren’t there those who are outraged by the amount of “vacation” that congress-people get? I imagine that you are not running for Congress for the money or the “vacations,” just as I didn’t go into college teaching for the money or the “vacations.”

        *Warning!* This message is long, but since I found that you are running for office, I think less that you are some ideologue spending work time perusing obscure blogs than that you are a person trying to engage with policy issues in significant ways. I really do hope to reach you somehow, at least to poke you toward re-thinking the position you seem to currently hold. You’re a “moderate,” so please don’t perpetuate the massive attack on all government functions and the middle-class, including the professoriate. We are not the problem. But we have become a scapegoat.

        For you to act as though professors are somehow greedy and overpaid would be hilarious if it weren’t so sad. Yes, I would like to make more than the median income in the U.S. Most people would, and I support people’s desire to make a working wage whatever they do. Yes, there are some lazy slacker professors, just as there are lazy slackers available in every walk of life, even those without tenure. However, the fact is that the professoriate is unusual in at least a few ways (I mentioned them in my first post, which obviously didn’t affect your thinking, and I’m sure I won’t exhaust them here):

        1) We spend years in school preparing for our work. Most of us take out significant loans that take us decades to pay off. This debt counterbalances any salary we make, and most other careers require nothing like it.

        2) During the time that most of us spend earning our graduate degrees, we make negligible salaries. For all my years in graduate school, during which time I was also teaching, I earned $11,000 to $12,000 a year. I put nothing toward retirement in that decade of my adult life.

        3) Other professions that do require advanced degrees and for which students often take out loans have a much higher rate of return once the student graduates and enters the workforce. I just earned tenure at the age of 49, whereas my friend the attorney just retired at age 49. For the sake of full understanding, I did not start graduate school until I was in my late twenties, but there’s still a huge discrepancy among the professions. Yet no one is arguing that we should do away with “senior partner” status or with the many financial perks that come along with a medical career.

        4) You note that professors work a mere 8 months a year. While some of us may indeed be paid on a usually 9 (not 8)-month calendar, we work year round. Some semesters I work 14-hour days 7 days a week. None of my vacations are “vacations.” In fact, when I married two and a half years ago, both my husband and I worked (gave professional presentations) on our honeymoon. It is true that some summers I don’t teach, but that does not alleviate me of responsibility for thesis students I’m working with, for letters of recommendation and student advising for the coming year, for committee work that slows down but does not stop, for curriculum and course development, and for the writing and publishing that is required of me for positive annual evaluations. Most faculty are available nearly 24-7-352 to students via email. It is not uncommon for me to get letter of recommendation requests within a day or two of Christmas.

        5) I don’t like to make comparisons or broad generalizations, and they are easy to pick apart. But let me note that I work very hard compared to my neighbors, who we can assume have a similar income based on the similarity of our living situations. My neighbors on one side are a nurse and a long-retired engineer. The nurse does shift work, and she works hard, but once her hours are done, they are done. On the other side, my neighbors are a paralegal and a car sales business owner. They have two sons they have put through college, and they never work a weekend in their lives. On the other side of them live a housewife and a hospital administrator, the latter of whom supports wife, two children, and his mother-in-law. These are all lovely, responsible people, and I in no way begrudge their incomes. But they don’t work the 24-7 we do. Period.

        6) Academia is also different from other careers in that it is far smaller a world. If a nurse gets fired at the hospital where he works because his boss is not quite happy with his performance or because of budget cuts, he can retool at a community college and then go across town to a different hospital. Or he can work in a doctor’s office. Or become a school nurse. Yes, if he’s really bad, he might eventually be entirely eliminated from the profession, but it’s not likely. He has many more options for using his education professionally. If a faculty member loses her job, there are few equivalent options—most towns only have one university or college, maybe some nearby community college campuses, or a for-profit school. To maintain a career anything like the original one, that professor would probably have to relocate to a far-off place to continue pursuing her career. Fine, if a person is grossly incompetent, they should be ousted from the profession entirely, but that is not what you are talking about here. Grossly incompetent people have, as I originally pointed out, already been eliminated or they can still be eliminated even if they have tenure. So what is the point? To make it really easy to ruin people’s lives because they don’t live up to some arbitrary and secret administrative or political agenda? To force a lot of mid-career former professors to get jobs at Wendy’s because they didn’t suit some suit on Tuesday?

        7) Although academia is a smaller world, its opportunities are more spread out. What this frequently means is that tenured professors are often far from family. I moved from Tennessee to Pennsylvania for grad school, and then relocated within Pennsylvania for my first tenure-track job, then from PA to Florida. What this means is that I have sacrificed proximity to my family members for my career without any concomitant rise in financial expectations. I live nowhere near my high school, college, or even grad school friends. This means that I take on extra transportation costs in taking care of aging parents, and I lack the kind of long-term supportive social network that is so vital to health and well-being.

        8)In other financial matters, faculty invest all kinds of their own money into research and participating in their fields. Whereas in medicine and other professional fields, employers or other interested parties (like pharmaceutical companies) pay for travel and conference attendance, in academia we usually do this ourselves. While some departments pay modest stipends for travel (in my department, it is $500 to 750 a year), it’s usually not enough to cover the costs of even a single trip, and it’s only given if the person is presenting on completed research. There is nothing provided to us for professional development or for visiting archives and other sources often necessary for research that we are nonetheless required to do in order to get tenure and receive positive continuing evaluations. This varies widely by field and sometimes grants provide for it, but colleges and universities do not do so universally or generously by any means. By and large, these professional obligations come out of our modest salaries.

        9) In addition, tenured faculty do all sorts of filling in and helping out that adjuncts and instructors cannot be expected—as work-for-hire employees—to do. For instance, last November, I suffered a catastrophic health crisis. First, if I had been a non-tenured faculty, it is entirely likely that I would simply have been fired and would have had no job to return to in January. As it was, I was in the hospital for several days, on bed rest for a month, and missed the last few weeks of fall semester. My fellow tenured faculty members had to take over my classes for me on top of their already busy schedules. This is only one instance of the kind of uncounted work that tenured faculty do. Most of the time we are doing it for students. It is not a 9 to 5 job.

        I also want to go back to your original comment that “after the experience of a dissertation is under the belt, [primary research] is of negligible benefit to the instruction of undergraduates.” You go on to say that “Staying on top of others’ primary research and secondary synthesis is what’s important.” This comes straight out of that Texas radical right (and not at all moderate) “seven steps” b.s., I hope that you’ll think about it more deeply. If staying on top of “others’ primary research” is important, then who is supposed to do that primary research if university professors somewhere don’t do it? And do you really want a professoriate that is just regurgitating the research of some handful of people at conservative think-tanks, or what? How do you expect professors to inspire brilliance and passion in their students about learning when all they are doing is reporting on someone else’s work?

        Granted that there are many options and variations in institutions of higher education—some schools do emphasize teaching more, some have heavier teaching loads and lighter research loads, some have graduate students and some don’t. So maybe what you’re interested in is an even further tiered system than we already have. Is there anyone out there at any university who should be doing significant research? What would be the effect on research, should that research be further and further limited to fewer and fewer researchers? It seems to me that the exclusionary system would only get worse, and that not only is a researcher’s inquisitive attitude sometimes vital in an undergrad classroom, but the process of researchers needing to explain and connect with undergrads is vital to keeping research honest and in touch.

        Research is one of faculty members’ main stated job duties. If you want to make the argument that research should not be part of our responsibilities, then that’s another whole separate issue from tenure. At my university, though perhaps not at a small, private school like Guilford, where you apparently taught, our job duties are designated by percentage. During most semesters, my percentages are along the lines of 40% teaching, 50% research, and 10% service. This is decided by administrators, not tenured faculty. (Last year, by the way, I had 11 service assignments, including 2 committees I chaired, and I spent about 30 hours a week on my teaching.) I agree that teaching is often not valued as highly as research and that it should be more highly valued. I myself have been watching with qualms as a colleague who is a lousy teacher moves toward tenure because she is publishing a lot. But she would be preserved in a non-tenure system as well because this valuation won’t change with the loss of tenure. You can do away with tenure and you will still have mediocre teachers in the classroom. There is no shortage of mediocre doctors, mediocre lawyers, mediocre real estate inspectors, mediocre graphic designers, and mediocre waitresses.

        One problem with talking about privilege is that it’s always relative. Yes, I do have some. But not a lot. I’m probably right smack in the middle in the amount of privilege I have. I work at a university that is not at all wealthy—in fact, we have probably the highest student-teacher ratio in the country, and all the faculty (both tenured and not) are stressed beyond belief trying to create more and more student-widgets as though in a factory. The way I got raised above the median salary, by the way, was winning a major teaching award.

        If you are indeed worried about greed and irresponsibility, please focus your energy on CEOs and bankers. CEO salaries averaged $11.4 million in 2010, after these scoundrels ruined our economy with full consciousness and pure greed. In fact, the gap between CEOs and blue-collar workers has widened much further than any gap between professor salaries and blue-collar workers’ salaries. What is more, they participate regularly in criminal schemes for which they seldom suffer any consequences at all.

        And let me address your assertion that I misunderstand your emotional tenor. True, it’s easy to do that in online forums, especially when you don’t know someone at all, but I am a very good reader. You are also a little cagey about your current employment and income sources, about who paid for your Ivy League grad degree and why you don’t still have a heavy student loan burden. Your expressed willingness to “underbid” tenured faculty to get a position indicated to me that you had failed to get a tenure-line job again after you took time off for your children. That led me to believe that you had been less than positively assessed by people who had interviewed you for such a job, or that no one had clamored to hire you back. Sorry if that wasn’t true and you didn’t attempt to go back to faculty work. That choice in itself tells me something—you decided that another career path or being a house-husband is more rewarding for you personally. Either way—whether you chose to do something else or you were not successful in attempting to re-enter academia—if the colleagues that reviewed your teaching positively were accurate, then they were likely accurate about hiring. You can’t have it both ways—either as a group they are incompetent to assess both your teaching and potential hires or they are competent to do both.

        Yes, there are many ways that all of this can go wrong. It’s just not the fault of tenure. We need tenure to prevent us from being randomly fired for our ideas for political reasons. I would be completely with you if you wanted more accountability within that tenure system for quality teaching and fairer employment practices.

        In fact, tenure historically came out of fights against extremely arbitrary and abusive employment practices. It was not designed to enrich faculty members, but to protect them at least minimally from abuse and without-cause dismissal. Do you really want to go back to that?

      • I was told I should read this post. Wow, you are woefully uninformed about my department.

      • Please feel free to inform me. Unfortunately, I have relied upon the word of some members of your department when public discussion of the structure and formation of it has been absent.

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